Category Archives: conferences

librarians helping indians tell indian stories

Two occurrences struck me as definitely non-coincidental during the ACRL conference this past week.  The first being Friday’s keynote address delivered by Sherman Alexie, renowned author, comedian and veritable renaissance man who happens to be American Indian. His address was poignant, irreverent, lyrical and human.

After spending a few minutes objectifying all the “hot, near-sighted” librarians in the room, Alexie weaved a story with the magic he so effortlessly conjures, discussing various topics ranging from his sickly stint on Oprah to kicking Stephen Colbert’s ass, to applying for having his grandfather’s war medals reissued.  Needless to say, the bigger picture of his whole presentation was one that recurs throughout his works, of Indians and Indian stories.

Combined with his presentation was my reading of his majestically written book Indian Killer. Central to the book was the theme that “Only Indians should tell Indian stories”. Specifically, one instance within is the argument between two characters on whether American Indian stories/content should be recorded by non-natives,even if for academic purposes.  Does it constitute stealing, since these stories are traditionally familial, and orally transmitted from generation to generation? Would recording the screams of someone being physically assaulted equate to the Indian reaction of stealing their stories without permission?

Ironically enough, one of the more interesting and buried sessions that followed Alexie’s address was entitled From Babine to Yakima: Academic Libraries and Endangered Language Preservation, from Washington State University Librarian Gabriella Reznowski. Gabriella mentioned that this is indeed a touchy situation, one that needs careful attention. There is a difference between saving and preserving native languages, Reznowski stresses, and that libraries can serve as collaborative partners in culture preservation, as long as some considerations are followed, including:

  • Deciding whether the Internet is an appropriate venue for placing native cultural resources, rather than simply accessing them in the stacks.
  • Are being tribal policies being followed and respected, having gained permission to begin with?
  • How much effort is the institution willing to spend to keep up their community and tribal relationships?

Just a few considerations to…consider.  We may not be trained linguists, but librarians can be part of something that provides a failsafe against losing one’s history.  Though at all costs, we must realize the point at which we may rewrite such history, despite our good intentions.