Behind the Scenes of Stolen Relations: Highlighting the Development Team

Whether it’s scrolling through our website’s intricately placed historical maps and photographs, learning more through the simple act of clicking a site subheading, or navigating through the archival database— our users owe it all to the Stolen Relations development team. Their work is the glue that holds the project together, as they design the user experience to emphasize ease, education, and enjoyment. Despite their immense roles, their largely back-end positions do not get publicly appreciated as much as they deserve! As such, the Stolen Relations team thought we would offer our site visitors the chance to get to know and love our development team as much as we do; we enthusiastically conducted an interview with multiple team members, digging into the past, present, and future of their work. Take some time to read below.

  1. How did Stolen Relations and the Brown Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship come to work together?

The origins of Stolen Relations and the CDS collaboration was a conversation between our faculty principal investigator, Professor Linford Fisher, and our former colleague from the Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship, Brian Croxall (now at Brigham Young University). 

Professor Fisher shared with Center for Digital Scholarship (CDS) staff that he was impressed by the efforts of other digital scholarship projects (such as the People of the Atlantic Slave Trade Database) to extract personal data from historical documents in order to document the individuals involved in the slavery of those of African descent. He was hoping to do a similar project focused on his research interest, the enslavement of Indigenous people in the Americas.

A small team from the Library started building the first prototype of the database. The early iteration of the project raised important questions about the project’s scope. Was this a database of Indigenous enslavement in all the Americas? Should the scope at least initially be localized to the New England community? What information was most important to collect from the archival documents? 

With the help of our Native American and Indigenous Studies program here at Brown, the project team started to reach out to potential Indigenous community partners to ensure the project met their needs and amplified their voices first. The CDS team added another staff member to the project to focus on community outreach. In collaboration with the CDS staff and community partners, the Stolen Relations project started to focus on the New England area to start. The project team still maintains the same goal of documenting as many instances as possible of Indigenous enslavement in the Americas between 1492 and 1900 (and beyond, where relevant). 

For the past seven years, the Library has supported the project with 3-4 staff members at a time. Our CDS also supports faculty as they craft grant applications in the digital humanities, and CDS supported Professor Fisher in writing the National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 2022. Ashley Champagne, Director for the CDS, is the Co-Research Director on the grant.

With the generous support of the NEH, the project will now build a public-facing portal for the project with the help of external developers. The Library will still remain in a central role and help lead the project. The public portal, once built, will continue to require support from the CDS in terms of regular maintenance, updates, and potential new features.

  1. Tell us about the development team. Who are you? What do you do?

It’s easy to think of programmers as people consumed by strictly technical concerns, but we are an active, creative part of the community-centered project mission as a whole. Birkin Diana writes, “We realize dreams. That’s what I love about this work; that’s what’s inspiring.” Or, as Elizaberth Yalkut says, “We make stuff! We make ideas into things people can interact with and learn from.”

A project like Stolen Relations has many moving, interlocked parts and making sure that they all come together at the same time is a tricky challenge. Importantly, it’s impossible for the development team to be separated from the actual community-centered mission because everyday development decisions impact the project as a whole. As a result, the development team meets regularly with community partners to hear their feedback on development decisions.

The information you see on the website is stored in a database which is taken care of by Birkin Diana. Patrick Rashleigh is developing what is called the “API”, which is the door through which websites (and computer programs in general) access the database. Elizabeth Yalkut builds the website that people interact with, put data into, and search for information. All of Stolen Relations ultimately is put on a hosting service, set up and maintained by Cody Carvel, which makes it available to the web.

We are working with a firm, Common Media, who is providing a designer and developers to move us towards making Stolen Relations ready for the public launch.

Importantly, we are all working together with the rest of the project team and our community partners to ensure that the ins and outs of the very development of this database project is community-centered and illuminates the role the enslavement of Indigenous peoples played in settler colonialism. 

  1. Can you describe the softwares (for dummies) you all use for Stolen Relations? What purposes do they each serve in the project?

For anyone looking to get started in web programming, the most important programming languages are the ones that run in your browser: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. 

HTML describes the content of the page (typically text and images), CSS describes how a page or site should look on the internet, and JavaScript makes it possible to have rich, dynamic interactions with a page. Without CSS, a page would just be black text on a white background, with the occasional blue link to another page. 

JavaScript lets users ask questions and manipulate the data to find answers (or, often, more questions). (Note that it is totally unrelated to the Java programming language.)

For the curious and committed, here’s a quick run-down of the other major technologies we use:

  1. Where do you see the future of Stolen Relations going? How is the Development team’s work helping it get there?

With the acquisition of the NEH grant, it really is “all systems go” for the project as we strive to make the information available to the public in a compelling, accessible, and responsible way. We are aiming to publish this important information as soon as possible, with the acknowledgement that even after our launch, there will be plenty of work left to be done.

So the future of Stolen Relations has multiple horizons: first, we need to get it ready for a public launch, then moving to support the incorporation of additional content, such as educational resources, materials to contextualize the data, and data visualizations.

  1. Why should everyone be excited about digital scholarship and humanities? What role do you see them playing in the future of education and academia?

This is a huge and complicated question, and answers vary widely according to whom you ask!

