Beyond the Land Acknowledgement: Indigenous Language Revitalization, Student Activism, and Critical Theory in STEM Librarianship
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Throughout their history, libraries have participated in white supremacist power structures that privilege white knowledge over that of other cultures. While humanities and social science librarians are becoming more active in decolonization efforts, STEM librarians can often feel out of place in these projects. However, STEM librarians are vital to include in these conversations, as STEM disciplines are well known for perpetrating and sustaining white supremacist cultures, especially in the historical over-representation of white men in their professional ranks and publications. One way that STEM librarians can do social justice work and begin to dismantle white supremacist culture is through indigenous language revitalization, which seeks to restore and preserve the languages and cultures of indigenous peoples. Through the lens of critical theory, this presentation will examine one such initiative at Miami University: a case study involving a collaboration between the library, the natural history museum, and a class of first-year student researchers. This class involved the researching and writing of museum labels, and focused on the restoration of an existing botanical exhibit, the "Tree Walk". Aside from ensuring factual accuracy, the students were given wide latitude in the design and creation of the labels. As a group, they decided that the labels should incorporate, alongside the common and scientific names, the names of the trees as used by the Miami tribe, the indigenous peoples native to the lands upon which the university resides. The university has developed a strong relationship with the Miami tribe and together they have created an online dictionary of tribal words. While this dictionary was the project’s starting point, students quickly realized that many of the trees currently on campus are not native to the land and instead come from parts of North America that were home to other indigenous peoples. As this dictionary focuses on one tribal language, it is insufficient for highlighting the biodiversity of the trees on campus and the many different cultures that have traditionally relied upon them. Forced assimilation programs and the subsequent eradication of the languages and cultures of indigenous peoples have severely inhibited the creation of similar dictionaries, thus presenting significant challenges for the project and revealing the lasting effects of white supremacist culture. Using critical theory as a framework for this initiative not only illustrates the power structures that libraries must contend with today in order to be more socially just institutions, it also demonstrates how major gaps in the knowledge of other cultures are a serious impediment to comprehensive and effectual research. Moreover, critical theory, through its emphasis on power and power relationships, requires an acknowledgment of the forced assimilation of indigenous peoples and how language suppression was an effective genocidal tool. Indigenous language revitalization is one way that libraries can fight back. By creating programs, or supporting existing programs, that help revitalize indigenous languages and cultures, STEM librarians can lend their expertise to these vital and necessary undertakings.
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