Sovereignty, Collaboration and Continuing Challenge: A History of Tribal Libraries in San Diego County

By Biggs, Bonnie; Whitehorse, David | Special Libraries, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Sovereignty, Collaboration and Continuing Challenge: A History of Tribal Libraries in San Diego County


Biggs, Bonnie, Whitehorse, David, Special Libraries


In Southern California, libraries have sprung up on seven of the 18 small American Indian reservations in rural San Diego County.[2] These unique facilities generally struggle to survive in harsh reservation economies which have been further marginalized by the worst regional economic depression since the 1930s. Yet they do survive, even as surrounding local, county, and regional library systems have experienced severe fiscal cutbacks which greatly reduce library services and threaten closure of numerous rural branches.[3] The history of Indian libraries in the region presents a striking picture of tribal self-determination and exercise of sovereignty in determining and meeting tribal information system needs. It further delineates the challenges and opportunities facing tribal populations and governments as they develop collaborative relationships with the American macro-culture. Generally, the framework for the development of these small library facilities was the amendment to the Library Services and Construction Act;[4] however, the existence of tribal libraries did not begin with federal policy. Rather, the function of tribal and cultural libraries, if not the generally accepted form, has been a part of American Indian communities since before the Colombian interchange.

For untold centuries, Native Americans have passed their unique legacy to successive generations through an ancient but fragile chain of oral tradition. Today, within the complexity of contemporary life in the United States, this heritage of American indigenous culture is reflected in the habits, customs, and traditions of the "Knowledge Seekers," as well as the "Wisdom Keepers" who live within Native American tribes and maintain links with traditional tribal knowledge, customs, and history. Tribal Elders with knowledge of traditional Indian technology, government, natural science, folklore, religion, art, natural healing, legend, and tribal history serve as living libraries for their communities (emphasis added).[5]

Special collections including tribal histories, material culture, early ethnographic records, and tribal governmental archives were scattered throughout the San Diego reservation country. In the early 20th century, principally in the care of hereditary leaders or their families, tribal offices, or housed haphazardly in community buildings or storehouses. Of note were collections held by a number of small missions and asistencias[6] including Santa Ysabel, San Antonio de Pala, and Catholic chapels at Jamul, Sycuan, Pauma, and Barona.[7] The fate of many of these collections is unknown, owing in part to the termination of many California tribes in 1953, and discontinuities in tribal government and tribal development in the termination era extending to 1971.[8] The majority of tribal archives from the period were retained by particular reservations or were duplicated in major part at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Sub-Agency at Riverside, CA.[9] Until the early 1970s, there was little systematic assembling of library collections at each reservation, and a comprehensive cataloging of Indian "libraries" in the county was nonexistent.

Indian Library Development

The formal and expanding entrance of Indian tribes into the realm of library development occurred in the post-termination era. Jack D. Forbes, in his early advocacy for the establishment of native-controlled information systems and repositories, proposed that American Indian people living on or near reservations had library and information needs in two broad areas. The first need was for the library services common to other ethnic groups. The second was specialized informational needs unique to the Indian population as a whole. He further defined the latter as having imbedded needs for the preservation of cultural-historical heritage. Susan Dyal's Preserving Traditional Arts: A Toolkit for Native American Communities, or Going Home: The California Indian Library Collections Manual are two sources that have assisted local San Diego County tribes in preserving invaluable collections of material culture and given guidance in locating materials of local significance. …

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Sovereignty, Collaboration and Continuing Challenge: A History of Tribal Libraries in San Diego County
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