For those of us working in development in the context of Humanities scholarship, we see how technology and the Humanities vitally need each other. The stunning advances in technology (as of this writing, the dust from the chatGPT launch is still settling) really necessitate a humanistic perspective if we’re to ensure that the interest of the tools don’t end up overshadowing the interest of people. The humanities provide that perspective, and it is worth noting that every member of the development team has their primary educational background in the humanities.

However, as Elizabeth and Birkin remarked above, we are builders and like to see impact in the world—and this is where the humanities needs the digital. We can take research and make interactive tools that are engaging, accessible world-wide, and have the potential to effect change. The world needs more humanistic, critical, contextual thinking in combination with technology (particularly web technology). The intersection of the humanities and technology represents an opportunity to shape the world for the better. This is very much top of mind for us in Stolen Relations.

Laurie Tamayo

Our Community’s Perspective: Highlight on Lorén Spears

Lorén Spears in front of the Tomaquag Museum logo. Tomaquag Museum.

Although Stolen Relations started out in 2015 as a mostly academic project, the team members realized over time that it needed input from and collaboration with the Indigenous nations in New England who were most directly affected by settler colonialism. In 2019 the project as a whole took a more intentional turn toward community collaboration in order to help decenter the power of the archive and to ensure Indigenous voices and perspectives were incorporated into the project. Since then, we have relied on dozens of community members (both local and non-local to the Providence region) to ground us through their diverse perspectives. In today’s discussion, we’ll be highlighting an integral collaborator who has been a friend to the project and has served on the Tribal Advisory Board for many years— Lorén Spears.

Spears is a leading educator, museum professional, and Indigenous rights activist in Rhode Island. Growing up as a Narragansett-Niantic individual, she learned traditional values from her culture that continue to steer her career. With deep conviction in the importance of artistic Indigenous representation, Spears has taught traditional art practices to her community while encouraging their contemporization. She additionally works to preserve characteristic Narragansett practices such as basketry and beading by teaching them to the general public and through her leadership at the Tomaquag Museum.

Photograph of the Tomaquag Museum. Tomaquag Museum.

Founded in 1958 by Eva Butler, an American anthropologist, with the help of Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett/Wampanoag activist and historian, the Tomaquag Museum began as a grassroots, volunteer-run organization dedicated to honoring Indigenous culture in the Northeast. When Butler passed away ten years after its inception, Spears’ grandparents gave it a new location and supported Red Wing in the continuation of the museum. Ever since, her family has guided the organization through a rollercoaster of progress and change; in 2003, Spears herself opened up a school for sharing Narragansett heritage as part of the museum. She has also led countless on-site and off-site public programs, ranging from professional development seminars on college campuses to educational workshops in K-12 schools. The museum is currently located in Exeter, Rhode Island, but is working on a new location adjacent to the University of Rhode Island and hopes to move into this new facility in a few years. Under Spears’ leadership, it has received multiple awards and grants, been recognized nationally for its community work, and has expanded its vision and impact. 

Though maintaining a mission of amplifying Indigenous heritage, the Tomaquag Museum recognizes the importance of lending their voice to other marginalized cultures, oftentimes partners with other culture-based organizations.“There’s a blessing of working in a museum setting where we’re inviting culture-bearers in to share their knowledge with the Native community and also with the public at large,” details Spears.

With her personal connection to and expertise in Indigenous culture, Spears has been a guiding part of Stolen Relations since 2018. Explaining her initial interest in the project, she states, “Rhode Island is just coming to grips with the fact that they participated in slavery, they like to remember themselves as abolitionists… the idea of uncovering this history– it’s already there, it’s just being brought to the surface to see the impact of the choices that were made on people’s lives.”

As a member of the Tribal Advisory Board, her input sparks and molds different initiatives within the project, oftentimes intended towards furthering decolonization. Spears emphasizes that even something as simple as changing Stolen Relations’ past title from Database of Indigenous Slavery in the Americas (DISA) to its current one (Stolen Relations) can remove remnants of colonialism in the research. Similar efforts include the placement of a “decolonizing note” in the database for different Eurocentric terms, such as the use of “Indian” rather than the individual’s distinct tribal nation. Modifications such as these humanize the history, attaching souls and stories to the database and reminding users of its lasting legacy on present-day Indigenous peoples.

“It’s things like this we can have a voice in, to create visibility where invisibility once resided,” explains Spears.

Her duties don’t end there. Spears is on several subcommittees of Stolen Relations, including the Development Subcommittee, providing her support on projects from grant applications to summer institutes. Spears and the Tomaquag Museum also play a central role in the August 2022 three-year grant from the National Endowment to the Humanities, since funds are set aside for a Brown-Tomaquag Fellow each year to work in the Tomaquag’s collections, as well as a a jointly-designed exhibition on the Stolen Relations project and settler colonialism in New England that will be displayed at Brown and the Tomaquag Museum in the third year of the grant (2024-25). To her, the work is both necessary and exciting for the future of scholarship and for Indigenous knowledge. “The database isn’t just for academics, it’s for everybody. And it’s for the Native communities to have access to these records,” describes Spears. 

As the project moves into new territory through the grant, including going public in 2024, Spears knows it will continue to work towards decolonizing public history, eventually presenting a database that not only recognizes but is guided by Indigenous perspectives. And, indeed, it is the involvement of community members like her that will hopefully allow this project to be recognizable and usable by Indigenous peoples. 

Laurie Tamayo