In this episode we talk with Dr. Sandy Littletree (Navajo/Eastern Shoshone), Assistant Professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, whose work focuses on Native North American Indigenous Knowledge.
Dr. Littletree shares background about Indigenous systems of knowledge, and practical application as it pertains to Indigenous information science, Indigenous librarianship and the intersections of tribal sovereignty, technology, knowledge, and information in Native North America. The discussion also shines a light on the importance of cultivating cultural humility as an ongoing practice, and as a foundation of establishing meaningful, authentic and compassionate connections.
Hosts: LaRee Dominguez & Kristen Curé
Date of Interview: August 16, 2023
[Intro Music Playing]
Welcome to OVERDUE, Weeding Out Oppression in Libraries, a podcast produced by the Oregon Library Association's Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism Committee. I'm LaRee Dominguez. My pronouns are she, her. I'm the Resources Coordinator at the Albany Public Library. I'm joined by my co-host today, Kristen Curé.
Hi, I am Kristen Curé. My pronouns are she, her and I work at the Springfield Public Library as the Spanish Language Services and Latino Liaison Librarian. We are pleased to have with us today Dr. Sandy Littletree, who is an assistant professor at the Information School of the University of Washington, focused on Native North American Indigenous Knowledge at the Information School at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on the emerging field of indigenous information science, particularly indigenous librarianship and the intersections of tribal sovereignty, technology, knowledge and information in Native North America. Littletree's research is guided by indigenous ways of knowing, that is, the ways Native people have been creating, transmitting, categorizing, and preserving knowledge since the beginning of time.
Relationality is at the core of this approach informing the structure, core values and ethics of indigenous information science. She examines institutions not just as repositories of information, but also as spaces that can maintain and support the continuation of indigenous ways of knowing. Littletree holds a Master's of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from the New Mexico State University, a Master of Science in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD in Information Science from the University of Washington. Dr. Littletree is also a past president of the American Indian Library Association.
Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Littletree. To start out, could you tell us what brought you to librarianship and in particular your focus on indigenous information science?
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Yeah, that's a good question. I think like a lot of people, librarianship just kind of fell into my life unplanned. I wasn't planning on becoming a librarian or focusing on this at all. Didn't consider it at all as a career option until I saw a call for scholarships for getting a master's degree in library science and it was focused on serving Native communities at the University of Texas at Austin was a IMLS program run by Dr. Loriene Roy, and she had put out this call. I was actually going into teaching, I was a student teacher hanging out a lot in the school library and talking to the librarian there. And I was one of those people that said, "Oh, you have to get a master's degree to become a librarian?" And I didn't understand anything about the field at all. So I asked her a lot of questions about how she got there and I kind of saw the writing on the wall with No Child Left Behind was getting started when I was student teaching and I wasn't really sure if being a classroom teacher was right for me.
So anyway, she had printed this email from a year earlier about this scholarship program and she says, "You might want to check into this." And I emailed Loriene Roy and she responded within minutes saying, "Yes, we still have spaces, please consider." So I was finishing a master's in curriculum and instruction. Next thing I know I'm considering a field and a work life as a librarian, which I had never thought about. So it just kind of happened gradually. Even when I was going to library school, we didn't have any indigenous information science readings or classes. Loriene was my connection to that. And thankfully the scholarship also had funding for travel, which allowed me to attend the International Indigenous Librarians Forum. It helped me just to kind of get more of a broader perspective on indigenous information issues in libraries, which I had never thought about at all.
And just as different projects have kind of fallen into my lap, different things have come across my path that I've just been open to learning about. And I think being exposed as an MLIS student going to these conferences, actually meeting indigenous librarians, seeing the challenges and the opportunities, and then as I learned more about tribal libraries, which I didn't have growing up, just really opened my eyes to what was missing. And I think now that I'm in a position to write more and have a bigger platform about what are some of the issues, that's kind of where my focus has shifted to because there's such a need for it.
Well, thank you for sharing that with us. I know Loriene made a big impact on me the first time I met her and spent some time with her while she was researching. So she's a great advocate for Native and Indigenous librarians. For our listeners who may not be familiar with the term, how do you define indigenous systems of knowledge?
