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The need for American Indian librarians

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    http://www.nativetimes.com/index.asp?action=displayarticle&article_id=7097 The need for American Indian librarians Native American Times guest commentary
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 13, 2005

      The need for American Indian librarians
      Native American Times guest commentary

      Michael McLaughlin 10/12/2005

      In the contemporary world, libraries are the primary institutions that
      teach about American Indians - to the world, and often to ourselves. And
      because everything that impacts Indian country on and off the rez -
      educational programs, social service programs, economic development,
      criminal justice, all tribal-state-local-federal government relations, the
      media, and public opinion - are informed by materials contained in
      libraries. In a world which continues to stereotype American Indians and
      which remains largely “clueless” of the facts about American Indians in
      American society, there needs to be American Indian library professionals
      to help guide information seekers to the facts about American Indians –
      past, present, and future, and to incorporate American Indian perspectives
      in those institutions that mandate how people are taught and what they

      What is the real purpose of a library?

      Most people think of a library as simply as a place that house books and
      other information and that is staffed by people whose jobs are to provide
      access to those materials. This is only partially true. The real purpose of
      libraries is to educate, or indoctrinate, peoples to particular ways of
      thinking. More subtly, libraries choose to highlight specific perspectives
      in looking at a subject, and in doing so “deselect” or chose subjects and
      perspectives to minimize or ignore. But just how is this accomplished? By
      how the materials are identified and organized – or in library terms, how
      they are classified.

      Why is classification important to American Indians? Words are important.

      As with all little known topics in American society – in this instance
      American Indians and also libraries and their practices - background
      information is necessary. The Library of Congress (LC) classification
      systems or the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system set the standards
      for all aspects of library organization throughout the U.S. and a large
      portion of the world. However, neither system adequately addresses the
      histories and contemporary realities of American Indians. For example,
      neither system has a category for “tribal sovereignty” and as a result even
      a book entitled “Tribal Sovereignty” might be classified under “Civil
      Rights – United States” or classed as a subtopic of “United States –
      History” but not as a concept of government. Under current classification
      practices this title could appear on library shelves next to titles such as
      the “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott” or “Primitive Peoples of
      the U.S.” - it would class “tribal sovereignty” along with other “historic
      events” NOT as an active governmental concept. Both LC and DDC have
      classifications for countries and state and local governments but none for
      tribal governments. What is the message such practices convey to a student
      or researcher? Simply put: 1. that a subordinate status in U.S. history
      (the past) IS the “appropriate place” for American Indians (and everything
      about them), and 2. that “valid” or significant systems of government do
      not include tribal systems of government. Similar relegations to
      subordinate status occur throughout DDC and LC, examples: the paintings of
      Picasso, Monet, Warhol are classified as “Art”; while American Indian
      sandpaintings, pottery, basketry, etc. are classified as “crafts” or
      “primitive art”; Protestantism, Catholicism, etc. are classified under
      “Religion” while American Indian spiritual beliefs are classified as
      mythology, folklore, or “other religion”, etc. And so it goes… In short,
      every American Indian perspective, accomplishment, or cultural belief,
      practice, or material product, according to these classification systems,
      is of a subordinate or inferior nature.

      How did these classification systems and practices come to be?

      American Indians and American History – the 1800’s.
      The Vanishing Race. During the early 1800’s “American Indians” were not
      part of the federal system, but recognized as separate independent nations.
      As tribes succumbed to the onslaught of U.S. military might, American
      Indians came to be described by the U.S. government as “the vanishing race”
      and survivors became wards of the U.S. government. Around 1900 the factual
      reality was that American Indian populations, which had been declining
      steadily during the 1800’s, were at their lowest point, the near extinction
      of American Indians seemed quite real. During that time period American
      art, media, political, and education materials depicted us as dying peoples
      – dejected and broken figures slumped down on exhausted and broken horses –
      “the end of the trail” for American Indians. In 1879 the U.S. government
      established the Bureau of American Ethnology to record the cultural
      anthropologies of the “vanishing race” (but did nothing to help the people
      themselves). The BAE was later merged into the Smithsonian.

