Decolonization, Metaphor, and Library Work

In the spring I took UW-Madison’s Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums (TLAM) class. As a white settler living on stolen land, there was a lot I didn’t understand even about the land I lived on, or the tribes that were forced off of it. I found much of the material we discussed eye-opening, but the reading that continues to stick with me the most is Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang.

Decolonization seems to be the latest hot buzzword to use when discussing social justice and critical methodologies. I’ve heard and read quite a bit about “decolonizing our thinking”, or our curriculum, or our collections. But what does that mean? In most of these cases, you could replace “decolonize” with “diversify”, and the meaning would more or less be the same. Tuck and Yang point out that in this way, the language of decolonization has been adopted by a wider social justice movement, which takes away some of its true meaning. Because according to them, decolonization is not just a metonym for social justice; it is repatriation of Indigenous land and life.

When Indigenous scholars talk about decolonization, what they mean is taking the actual, literal land that settlers stole, and giving it back to the Native tribes who originally lived on it. When settlers try to adapt the concept of decolonization to other forms of oppression, it decenters Indigenous people. These other forms of oppression – racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, etc. – are also terrible, and it is important to be critically conscious of them. However, that is not what we are talking about when we talk about decolonization. 

So why should you or I, as library students, care about decolonization? The library I work in was built around Native mounds. It is quite probable that the school you go to, or the library you work at, was also built on stolen land. Many libraries use Library of Congress Classification, which relegate most of the information about Indigenous communities to the history section, situating almost all of our information about these communities in the past.

Indigenous knowledge systems do not fit into the way Western knowledge is classified, and often, instead of trying to preserve those systems, they are shoehorned into Western systems, or erased entirely

Tuck and Yang agree that the work done to craft curricula, literature, and pedagogy “to aid people in learning to see settler colonialism, to articulate critiques of settler epistemology, and set aside settler histories and values in search of ethics that reject domination and exploitation” is important work. It is not the end goal of decolonization, but it is a step nevertheless. 

I believe that, while libraries in North America have functioned as a tool of settler colonialism and contributed to the erasure of Indigenous knowledge, they still can be a force of good in their communities. I imagine a lot of HLS’s readers may feel the same. So how do those of us who are settlers become accomplices with Native communities? 

The first step, is to become comfortable with discomfort. Accept that you will get things wrong, and that you know far less than you think you know. Building trusting relationships with Native communities requires a willingness to listen and learn, and a whole lot of humility. As Lisa suggested in her piece on facing stereotypes, we can also advocate for collection development that includes Native authors and scholars, and point patrons towards resources that offer Indigenous perspectives. 

I am still a novice in my own learning and understanding of Native issues, but I intend to keep learning and reflecting, and elevating Indigenous voices whenever I can. 

Further reading/resources:

Joining the Circle: An Indigenous 101 Toolkit

Decolonizing Community Engagement

Decolonization Theory and Practice

#LibrariesResist information on Indigenous Communities

Tribal Histories

American Indian Library Association (AILA)

Featured image from WikiMedia

Robin is the Community Manager of Hack Library School, and a student at University of Wisconsin Madison. They are on Twitter at @robinmgee 

Editor’s note: The original article stated that the Dewey Decimal Classification system historicized Indigenous peoples. While Library of Congress does situate Indigenous peoples under History of the Americas, Dewey does not. Thank you to Violet Fox for pointing out this error.

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