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
First of all, I would say don't be ashamed that you don't know what this means if you're not familiar with that term. It's actually a term that is very academic. It's kind of a shortcut to talking about values and belief systems. It's something that even I, as a person that has been thinking about these issues, didn't know what that term was. There's actually a class that's offered here at the University of Washington Information School called Indigenous Systems of Knowledge. And I thought, "Oh, I should apply to teach that or try to be the TA when I was a PhD student." And I started to think, "I don't even know what this is. I don't know what this means in the LIS context." And so it took me a while to really kind of understand what it means. And even when I tell my dad or my dad asked me at one point, "What are you teaching or what is it that you're working on?"
And I told him the title of that class and he's like, "What the heck is that?" So it's not like informal. It's not like we sit around the table talking about indigenous systems of knowledge at home. It's a very academic term. So it's kind of a way to describe this thing, and I teach a whole class on it, so I'll try to be kind of brief and I don't want to say that I know everything about it, but to be as brief as I can, I would say indigenous systems of knowledge are the cultural traditions, the values, the belief systems, those worldviews that shape our relationship with our family, with our kinship, networks, with our ancestors, with our future generations, with the land, the water, language, history, ceremonial cycles. It's also really about survival and wellness and not just in a theoretical sense, but really practical.
What makes you well, even if we're living in this modern society, we think about how do all of these systems work together to meet this goal of wellbeing and understanding where there may be gaps in that system because maybe you were cut off from certain relationships in the past or your family was, or different generations back, just understanding it's a system of knowledge. So we're thinking about all of the pieces that work together to form this way of knowing or way of living. And sometimes these different parts of the system need attention and somewhere stronger than others just depending on who you are and what your history is. So it's a really complex issue and a lot of people have defined it in different ways, but for me that's the easiest way to explain it. Hopefully that makes sense.
Thank you. It is helpful to everyone to know that it's kind of a journey to understanding what this means and that it's like you said, a shortcut word to describe something that is very little complex. It has lots of pieces that has lots of parts to it.
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Right. And it's not the same for everybody too. So people, like I said, define it in different ways or understand it in different ways and it plays out in different ways for different professions or communities. So I think it's just an understanding that there's these values and beliefs that are influencing the way that we're living.
Dr. Littletree in your writing, and I'm going to quote an article here that you published in the journal, Alki. In your writing you remind us that the story and history of libraries serving Native people is the story and history of American Indians and Alaskan Native people encompassing the issues of colonization, Indian education, self-determination and sovereignty. It's a story of the maintenance of indigenous systems of knowledge after years of subjugation and attempts to make these knowledge systems disappear through removal, assimilation and cultural genocide. It is so important for us to listen to these stories and recognize the trauma and resilience play a part. Through your work with Washington tribal libraries, how have you seen these stories unfold and develop and what are the current and future aspirations of these institutions and communities?
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
I think it's really important not to ignore that history of trauma, and it is a combination of all of these factors that have gotten us to today. So I think having a Pollyanna or like, "Oh, we're just going to start from here and not acknowledge any of that history," is doing a real disservice. And as we're talking to people across Washington, just in the different conversations that we've had with some of the librarians, it's not surprising that stories about boarding schools are coming up or about trauma, about being dislocated and disconnected from culture comes up a lot here in these stories of Washington and it's not limited to Washington. I would hear these stories if I went anywhere. And so those stories are still at the surface and come out as we're talking about education and the role of libraries and communities. So it's still happening and it's still impacting our communities.
We might think it's just in the past or it's not. We've moved on from that or whatever. I think if you take time to really listen, you'll hear those stories are coming out in different ways. So we have to acknowledge that. And in the work that we've been doing here in Washington, we have a grant. This article that you're mentioning is referencing this Mellon grant that we got last year. It's just a short term one year grant to start building relationships with Washington tribal libraries and to do some visiting, get to know some of the librarians and some of the issues that are facing these libraries.
And we had a gathering of Washington tribal librarians in March at the Washington Library Association conference, and I struggled with this. I wanted to get us to think about, your question is about the current and future aspirations of these institutions and communities, but I felt like starting with the present and then jumping to the future was not the right way to start this gathering and having a room full of it was Native librarians, but also there's a lot of non-Native librarians working in tribal communities.