      Manifest Destiny. In the mid-1800’s America embraced to notion of “manifest
      destiny” – the belief that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture was
      ordained by God to have domain over ALL creation. The “basic assumption” of
      this belief was that God assigned WASP America to fulfill God’s Devine Plan
      on earth. As a result WASP America believed that it was treating American
      Indians and all the non-WASP’s of the world with altruism and benevolence;
      they described this as “the white man’s burden” to civilize the world,
      starting with the American Indians. In this view American Indians’
      “God-ordained” destiny was to step aside and succumb to this
      all-encompassing unstoppable wave of “manifest destiny”. One example of
      this played out in the establishment of the BIA boarding schools whose
      mission was “to save the man, and destroy the Indian.”

      America’s intellectual and educational establishment emerges. The Library
      of Congress and the Smithsonian became America’s preeminent intellectual
      institutions, and DDC, guided by the emerging library profession became the
      classification system used by the vast majority of public and school
      libraries. These institutions set the guidelines and rules for the
      classification of all subsequent American intellectual endeavors – in law,
      politics, social sciences, science, education, and of course, libraries. LC
      and the Smithsonian can be regarded as the institutions that embody of the
      values and practices that justify and glorify “manifest destiny” in all its
      forms, and the philosophical underpinnings of DDC mirror the “basic
      assumption” to this day.

      This historical evolution resulted in the creation of these foundational
      institutions of America’s intellectual and educational establishment and in
      the process American Indians became historical artifacts. This is why
      American Indians were relegated to “natural history” collections of museums
      along with dinosaurs, and other non-active or extinct forms of life, and
      this is also why DDC likewise relegated us to an inferior status as
      remnants of the past. And very little has changed since then. Today, LC and
      DDC classification systems and the Smithsonian serve as the standard
      bearers, the purveyors of the guiding principles which all American
      intellectual establishments - government departments, courts, legislators,
      judges, boards of education, state and local governments, and universities,
      colleges, museums, and libraries – public and private - adhere to.

      Why have American Indians allowed this?

      A short explanation may be American Indians ignorance or lack of concern
      about the situation along with the lack of political clout, and very likely
      the notion that libraries and other WASP institutions are simply another
      “white man’s” institution that Indians don’t have any real need to deal
      with. I suspect that a “BIA mentality” exists about libraries, i.e., if
      libraries were somehow relevant the BIA would “do something” about it, or
      will do something about it…eventually. Quite the contrary, I believe that
      American Indians have always had librarians in some form – storytellers,
      medicine people, healers, aunties, uncles, clan leaders – living carriers
      and teachers of tribes’ values and histories. I believe that American
      Indians’ failure to see libraries beyond being just another white man’s
      institution ignores the possibility to creating our own libraries that
      promote “our side” of American history – our experience and our stories.
      Libraries are simply institutions that tell a story. And it is the
      community that decides what that story is and how it is told.

      As we enter the 21st century, what has changed for American Indians and

      Very little. Even after decades of American presidents and these same
      institutions proclaiming every November as “Native American Heritage Week”
      extolling “the proud heritage of American Indians” and the
      “government-to-government” relationships with tribes, these public
      relations statements have done nothing to change the day-to-day policies
      and practices of the LC, DDC, the Smithsonian, and just about every other
      U.S. governmental department or agency. Why should this matter to American
      Indians? The reason for American Indians to be concerned is because of who
      else relies on these institutions as their “final authorities” on questions
      about American Indians – entertainment executives, publishers, news media,
      journalists, authors, politicians, museum curators, lawyers, governors,
      government bureaucrats, academics, students – kindergarten through graduate
      school, teachers, librarians, archivists - in short, the entire
      intellectual and educational establishment of the United States and often,
      the world.

      What type of “authoritative” materials are LC and the Smithsonian producing

      One example is the Smithsonian “Handbook of North American Indians”. This
      20 volume set is considered “the authoritative standard” on American
      Indians – it is required or recommended for all universities, colleges,
      high schools, and public libraries throughout the U.S. In Volume 4 – The
      History of Indian-White Relations – the Smithsonian’s definitive work on
      the history of American Indians from 1492 to the present, how many times in
      this 800 plus page volume does one encounter the phrase “tribal
      sovereignty”? Zero. How about simply the word “sovereignty”? Zero. Again,
      what is the message here? If the Smithsonian doesn’t write about a concept
      it is a reasonable assumption is that the subject is probably not worth
      being written about – the subject can be left out? Our youth face the
      consequences of public ignorance every day. Some of the taunts I remember:
      “say something in Indian”, “why don’t’ you do a rain dance”, “hey chief”,
      “ug”, “you ought to be grateful for all we gave you”, “you are so lucky the
      Pilgrims saved you,” “you all get free money and don’t have to do anything
      for it,” “you don’t pay taxes like the rest of us”, ad infinitum. All of
      which were constant reminders that I was some kind “object”, a curiosity to
      be separated from the “normal” people, not a person. The questions for
      Indian Country should include: How does this ignorance continue to work on
      the psyche of American Indian youth? How is this connected to the fact that
      American Indian youth drop out of school, commit suicide, and become
      substance abusers at higher rates than any other group? But the primary
      question should be: What are we going to do about it? One answer is to have
      more American Indians become part of the establishment that nurtures the
      ignorance, so we can inform and correct it.

