The Choska Talfa Room is an example of social equity in action.
Heather D. Hutto, a former social studies teacher, began her tenure as Executive Director of the Montfort & Allie B. Jones Bristow Public Library (i.e., Bristow Public Library) in June of 2021. The library resides on tribal lands belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who have lived in the area for over 180 years. Today’s Muscogee members are descended from those who survived the Trail of Tears, an ethnic cleansing and forced displacement endorsed by the United States Congress with the passage of the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830.
In her first career as a social studies teacher, Hutto recognized early on a region-wide information gap amongst her students regarding their understanding of Oklahoma’s state history. In her later role as Executive Director of the library, Hutto recognized she had the power to address this information gap while simultaneously acknowledging the tribal lands on which the library resides. To achieve these goals, it was decided that the archives and special collection would undergo a massive overhaul and be redesigned with Indigenous perspectives in mind.
Creating The Choska Talfa Room
Hutto and her team were faced with the daunting task of evaluating a large number of physical resources that had been donated to the library many years prior. Some items were retained, while others were weeded. Of the resources that were retained, the library chose to place first copies in the special collection and sometimes additional copies in the main collection, depending on the anticipated use or needs of the community. Hutto explains, “The goal of the room, the collection, and the classification system itself is to provide for a more equitable representation; if we had kept everything in the room, then it wouldn’t have been very equitable.” This is not an Indigenous history room.
The historical and genealogical collection expanded to include resources that might better represent Bristow’s surrounding Indigenous American communities. The Dewey Decimal Classification System and the Library of Congress Classification System are Western-influenced (i.e., Colonial) cataloging systems that organize information alphabetically. However, Indigenous communities usually organize information according to geographic region. It was decided that all archival and special collection resources would be reclassified using a cataloging system designed with Indigenous American perspectives in mind.
The library uses the Fus Fixico (“Angry Bird”) Classification System (FFCS); Hutto designed this system when she was still attending library school as a graduate student. FFCS is named after the Fus Fixico letters, which were written by Alexander Posey, a Muscogee (Creek) Humorist, secretary to the Sequoyah Constitutional Convention, and political activist of the nineteenth century. FFCS borrows elements from its Indigenous-created predecessor, the Brian Deer Classification System, Dewey, and Graph Theory. The FFCS considers topics including, but not limited to, cosmology, oral history, human geography, and co-location; this system is an Indigenous classification system specific to the Bristow Public Library.
Amanda Harding, who works as the Bristow Public Library’s Reference and Genealogy Librarian, explains that the FFCS is “specifically geared toward Indigenous history, Oklahoma history, and genealogy.” Harding elaborates further, “[FFCS] follows organization patterns that differ from Dewey,” but points out that the system remains flexible because it includes both names and numbers.
The reclassified collection now resides in the Choska Talfa Room. “Choska Talfa,” pronounced “chus kuh / tall fuh,” (“Post Oak Place”) is the Muscogee name granted to the surrounding landscape when the tribal nation emigrated to the area during the 1830s (i.e., present-day Bristow County, Oklahoma). The room opened its doors in November of 2022 and has garnered the attention of several media outlets since. The room contains resources relating to Oklahoma state history, genealogy, and Indigenous historical works; 39 Indigenous cultures are represented in this collection.
The creation of the Choska Talfa Room was made possible thanks to the generous funding and support of Bristow Library’s charitable trust (i.e., Library Board, Inc.). Hutto and her team consulted with the Oklahoma Tribal Committee and the Tribal Libraries Committee, a Committee of the Oklahoma Library Association, to ensure that tribal voices were included throughout the life of this project. Hutto explains, “Oklahoma has more Indigenous tribes than any other state. Our biggest challenge is really making sure that we have done our due diligence in reaching out to all tribal nations.”
It is worth noting that some institutions will opt to author a land acknowledgment in an effort to recognize marginalized Indigenous communities local to the institution. In recent years, institutions have come under scrutiny when land acknowledgments lack institutional change. Bristow Public Library has gone one step further by creating the Choska Talfa Room, which exemplifies library ingenuity in an effort to decolonize an inherently colonized system.
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The Future of The Choska Talfa Room
The Choska Talfa Room remains a work in progress, and the cataloging system continues to be refined. Harding hopes to add “cemetery plot records for Bristow and the surrounding area, specifically Magnolia Memorial Cemetery.” Harding is actively seeking “pre-1949 Bristow High School yearbooks, historic yearbooks from other Bristow schools and the surrounding area (including minority, religious, and rural schools), pre-1966 city directories, veteran’s records” and any records from the territorial days of the Bristow area. For now, Harding supplements these information gaps to the best of her ability within the library’s vertical files.
The library has received many requests to access the collection since its recent opening. Library patrons can access the Choska Talfa Room by appointment. Hutto hopes that the room might serve as a pilot for other libraries to build similar collections.
Final Words of Advice
Hutto offers candid advice for library professionals interested in building a more equitable special collection with Indigenous perspectives in mind: “Firstly, make sure whoever is [leading the project] has domain knowledge on the topic. Secondly, it doesn’t matter how great their domain knowledge is; make sure you’re reaching out to all tribal members represented so that they can have a say, and they can be forthcoming in their own information.”
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