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Washington Tribes Gather at WLA to Envision the Future

Published onJul 30, 2023
Washington Tribes Gather at WLA to Envision the Future

The 2023 Washington Library Association conference in Wenatchee was the site of a convening of librarians and community members representing eleven Washington tribes. As described in our December 2022 Alki Journal article, we are two professors from the University of Washington iSchool working on a grant focusing on Washington state tribal libraries. As part of that grant, we hosted an invitation-only tribal library convening on March 30, the day before the official WLA conference began. The event was designed so that tribal attendees and other community stakeholders could share stories and their thoughts for what the future of tribal libraries could be for their communities. We planned the event with WLA, in hopes that tribal library staff would stay through the conference to learn more about Washington libraries and have the chance to connect with other librarians around the state. Survey results from the convening attest that many library staff stayed for—and enjoyed--the conference, and 100 percent of them would come to another tribal library convening. 

The convening was sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, whose financial support for attendees contributed significantly to their ability to attend. Additionally, Washington State Library’s Carolyn Petersen, who worked for more than 15 years across the state to encourage tribal libraries to share their best practices and to take advantage of available grants, was an important contributor to reaching out to the 26 tribal libraries in Washington. Ultimately, thirteen staff from nine tribal libraries joined other community members for a total of more than 30 people in the room, representing eleven Washington tribes, iSchool students and three iSchool faculty. Our original estimates for attendance were half that number, so in participation alone we count the event an auspicious beginning for engaging with Washington tribes. 

WLA Tribal libraries group shot of the convening.

WLA conference planners worked with us to share resources and to have a program welcoming to the new attendees. Several sessions focused on serving tribes and helping Washington librarians understand how to serve tribal interests and priorities. The WLA conference keynote program, held on March 31st, was a conversation between Jennifer Himmelreich (Diné), Program Officer for the Native American, Alaskan and Hawaiian grant programs for the Institute of Museum and Libraries Services, and Patricia Cutright (Lakota), Dean Emeritus from Central Washington University. Mandi Harris (Cherokee), a children’s librarian from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and iSchool PhD student, was the moderator. Washington Poet Laureate Rena Priest (Lummi) was an important contributor to the tribal library convening and also read an opening poem at the keynote. Arnold Cleveland, a Paqusqua/Wenatchi Tribal elder from the Colville Confederated Tribes of North Central Washington State, opened the event with a song for both the convening and the keynote. It was a noteworthy way to open the conference, and it paved the way for conversations about Washington tribal communities and how libraries can serve them best. 

We planned the convening in accordance with Indigenous practices that center on relationality, respect, and reciprocity, with a focus on building relationships. The event was kept to invitees to foster a trusted space so that the invited guests would get to know each other over the course of the day and be able to share their dreams freely. 

Acknowledging the importance of introductions in Indigenous communities, we made space in the agenda for participants to share personal introductions that went beyond simple name/place of employment. Ninety minutes of the morning session were devoted to building relationships through introductions, making sure the guests all knew each other and felt they were in a respectful place. 

Sandy taking a selfie with the six students plus Cindy Aden and Dr. Michelle Martin, all of the iSchool cohort.

Mandi Harris presented her project, “Beading Librarianship: Beading Gratitude.” The project involved beading QR codes that linked to interviews she conducted with Indigenous libraries from around the country. A collaborative research project, Beading Librarianship gives interviewees control over what is shared online. The beaded QR codes will be gifted to the interviewees as a physical reminder of the kinship and connections made through the project. 

Poet Laureate Rena Priest walked the group through a process of creative imagining. She invited the group to write down some of their hopes for what they could do together. Her presentation included poems and quotes that inspired the group to open their minds and hearts to dreaming together and set the stage for the afternoon’s conversations. 

Dr. Littletree started the group conversations by acknowledging the past. She invited attendees to remember anything from their library's history or their personal or community's past that impacts their work today. People wrote their thoughts on sticky notes and put them up on a wall for everyone to read later and to consider, but hopefully to be able to leave there, so the group could move on. Some of those notes were hopeful about what a library space had been to them in the past, and some remembered not finding any stories about Native people, or finding false and harmful stories about their people’s histories in library books and school textbooks. Some had no access to libraries, and some felt unwelcome when they tried to use a library as a child or young adult. 

Mandi Harris as moderator with Patricia Cutright and Jennifer Himmelreich on stage.

The group conversations then became a space for imagining--imagining not only what was practical and near-term for their various libraries to accomplish, but what the vision of tribal libraries could be. What is a tribal library, and how is it different from other types of libraries? What are tribal libraries doing now that supports the beauty of Indigenous knowledge? What is the vision for the future of tribal libraries in their communities, in the state of Washington, and in the United States? How can we work together to create this vision? Participants responded to these and other questions throughout the convening. 

We are still reviewing all of the responses that were written on easels and notes, and the conversations that were captured by iSchool student note-takers. It was an honor to hear the stories of what the priorities were for the tribal librarians in that room. One of the things that was shared many times was the importance of setting the history records straight and telling the history of the Native Americans in an authentic and truthful way. 

Attendees also suggested that the work of libraries, archives and museums comes together for many of their communities who care about preserving tribal records and artifacts, capturing stories and sharing Native culture through stories and Native language teachings. There were suggestions that the ideal library could lend fishing gear and help people learn the traditional ways of fishing from experts. There was talk of food pantries and helping Native people learn how to cultivate and gather traditional foods. Literacy was cited, as some older tribal members never learned to read, and at the same time, language revitalization programs aimed at tribal members who don’t know their Native language were suggested. 

Dr. Patricia Cutright, Sandy Littletree, Rena Priest, Jennifer Himmelreich, and Mandi Harris

In all, it was a rich and inspiring day for everyone. We are grateful to WLA for its support of this tribal convening and for making the conference a welcoming space for tribal libraries. The success of this event was also dependent upon the efforts of our iSchool students: Devon Coultas, Mandi Harris, Ash King, KJ Srader, Nehar Sultana, and Caroline Wills, and our supportive iSchool staff and colleagues. 

And we are especially grateful to the attendees, librarians, and our special guests, who trusted us enough to spend the day with us, sharing their histories as well as their future dreams for tribal communities. Our hope is that this work of relationship-building and professional collaboration continues to be done by all libraries in Washington.


Sandy smiles at the camera with long, dark hair and wearing bone earrings and a black smock.
Dr. Sandy Littletree (Diné) is an assistant professor at the University of Washington iSchool. She is an LIS educator and researcher with interests at the intersections of Indigenous systems of knowledge and the library and information science field. Her dissertation research focused on the history and development of tribal libraries in the United States, where she examined the themes of advocacy, leadership, self-determination, cultural knowledge, and government responsibilities to tribes. She is a past president of the American Indian Library Association (AILA) and currently serves on several advisory boards for LIS projects in Indigenous communities in the United States and Canada. Littletree is working on several grants and research projects concerning data sovereignty, tribal libraries and Indigenous knowledge and research practices. She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, originally from the Four Corners region of New Mexico.
Cindy smiles at the camera with blonde, wavy hair, glasses, and wearing a black jacker.
Cindy Altick Aden is full teaching faculty and chair of the MLIS Program at the University of Washington iSchool. She just completed a three-year term as the iSchool’s third Distinguished Practitioner in Residence/Professor of Practice. Aden is the prior Washington State Librarian, where she served from 2016-2020, and has also worked at OCLC, Library of Congress, University of Washington, Kitsap Regional Library and worked at as its first librarian. She is currently working with Dr. Littletree on a Mellon Foundation grant focused on Washington tribal libraries, and on an NSF grant focused on rural libraries and misinformation.
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