It's a mixture of people and some people can launch right into some of these stories of trauma and they feel comfortable sharing that story. There's some librarians that they don't have that in their history because they're not Native or they're new to the community. So it was this mixture of people in the room, but I knew that we needed to acknowledge that before. The name of the gathering was, I think Envisioning the Future of Washington Tribal Libraries. And so I'm also really influenced by an article by doctors Marisa Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis, where they wrote about this technique of imagining the future and thinking about how do we build systems that invite indigenous people into the spaces or they're part of the design of these systems from the beginning. How do we get to that space? And the first step in that imagining process is acknowledging the impacts of colonization.
And I was inspired by that. I felt like that was the right way to start our gathering, or at least the discussion part of when we started to really start thinking about the future. And so when we started, I had everyone just right on, we had a bunch of sticky notes and asked them to remember some of that history. Remember that colonization impacts our work, especially in tribal communities. These are people working on reservations. There's a lot of history here in Washington with treaties and a lot of negotiations that have happened. Everyone is impacted by this. So what is that history and how has colonization impacted your work? How do we think about our ancestors who have to remain on the land and that continue to do the work, speaking their language or participating in different ceremonies or different events? So what do we want to acknowledge about those impacts of colonization in Washington communities, displacement, boarding schools, extraction of knowledge?
Because I think whether we want to acknowledge it or not, libraries have played a role in that for the worst. I mean, I think we have to acknowledge that history also, that there was an effort to assimilate Native people and seeing libraries as a way to assimilate or to displace some of that knowledge or the supremacy of the written language over oral language. And so understanding some of that history and some of the roots of the profession I think is important. We didn't get really down into that and I didn't want to dwell on it in our gathering. We started there, we just wrote for five or 10 minutes, people wrote things on sticky notes. And then we had a wall of the sticky notes where people, they got up and they put the things on the wall, and there were things like the library was never welcoming to me or the one that I wrote was that we didn't grow up going to the library.
My parents didn't have any library experiences to pass on to me. So we have to acknowledge that and to kind of understand maybe why there's some of these issues that we're facing now before we can think about the future. I would love to be able to really dive into that more maybe in an article or something. But that was just kind of an exercise that we did in Washington. And then I really emphasized the fact and reminded people that future thinking is really a natural part of indigenous ways of knowing, that we're often thinking about our work and how it impacts future generations. And I think what's really, a lot of times, where I really started to think about this was I was invited to write an article about the future of libraries, and I thought about it as from an indigenous perspective. And I was thinking about how whenever you read about the future of libraries or the future types of work, it's always five or 10 years into the future, it's immediate future.
There isn't really that long-term... You'd never see an indigenous perspective in those future of libraries conversations. But really that's really how a lot of people think. I think a lot of non-indigenous librarians we get really focused on that immediate future or five to 10 years down the road, whereas cultivating or acknowledging that indigenous librarians often see their work impacting several generations, hundreds of years into the future or thinking about seven generations past, how is this work acknowledging your ancestors or incorporating those perspectives. So I think it's just remembering that those are different ways of knowing. And in Washington, I think just like in every tribe or any place where there's Native people, which is everywhere, that people are thinking about the future and thinking about how do we make these services better, not just for my family, but also their families and their kids and their kids.
And we're still going through some of the data or some of the things that people are talking about, but it is I think, really consistent with what you might think about people wanting language and seeing libraries as a way to support that, but also thinking about libraries as a way to learn about the world around them. So those things are both at play.
Thank you. And thank you for bringing that perspective to the forefront for a lot of our listeners who haven't considered indigenous thinking and the way a lot of us include ancestors so many generations back and think of the future in terms of those same generations that are to come and appreciate the thinking about that and the learning about that for non-indigenous librarians and staff is really important and part of this. In that same article, you remind us that even with the specialized knowledge and lived experiences you bring to your work, you approach your work with humility, learning as you go about community engagement, research, collaborations and yourself as an individual. When I think about this, I think about how this approach should be all of our starting points as library and museum workers. What would you like to see come to being in libraries and in work of library staff who are not part of indigenous communities?
