North American Indigenous Peoples and Libraries

Tribal libraries are doing important work in their communities.

North American Indians and other indigenous peoples have an extensive history of disdain and outright violence directed against them. Yet they have survived for eons by continually creating and rebuilding knowledge critical to their lifestyle and survival.

These Native Peoples have always benefited from a flexible “library” of stories told by tribal elders and passed from one generation to the next. Like any library today, Native American stories entertain and inform their audiences. Today, they are conveyed orally and in writing.

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Storytelling and Native American History

“It may be in part due to storytelling “as record” that much of our history has been lost, some stories never retold, others forgotten and some dying with the last person to remember them. In today’s culture, we often tell stories through video and audio recordings, instead of hearing it from one’s grandparent or friend.”

 Tristan Picotte, Partnership With Native Americans

As an Indigenous child, you might have struggled to find ways to learn about the world beyond your tribe or nation. But without access to nonnative information, there was little opportunity to dispel harmful misunderstandings that existed for centuries and still linger.

Sandra D. Littletree (Navajo/Eastern Shoshone) recently earned her Ph.D. in Indigenous Librarianship at the University of Washington. Now, she is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Information School and focuses her research on the intersections of Indigenous knowledge systems and the library and information science field.

In Littletree’s 2018 dissertation, she explained that she once imagined “a library staffed by people practicing Indigenous librarianship, where they recognized the unique information needs, the cultural practices, and history of the Native people of my community.” It appears that today, she is turning that into a reality through her writing, speaking engagements, and overall librarianship responsibilities.

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Tribal Librarianship

Littletree explained at a national conference in September 2018 that “during the 1960s and 1970s, libraries were either ‘inadequate or nonexistent,’ rooms filled with broken equipment, books contained ‘stereotypes and misconceptions of American Indians,’ and recruitment of Native Americans to library science programs was poor.”

The AILA (American Indian Library Association), an American Library Association affiliate, began in 1979 as part of a White House Pre-Conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations. Today, AILA remains a membership action group working to address the library-related needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Tribal libraries began in 1997 with the New Mexico State Library’s Tribal Libraries Program (TLP) and have since spread — though, according to the AILA, today’s numbers are inexact. As that and other organizations seek more funding from governments, organizations, and private donors, these still-underfunded libraries are gaining ground.

Many of today’s tribal librarians actively represent their role to national and international library associations and at conferences. They also advocate for libraries within their tribal communities and at the state and federal government levels.

Tribal libraries support culture by passing on language skills, thereby passing traditional stories to younger generations. They also help modern-day entrepreneurship by supporting small businesses in tribal communities.

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Tribal Libraries and Funding

The Institute of Museum and Library sciences (IMLS) is an independent federal agency that supports museums and libraries in the U.S. through grants, policy development, and research. In August 2021, the agency announced grant awards totaling $5,561,835 for three programs designed to support library services for tribal communities and Native Hawaiians. These grants include:

Each category is essential, but the second and third are of most significant interest to those reading this article. The following are examples of projects enabled by the grants listed above.

  • The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Library has been preserving the Paiute language through weekly online classes and discussion groups led by tribal leaders and implementing language classes for students from daycare through high school.
  • The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College Community Library uses its grant money to digitize community newspapers that will serve as primary sources — including photographs, yearbooks, newsletters, and other materials.

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Federal Government Funding: Canada and the U.S. Working in Sync

In the summer of 2021, Library and Archives Canada announced its Listen, Hear Our Voices initiative. In that program’s second round (which closed in December 2020), 19 Indigenous organizations throughout the country received funding to digitize and make accessible their existing audio and video heritage for future generations.

There is still a long way to go in reconciling longstanding differences between Native North Americans (First Nations Peoples) and other cultures. But some good news is that starting in 2019, Library and Archives Canada changed Canadian subject headings, replacing outdated terminology with “Indigenous peoples” and “First Nations” and adding terms that specify Métis and other specific nations and peoples.

For its part, the U.S. the Library of Congress announced that by September 2022, a project called Of the People: Widening the Path would be underway, with one focus being, again, to revise outdated terminology that refers to Indigenous Peoples and other cultural minority groups.

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Looking Toward an Inspiring Future

One group of tribal librarians in New Mexico considered the role of Historypin, an organization that “connects communities with local history, for use in their tribal communities’ digital landscapes. One librarian asked rhetorically, regarding digital projects generally, “How does it help my community?”

The group immediately began to reframe its research around the more specific question: How can tribal libraries help map community values to digital strategy? Of course, this hearkens back to Sandra Littletree and her research. We believe she and other Native American librarians face a significant challenge in interweaving these threads. But we’re confident these innovative and dedicated librarians are up to it!*

The research discussed above was partly funded by grants from the IMLS and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.