June 2008: Tribal Cultural Preservation at the Heart of Three-Year Conference Project

Gordon Yellowman, a Cheyenne Peace Chief, performs a sage blessing at the beginning of the conference, along with his daughter, Cricket.

Western Council of State Libraries

Gordon Yellowman, a Cheyenne Peace Chief, performs a sage blessing at the beginning of the conference, along with his daughter, Cricket.

2006 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program

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Susan Feller
Project Director


Through a series of national conferences, institutes, and workshops, Native American archivists, librarians, cultural directors, educators, museum staff members, and elders are creating communities to support tribal cultural preservation. The project was funded, in part, by a three-year grant to the Western Council of State Libraries from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under its Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian program.

"Many tribal cultural centers include museums, libraries, and archives, with the work of staff and volunteers frequently overlapping in all three areas," said Susan Feller, project and conference director, development officer for the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, and a person of Choctaw descent. "The conference strives to provide practical approaches, as well as abundant take-home materials, that are useful to both professional and non-professional staff."

"I’m passionate about these conferences and extremely proud that Oklahoma has taken a lead role," said Lotsee Patterson, PhD, professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma, a member of the Comanche Nation, and a member of the National Museum and Library Services Board, IMLS’s advisory body. "These conferences and meetings are so important because they bring together people who have no other opportunity to get together to talk of issues of mutual concern, to network, and to learn from each other what works. So many of these people are working alone and these conferences give them the confidence that what they’re doing is important and that they’re making a difference. It also provides federal recognition that what they’re doing is important."

In 2007, 560 individuals from 46 states, 3 Canadian provinces, and 203 tribes gathered in Oklahoma City October 22-25, 2007, for the national conference, which built on two previous IMLS-funded conferences that were held in Arizona in 2003 and 2005.

Conference organizers encouraged collaboration among tribal entities and non-tribal institutions; presented contemporary issues related to the development of tribal libraries, archives, and museums; and provided an opportunity for institutions and individuals to network and build support for tribal cultural institutions and programs.

"The 2007 conference was unlike any other I have ever experienced, with such warmth from the people and a real desire to soak up information. Many valuable connections were made. Conference attendees have indicated that the networking opportunities were as important as the educational content," Feller said, noting that she and other conference organizers built sustaining revenue streams from exhibitors, advertisers, and sponsors.

"The 2007 National Conference of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums was a watershed event," said Loriene Roy, President of the American Library Association, professor at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Information, and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. "It provided tribal library, museum and archive staff with the rare opportunity to meet and communicate with each other, to share their plans, dreams, and daily experiences, and to provide the promise of meeting together in the future."

This year, the Oklahoma Department of Libraries is hosting the 2008 National Institutes for Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums with one-day pre and post-conference workshops in April, July, August, and October at the Cherokee Casino and Resort in Catoosa (Tulsa), Oklahoma. The Institutes provide information and hands-on instruction regarding the care and management of archival, library, and museum collections, with emphasis placed on the special considerations involved in American Indian materials. Topics include:

• How to Recognize and Prevent Threats to Your Collection (April 14)
• Skills and Strategies for Managing Tribal Records (April 15-17)
• Field Trips to Museums with Major American Indian Collections (July 14)
• Displaying and Caring for American Indian Objects (July 15-17)
• Digitization Projects: From Planning to Implementation (August 11)
• Collection, Use, and Care of Historic Photographs (August 12-14)
• Training for American Indian Library Services (October 21-23)
• Building and Managing Culturally Responsive Library Collections and Programs (October 24)

"I am excited about the Institutes because they focus on one discipline for three days. This provides participants with a more in-depth approach to specific topics of interest, taught by instructors who are top in their field," Feller said. The 2008 Institutes are receiving scholarship support drawn from funding through "Oklahoma Tribal Heritage," a $218,369 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The last planned conference will take place Oct. 18-22, 2009, in Portland, Oregon.

"Where do we go after Oregon?" Feller and Patterson both asked. "One possible solution is to form a national organization that will be responsible for planning and implementing the conferences. In June, we will conduct a national survey of tribal archives, museums, libraries, and cultural centers to see if there is interest in belonging to an association that will provide support for the conferences, as well as help address other needs of tribal cultural centers," Feller said. "It is envisioned that the new organization will work in partnership with the First Archivists Circle, the American Indian Library Association, and the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers."

The conferences have offered IMLS a great opportunity to get the word out about grant opportunities, according to IMLS Deputy Director for Libraries Mary Chute and Senior Program Officers Alison Freese and Sandra Narva. At last year’s conference, they made presentations on the Native American Library Services Basic Grants, Native American Library Services Basic Grants with Educational/Assessment Option, the Native American Library Services Enhancement Grants, the Native Hawaiian Library Services grants, the Native American/Native Hawaiian Museum Services grants, and the Connecting to Collections initiative.

All recipients of the IMLS tribal library and tribal museum grants were included in the conference mailings and Basic Library grantees could use their Education/Assessment Option funds to travel to the conference. Thirty Library Enhancement grantees gave poster presentations, which was a wonderful opportunity to share models and best practices, Freese noted.

"It is gratifying to me when I receive phone calls and emails from conference attendees expressing their appreciation. The conferences and institutes are viewed by many as an important vehicle in preserving tribal culture," Feller said. "The conferences and institutes hold significant value because they are planned and presented by people who understand the sometimes unique and specific needs of tribal archives, libraries, and museums. I’m especially grateful for the guidance of the National Envisioning Committee, the Oklahoma Planning Committee, and the hundreds of presenters who help make the opportunities available."