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
That cultural humility I think is a big piece of this. And I think what I've seen is a lot of non-indigenous library staff, on two spectrums, there's a lot of people that are becoming aware of indigenous Native issues that they need to do something. I see a lot of people operating on fear, fear of doing something wrong, fear of messing up, saying the wrong thing, and they don't want to be that person that makes a mistake or that makes the wrong, I don't know, says the wrong thing, so they don't do anything, or it's kind of a paralyzing aspect. Or there's people that are just really overly confident, that they already know everything. There's really nothing else to learn, and so they're not willing to be open to different ways of looking at things. So I guess maybe that's the people that are coming to me or the people that are fearful of starting some kind of engagement.
I guess what I would tell people or what I would like to see people understand is we're all learning and growing, like you mentioned from that article and just my approach is that I don't claim to know everything. I've made mistakes. I've said the wrong thing, you have to apologize sometimes when you're building relationships or you don't know the protocols or I think it's just a human thing, we're scared of doing the wrong thing, but I think it kind of gets elevated when you're thinking about working with Native communities. Maybe you become hyper aware of it. And I think librarians and museum workers, a lot of them are people pleasers. You don't want to do the wrong thing, so you don't do it at all. But I think that closes you off to just a lot of learning and self-reflection, understanding of who you are as a human and what you can contribute.
So I would like people just to be a lot more open. It is hard to kind of put yourself out there and where do you start? It could be just showing up to a public gathering. It could be just getting out behind the desk, doing some of your own education, learning about you are. And even just yesterday I watched a YouTube video about some history of treaties in the other part of the state that I didn't know about. I'm not from Washington, I'm from New Mexico, and even then, I don't know all of the history of New Mexico and all of the traditions and there's different tribes and there's pueblos which are different from Navajos. And coming here to Washington, I'm learning about Coast Salish traditions and they're not all the same. There's all of the different communities along the Puget Sound. And so just being willing to learn and to not see yourself as trying to become an expert in anything, I think that sometimes that's hard for librarians or information professional people.
We want to be seen as being very knowledgeable about something. And sometimes I tell my students that there's no way for you to know everything about this. It's impossible to become an expert. And if you think you're an expert, then by the time you finish taking this class, if you feel like you're an expert in indigenous systems of knowledge, then you failed this class and you probably should take it again, because becoming an expert isn't the goal. It's really just kind of understanding that there's other ways of knowing.
And even if you move that dial just a little bit, I think that's good. And that kind of opens you up to other ways of thinking about how do we work with different communities, but I don't know why... I don't know, library staff, people get so entrenched in some of the values that it's always been done this way or libraries should be open for all of the knowledge that's out there, which sounds okay until you start getting down into the trenches of like, okay, what does that mean for this type of knowledge or these types of communities that have knowledge that they just want to share with their own community?
And I've seen people challenge that, that are coming from a very traditional library background and not realize that those are some values that may not be held by other communities. And so seeing yourself as having skills that are valuable, but not that it may not work in every situation, sometimes you have to throw that out the door or start anew or just think about other ways of serving communities that might be different than your own. And I think it's the same advice when just community engagement advice. If you wanted to serve a community that's different from your own, get out from behind the desk, show up at events, volunteer. There's lots of different ways to get involved, and I think it just might take a little digging or a little asking questions or building relationships with people if you can. And if you're really dedicated or if you're really wanting to engage, there are avenues and I think people are willing to let people in and build those bridges. So I think people have to get over that fear.
That fear of messing up is big.
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Even I have it. I have it all the time.
Yeah, it reminds me of, you may have seen there's a document that's gone around, the aspects of white supremacy culture and that idea of perfectionism that there's something wrong with you if you mess up. And I agree with you, it's really important for us to let go of that and bring that humility back in being able to apologize if you mess up and seeing it as a learning experience.
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Yeah, yeah, it is. And it's part of that relationship building too. Every relationship is there's a point where you have to apologize or you've done something wrong, and you have to think about, "Well, how do I adjust and how do I do better next time?" I think it's just part of being human. And I think it's that perfectionism and that expectation that we're going to do this right. And I think for myself too, being that I'll have in my bio or people come to me thinking that I know everything about indigenous systems of knowledge and I don't. I'm interested in it, and I can see it playing out in different ways, but I don't know about every single indigenous community. And I have a really... My own lived experiences as a Native person living in different communities and coming from different backgrounds and even being from different tribes.