      The facts are that even the most authoritative and highly respected U.S.
      institutions and their best intended works, of which I have great respect
      for the most part, remain ineffectual in how to address the popular
      ignorance about American Indian life – past and present - and they remain
      clueless as to their role in how they aid and abet this ignorance. What are
      the ongoing consequences of this ignorance? Updated stereotypes and racism
      - “ALL Indians are now rich”, “we just do this (mascots) to honor you”, and
      in California our governor’s “Indians should pay their fair share”, etc.
      These mirror the fact that the America’s intellectual and education
      establishment takes no responsibility for its part to shed light on
      America’s ongoing ignorance about American Indians. The bottom line is that
      the facts of historical and contemporary American Indian experience
      continue to be misclassified, minimized, or rendered invisible both within
      the American intellectual and educational establishments and ALL those who
      rely on it, including our own children. And the facts remain that most
      librarians, lawyers, judges, legislators, politicians, professors,
      teachers, and other professionals – American Indian and non-American Indian
      - remain ignorant on all these issues.

      What can American Indians do?

      We need American Indian librarians to become librarians and get educated in
      the politics of librarianship and the institutions that govern its
      practices; to actively participate in the library establishment – to get
      educated in the historical details of librarianship, and to get armed with
      the facts to develop well-thought out strategies to build partnerships to
      challenge the status quo, and to have answers and recommendations when the
      challenge is recognized. Well planned, strategic, and coordinated activism
      is what is necessary. This effort will take not only dedicated individuals
      but group support – tribal leaders, tribal councils, tribal communities,
      tribal elders, tribal lawyers, tribal decision-makers, and those
      non-Indians who support us. Tribal leaders need to “get” that our futures
      are directly related to our effective participation in education
      institutions such as libraries every bit as much as they are connected to
      issues of economic development and tribal sovereignty.

      American Indians and our leaders need to recognize that by not directly
      challenging these institutions’ practices in concerted, consistent,
      persistent, and community/tribal government supported ways, we are in fact
      saying such practices are OK – that it is OK to be assigned an inferior
      status by America’s preeminent intellectual institutions, that is OK for
      them to continue to subordinate, minimize, or render invisible our
      heritage, that it is OK to not confront them for their part in aiding and
      abetting the ignorance and half-truths about American Indians that are
      alive and well in America today.

      What is at stake? Simply put - the future of American Indians and our
      living heritage. Will current and future generations of American Indians
      continue to allow their heritage to be set aside and see it marginalized or
      rendered invisible? American Indians didn’t “vanish” as America’s
      intellectual and educational establishment promoted during in the late
      1800’s. But have the wars really stopped? Or have they just changed form
      and venue? Now we have “Native American Heritage Month”. But what does that
      mean? That for one month a year schools tell stories and government
      agencies display posters and have exhibits of happy Pilgrims and happy
      Indians eating a Thanksgiving dinner? What about the rest of the story? And
      all the others? If tribal sovereignty truly means anything, it should mean
      to stand firm for our living heritage and to challenge any American
      institution that continues to minimize it or render it invisible. American
      Indian librarians can play significant roles in this challenge, as leaders
      of our own institutions to tell our side of the story, as participants and
      initiators of change in these establishments that mold and educate public
      perceptions – American Indian and non-American Indian – or we can continue
      to settle for the piecemeal changes the American intellectual and
      educational establishment “bestows” upon us when it is “politically
      correct” or convenient for them. The choice is ours.

      Mike McLaughlin (Winnebago) is a librarian at the American Indian Resource
      Center in the Huntington Park Library in Huntington Park, California.
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