Indigenous Community Leaders in Libraries Today
Native American Heritage Month Symposium

iStudent Blog
Donna Cossett

Published: February 5, 2023 by Eori Tokunaga

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, the San José State University iSchool hosted a free online symposium on November 29th, 2022, titled “Honoring the Historical and Current Lives of Indigenous People.” The symposium featured keynote speaker Donna Cossette, Registrar for the Churchill County Museum and Archives; keynote speaker Lynette Dial, Library Director for Hoke County Public Library; Kim Sellers, Associate Professor at UNC Pembroke; and Melissa Stoner, Native American Studies Librarian at University of California, Berkeley. 

Co-keynote speaker Donna Cossette began her story by talking about her background work in museums, ranging from the California Museum in Sacramento to the Nevada State Museum.

“I believe that the culture within museums and libraries go hand in hand. We have collaborated with the Churchill County Museum in my community in our efforts to educate and promote the history of our local community.”

As the former tribal chairperson of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, Cossette has been heavily involved in her community. Recently, she has embarked on an endeavor with the Churchill County Library to use virtual reality and emerging technologies to explore the Hidden Cave, a very well-known cultural site within the local community, in an effort to “focus on people who could not physically get into the hidden cave.” 

Cossette also spoke about the Under One Sky exhibit in Carson City, Nevada, the history behind the Northern Paiutes, and the desire to preserve the language in the tribe.

“Paiute is not our original name. Northern Paiutes have a different name. Toi-Ticutta are the Cattail eaters. That’s the band of Paiutes from our reservation…We feel the elders have always told us the language ties us to our culture, and it ties us to the land because, in translation, it loses something. It loses its sense; the word loses its sense.” 

The symposium continued with co-keynote speaker Lynnette Dial’s presentation on historical and current people that have influenced Native culture in a positive way, such as Zitkala Sa and Arlinda Locklear. She also talked about the importance of putting words into action, noting that many land acknowledgments today still remain to be simply verbal.

Lynette Dial 

 “There are still so many practical applications of recognition that still go undone. That is one of the things that sticks out to me being native in this country. I love this country. I’m very grateful to be a part of it. But we are still being ignored. We still are being pushed to the side, even though lip service is being given to the fact that we are being acknowledged in many ways, we still have to fight very hard to receive any type of recognition.”

Following the keynote presentations was an hour-long Q&A panel discussion with Kim Sellers, Melissa Stoner, and the keynote speakers. Panelists answered some questions in the chat and provided best practices on how libraries can actively better understand the Native American Indigenous community, as well as how public libraries can help break the lack of knowledge and understanding of Native American Indigenous values, history, culture, and heritage.

Kim Sellers

After the panel discussions, the symposium concluded with closing remarks from Kim Sellers:

“Don’t rely on somebody else’s expertise. That’s telling your students in the community, ‘I don’t care enough about your culture and your language and your literature to care enough about it to include it. I’m just so busy, and everything else is so important but yours is not.’ If you include those pieces of literature, if you include the space in the curriculum and the time, and especially in the programming, you’re saying this is valuable enough that I’m taking that time.”

Below is a summary of best practices as provided by the panelists during the symposium: 

  1. Do not just try to understand a community’s perspective, but show that you value them. Research organizations that have already been doing work to uplift Indigenous community members, talk to tribal leaders or even collaborate with local museums. 
  2. Remember that valuing and creating space for Native American communities does not solely exist during the time of November. 
  3. Go out and meet Indigenous people where they are at. Talk to them and understand their needs because you can’t meet their needs if you don’t know their needs. 
  4. Recognize the difference between “words of truth” and “words of convenience.” 
  5. Ask yourself: “Are my library’s collections stereotyping Native people? Are certain resources placed in a way that may be inaccessible for the general public to learn about Indigenous communities?”

To watch the full symposium, click here

To view the Native American Heritage Month Symposium 2022-Transcript, click here.


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