My dad is Navajo, my mom is Eastern Shoshone from Wyoming, and now I live in Washington, which is Coast Salish territory. And then having lived in Southern Arizona and lived on the East Coast. And so just taking those different opportunities to learn and to be open and to try to build those relationships and I guess the other part of it that's sometimes hard too is there's a lot of librarians that are real introverts too. So that's another piece of it that sometimes it's hard to like, "Oh, how do I do this? Or how do I engage with the community when I don't even want to talk to people or get out of my little shell?" So I understand that too. So I think it's all part of the work, and sometimes you have to get over that to start engaging.
Yeah, thank you. Yeah, that lifelong learning and being open. Speaking of learning, both Oregon and Washington have passed legislation to help ensure that students learn tribal history. How, if at all, do you think these efforts share indigenous ways of knowing and what role do you see for libraries in supporting that work?
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Yeah, I think we're really lucky to be living in these states and have this. I wish we would've had this in New Mexico or across the country actually because I think it's a long time incoming, and again, I'll admit my own ignorance and even Native people don't know a lot of this history. And so I think that it's being supported and at a state level right now is so important. And like I said, growing up in New Mexico, I'm going to date myself, going to school in the '80s and '90s, there was no mention of Native history unless you took special Navajo history class. And even then that class was taught by the football coach, it was kind of like the throwaway class. So to have it embedded in or supposedly embedded into schools, I know there's a lot of growth that needs to happen and it's not overnight and there's a lot of training that has to happen.
Even teachers, I think it's been on the books here in Washington, I don't know, it's maybe 10 years or something. But I think there's still a lot of growth that needs to happen. And you have to remember that the teachers that are learning about this also didn't have this growing up. And so there's a lot of reeducation that has to happen at lots of different levels. So they're having to learn this history before they can even teach it, and they have to be open to learning this history. And then you have to have all of the resources and the people behind the scenes to be able to teach them this. And I think there's a lot of learning, like you said, that has to happen on lots of different levels. So it's going to take some time. I think librarians can also be a part of this.
A lot of librarians, as we know, the profession is very white. We're all coming from this education system that has ignored Native history or has kind of glossed over it or has kind of had a romanticized history, or there may be some people that are coming to librarianship with a really excellent history, which is great. But I think for the majority of us, a lot of people don't have that, right? So I think there's just going to be a lot of that relearning. And I know these initiatives are really about tribal history. Here in Washington, there's a big focus on tribal sovereignty, and I know that people are really becoming aware of sovereignty issues. I know Mandy Harris, who's one of our PhD students who's worked in Idaho, has done some, I think she calls it Native Idaho webinars for librarians aimed at public librarians or school librarians in Idaho to kind of learn about the different tribes in Idaho, some of that history.
So I think what librarians can do is do your part in learning about sovereignty, learning about some of that history that surrounds you, the land that we're on, land acknowledgements is becoming a thing. So I think that's a good step, but how do you take it beyond land acknowledgements and just either reciting one that's been written for you or hearing it and just kind of you're not really paying attention to it or not really listening to the words that they're saying, or if it's been written for you, do you really believe it or have you exercised what you're acknowledging? What I would love to see is people taking the time to write their own land acknowledgements that aren't prescribed, and you don't have to recite it at all, or it doesn't have to be something that you put on your resume or something or your email signature, but just taking some time to being aware of some of that where you are learning about if there's a history of treaties in your area or reservations, those systems and those rights.
And people think that why don't Indians get to live on reservations or why is this a special right that they have? People don't understand that Native nations really gave up a lot for you to live where you are for the most part. Almost every single person in this country is living on land that was given up or that was fought over, that was once part of Native nations history or where they lived, where they hunted, or there's all this history. So it isn't just they're given these special reservations, these are places that they ended up with having. And so the land, what do they call those universities that are state, I forget the land grant universities, all of this, all of the water rights, these are all things that are playing out today that we all take advantage of these different access to land, to water, to our life in this country.
And so I think it's up to us to really educate ourselves about how did we get here from different perspectives. And so I think librarians could support that by maybe going through that same training program perhaps, or taking advantage of what's online that's been offered in these Oregon and Washington. I think Montana has a similar legislation. If someone came to your desk and asked about tribal history, would you feel comfortable answering those questions? And do you know where to go to find that information? Do you feel like it's accurate? Or even right now at this moment, they're recruiting for a person at the Library of Congress to work on subject headings and so for Native communities and making sure it's more representative. So understanding that the systems that we use to even have issues, there's problems within them. And what is your role as a librarian to understand those problems within the systems that we use and that we offer to patrons or we offer to students.
And then understanding, well, how do you deal with that if there's trauma involved or if you had a young Native person doing history on their own community, how do you feel comfortable helping them develop those information literacy skills, but also taking care of themselves too to making sure that they're okay as they go through this research? So I think a lot of times librarians or what I've seen is people are like, "Oh, I'm so shocked, or this history is so terrible and I feel ashamed of this history, or I don't want to learn about it, or enough is enough and let's move on." I think most people are at a place where they get angry or upset learning about some of this history, and they might just stop there. But I would encourage people to think beyond that and think beyond your own shock and dismay and think about, "Well, okay, what do we do now?
Now that we know this history, how do we improve the systems so that people can find the information that they need if they want to do more digging? How do you prepare yourself for problems with what's out there?" I mean, there's a lot of old stuff that uses stereotypical language. People might expect to find a lot of information about a certain tribal history and there's nothing written. How would you help that patron? Do you have any power to get different resources or ways to contextualize it? So I think we can't be passive in all of this. I think there's a lot of power that librarians have in understanding what's available, understanding the levels of literacy that people have and trying to find the information and then also understanding some of that trauma that comes from doing some of that research. And I am always inspired by our neighbors in Canada.
If you talk to people in Canada, Native people, First Nations people, they'll scoff and there's a lot of problems up there too. But I think they've done a lot in terms of building, even at UBC, there's that National Truth and Reconciliation archive on campus. It's a library and they've built it with real intention of helping people to find boarding school records. And I think there's rooms for elders. There's a garden in that space. So it's not just about the information that's kind of taking care of the person and having people staffed in there that really understand that history and that can help people navigate and some of those systems so that they can find information and an understanding of that.
It can be traumatic for people to remember what happened to their ancestors. You think it's traumatic for you to learn about it, but think about if it's part of your family history or seeing family names written in boarding school records or whatever. So I think it's a huge win for our states that we have this, and I would hope that librarians can see some ways that they can contribute to this work and help others to understand it, help themselves, help Native communities to build these really robust systems.
Thank you for bringing up all of that, and especially boarding schools and the effects that are still happening in our communities and families due to boarding schools. I was part of the team at the Heard Museum in Phoenix that put together a boarding school exhibition. That exhibit is still open, and putting that together and being on the research team for that was very difficult at times and putting together the exhibit itself was difficult, but it was also rewarding in that so many people are learning so much from going through the exhibit and other exhibits like that around the country. If we are truly going to commit to promoting and maintaining indigenous systems of knowledge and supporting indigenous data sovereignty, we need more indigenous librarians and library staff working in our libraries. Are there ways that we can make the library profession more accessible and attractive to those indigenous communities? I know that it's always a struggle in any community, but for indigenous communities, I know just from personal experience, it's hard and a lot of us just end up here, but can you give us some ideas maybe for that?
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Yeah, it is a huge issue. A lot of us end up in this field because we saw a problem or we saw a gap in the profession and we want to try to do something about it or try to make a difference in that way. And I see a lot of people, and what I would love to see is Native people entering the field because they see the beauty of the library and they want to be part of that movement. Just like I see a lot of white librarians entering the field like, "Oh, I loved my library growing up. I want to become part of this." You see that sometimes in Native communities, but not as much. I think it's going to take a lot of time to make the profession more attractive and accessible to indigenous communities. I think a lot of Native people see, especially public libraries as very white spaces with primarily white materials.
And it's not really the first place I think of going for information, and I say that just even I'm going to call out my husband because I just said this to him. He was looking for information on something and I said, "Why don't you go to the library?" And he's like, "I don't need white information or something like that." And he knows, we've been together all this time and he knows what I do, but he's not a library user. I haven't even converted my own husband into seeing the library as a welcoming space. And so I think what I would love to see, this is kind of my dream, and I know it's going to take time, but I would love to see the flourishing of tribal libraries in our country or even libraries in urban spaces that are really open for Native communities.
I think it's going to be probably the easier way than trying to change our current public library systems. I think that's going to take a long time. I think where we can maybe make a bigger difference quicker is really focusing on the tribal libraries. And when I say flourishing, I don't mean flourishing by white Western standards of what does a flourishing library look like. If you're hearing that and you have a certain thing in mind based on your own experiences with a very Western library, then that's not what I'm talking about. I think it needs to be a space that's really Native run, a truly Native space where people understand those cultural issues, history, values, that they're able to incorporate Native collections, Native ways of thinking about knowledge and information and understand not only that, but also how to take advantage of what the library profession has to offer, these cataloging systems, which can be amazing and that we can use technology to digitize resources or that we have these connections around the country or in Norwegian to other libraries and professionals.
But what I would love to see is that the best of those types of services, but within a Native perspective and even better is if the Native people work for creating those cataloging systems and they were creating the databases and they were creating the digitizing resources. I mean, I think we just have to take over all of these systems so that people feel like their knowledge or their families feel cared for where they're the majority or that it's built on those ways of knowing. And not to say that allies are people that want to work in these spaces can't, but I think if we're always starting from that Western perspective or that we're trying to get up to this, comparing ourselves to some other standard, then we're always going to be behind or we're always going to be seen as deficit. But if we start from our own ways of knowing and kind of bring in what helps, bring in what makes sense for our own communities, then I think we can see it maybe turning around and Native people.
If you can imagine growing up in a space like that where you see that as an option for the work that you want to do in your community and you're like, "Oh, I want to be the tribal librarian when I grow up." And you know that there was an education program that helped you to learn all of that, and that was based on Native ways of knowing. That's the other part of this too, is that we have to have more Native faculty and we have to have curriculum that's in LIS or MLIS programs or training programs that honor that or that understand some of these issues. So that's what I think, it's kind of a dream. I would love to see that happening in public library spaces, but honestly, I think it's far off. I do see a lot of people starting to come around and seeing that they have to make some adjustments, but I think people maybe just being aware of some of the issues, maybe it will make it more attractive to Native communities, but I think it's going to take some time.
Yeah, I love that. And I would love to see... I'm sort of envisioning a lot of reservations that don't have tribal libraries, but you have a rec center. Let's get some of that sort of partnering and get some of those things merged would be wonderful.
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
We got to take over.
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
I'm thinking now for Native and indigenous librarians who are in the profession thinking about support systems that can help in the work that people are currently doing. And that brings me to the American Indian Library Association, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your experience with the American Indian Library Association, and then beyond that, what role do you see professionals associations playing in the future of libraries and what should we all be asking of our local state and national associations so that they better support EDI and anti-racism work?
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Yeah, so I was president of the American Indian Library Association, I can't remember what year, like 2009, '10, something like that. It's been a little while, and it was a real honor to be part of that and to be asked to serve in that way, and I learned a ton, and my first reaction when they asked me to be on the ballot was like, "Me, why me?" So I think being open to those opportunities and seeing people that have potential for stepping into these roles, I think is really important for not only Native librarians, but also other people who are in other associations, keeping your eye out for people that may be interested in serving in these capacities. It's a lot of hard work, though, I'll say. It's a lot of work. For me, it was really an important period of growth and networking. I felt really honored to work with some of the previous leaders and to be invited to different conversations, and it was a chance to really put together a platform or put out some ideas that I thought at the time was really important.
It's not enough time. They always say, "By the time you're done with your leadership experience, then you've learned so much," and like, "Oh, I could have done it better, or you could have done this or that," and then it's over. And I think what I've seen with the American Indian... Or maybe it's just myself and the people that were really involved at that time is it's a ton of work with the American Indian Library Association. It's under the American Library Association, so kind of an umbrella organization. So we had to deal a lot with ALA and some of the politics and bureaucracy within ALA. So it's understanding that. There's a lot of people that get really pulled into it, and there's always issues that are happening at that level. So what I've seen is people getting burnt out at those leadership levels, and I know for myself, when I took a step back from it, I felt like I'd done some real good, but it was really nice to step away and to see other people taking up some of those roles.
So I don't really know what is the solution for keeping people involved. There's always problems of involvement. It's all volunteer run, it's on people's own time, so people have to have the capacity to serve in that way. So what are other ways that you can open up those spaces for people to be able to contribute so that they're not doing it on top of all the other stuff that they're doing? Are there incentives to stay involved? And that's really hard at that level if it's something that you're just adding on to everything else. I don't know how to ask unless there's some way to have these associations to advocate for employers to maybe give a lot more support for people to be involved. Travel, it's really expensive. Committee work takes time, having that count as part of the work that you're already doing. So I think there's a lot of systems that still need to be worked out to make it as rewarding and as impactful as it could be, but it is really worth it, I think, to get involved and to learn as much.
And now I'm on the IFLA, Indigenous Matters section, which is International Federation of Library Associations, and if we thought ALA was bureaucratic or your state library, look at IFLA, oh my God, my mind is blown looking at all of the different levels and different sections and like, "Oh my God, I have to learn all of this stuff." And then thinking about, I'm not just focused on my own indigenous American Indian, but now we're thinking globally about indigenous information issues and what do I know about... I'm more familiar maybe with New Zealand and Australia, but there's indigenous people everywhere around the globe. So there's that cultural humility coming in again, like, "Okay, how do we engage?" And it's exciting.
There's a lot of issues that need to be addressed, but I think getting involved at these different levels and being open to these different types of committees and not being afraid to speak up on these committees and saying that we do need more people working on these and that you don't have to be indigenous or Native American or American Indian to be a member of AILA, the American Indian Library Association. Anyone can join if you're interested and joining is just part of it. Like I said, there's lots of opportunities for volunteers and different committees and being able to step in and help. Maybe if you have the capacity that you're helping people to not burn out so much and spreading the work because there's enough work for way too many people than we have. They have the staffing to do.
I hear you saying two things that one, like what you just said, that it's an opportunity for learning and growth and real support that white colleagues can give by joining an organization like the American Indian Library Association and helping support, especially if you have support from your employer so that you can help make sure other folks don't get burnt out. Then the other piece I hear comes part of what we should be asking of our organization's local state, and national, is to advocate with employers to support indigenous librarians and BIPOC librarians so they can do some of this important work that really helps us shape our profession and have some of that count as work time, like two different things to help folks from not being burnt out.
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Yeah, burnout is a big thing.
Well, gosh, thank you so much for your time, Dr. Littletree. This has been a great conversation.
It has. I so appreciate listening to you and be inspired to continue this work from the things that you've shared with us. Thank you so much.
Dr. Sandy Littletree:
Thank you for having me. It's good to talk about some of these issues. Sometimes I am like, "Oh my gosh," I get overwhelmed by everything that's going on, and so it's nice to also be reminded of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, because it can get overwhelming sometimes but it's important. So thank you for having me.
After this inspiring conversation, we have a call to action for our listeners. How can you incorporate into your daily life the practice of cultural humility and the ideas that we are all learning, making mistakes and growing?
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the State Library of Oregon.
Este proyecto ha sido posible en parte por el Instituto de Servicios de Museos y Bibliotecas a través de la Ley de Servicios de Biblioteca y Tecnológia (LSTA), administrada por la Biblioteca Estado de Oregón.
We would like to take time to acknowledge historical injustices. We recognize Oregon was established as a white sanctuary state with the intent to exclude African American and Black people on ancestral lands stolen from dispossessed indigenous peoples. We recognize and honor the members of federally recognized tribes and unrecognized tribes of Oregon. We honor Native American ancestors, past, present, and future whose land we still occupy. This acknowledgement aims to deconstruct false histories, correct the historical record, and disrupt genocidal practices by refocusing attention to the original people of the land we inhabit, the slave trade enforced labor that built this country and to the oppressive social systems interwoven into the fabric of our national and regional heritage. We ask that you take a moment to acknowledge and reflect as well.
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