iSchool doctoral students meet information needs in Indian country

Two long-time friends, both Native American, both young professionals, had a bet:  If they applied, would either of them be accepted into the University of Washington Information School  Ph.D. program? Marisa Duarte, Pascua Yaqui, worked in library sciences; Miranda Belarde-Lewis, raised Tlingit and Zuni, worked in the museum field. “We both realized there was just not enough room for us to grow in those fields as Native women representing our community,” says Duarte.

The UW iSchool was the only place they even considered attending. The reason: iSchool Associate Dean for Research Cheryl Metoyer, Eastern Band Cherokee and one of the only Native American faculty members at any information school nationwide. Duarte and Belarde-Lewis had first met Metoyer at a Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums conference. “The moment I met Cheryl, I was struck by her diplomacy, her complete confidence,” says Duarte. “She has a real commitment to providing services to Indian country. Nothing gets in the way of that, and I like that a lot.”

To their surprise, both Duarte and Belarde-Lewis were accepted at the iSchool, becoming part of a Ph.D. cohort that grew to include six Native American and indigenous doctoral candidates. The scholars included Belarde-Lewis and Duarte, Sheryl A. Day (Chamorro), Allison B. Krebs (Anishinaabe), Juan Carlos Chavez (Yaqui), and Sandra Littletree (Navajo/Shoshone).

Gathering from different Native homelands and cultures, they formed the only concentration of indigenous students in any information science doctoral program. “We are the only information school that has critical mass. This is extraordinary,” says Metoyer, who was the second Native American Ph.D. in library and information science when she earned her doctoral degree from Indiana University in 1976.

Decades later, the field still cries for more Native American Ph.D.s – scholars who can bring their knowledge to bear on the complicated policy questions arising as information systems impact Indian Country. “In the context of nation-rebuilding, we face enormous challenges,” says Metoyer. “All the challenges the U.S. government faces, we have that in a microcosm. Information is the underpinning of all that.  Access to it and control of it are critically important.”

Within sovereign Native nations, where Indigenous people live under different systems, with different customs and philosophies and world views, new information challenges come from all directions, in all forms. What happens when outside policies stall tribal access to broadband internet? Do tribal leaders even want that access? Can new technologies properly document ancestral wisdom? Should they? What regulations cover uninvited intrusion of new technologies in Native homelands? “Think about drones flying over tribal lands, collecting data and transmitting as they go. What does that mean for the sovereignty of tribes? Can we have some ownership of the data? Can we keep them off tribal lands?” asks Duarte, who graduated with Belarde-Lewis in June.

In their dissertations for the iSchool, she and Belarde-Lewis, who first bonded as undergraduates at the University of Arizona, took a hard look at how information and technology sciences affect Native self-determination.

Belarde-Lewis, who holds a master’s degree from the UW’s Museology Graduate Program, turned a research lens on intellectual property and protection of indigenous knowledge, concentrating on her Zuni homeland. There, for generations upon generations, outsiders have written descriptions and taken photos of sacred Pueblo ceremonies and art forms, carrying them away and, too often, presenting them out of context and without full tribal permission. Now anyone with an iPhone can snap, upload, and post a photo of a sacred ritual despite policies in place to prevent it. “In Zuni, we have a law that lets any community member who sees someone recording take away that person’s camera, film, or phone and delete those images,” says Belarde-Lewis, whose studies were supported by a GO-MAP scholarship aimed at bringing diversity to the academic community at the UW.

Duarte’s dissertation explores the need for sovereign tribes to take ownership of their own broadband internet infrastructures and services. Commanding their own corner of the web, individual tribes can circulate information across Indian Country on protection of sovereign lands, waters, and peoples. “If you add these corners of invisible networks, and put on top of that ownership of the hardware, you have potential for tremendous innovation on tribal lands,” says Duarte, funded in her studies by a Social Science Research Council grant and a Washington Doctoral Initiative fellowship promoting diversity in the library and information science field. 

Duarte is continuing her research this fall in a post-doctoral fellowship at the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, where she is writing a book on building new media in Indian Country. She hopes her research will inform national policy, including FCC decisions on regulations regarding tribal infrastructure build out. At the iSchool, Duarte and Belarde-Lewis helped establish the Indigenous Information Research Group, which advocates for social justice for Native populations. The group has helped the National Congress of American Indians evaluate its website to improve services; advised the Law Library of Congress on how to wrap tribal nations into the One World Law Library Project; and set up a long-term partnership to advise the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

A strong commitment to community is one of the core values shared by the iSchool’s Indigenous doctoral cohort, which has become its own family, says Metoyer. It is a family that operates in its own Native ways. Trust is strong. Work is collaborative, not competitive. Practices are reflective, contemplative. Goals are shared. “We all have a fundamental respect for each other, for our people, and for our work,” says the associate professor.

And, like in any Indigenous community, family is, has been, and will forever be family. That includes two good friends who once took a bet on their future and applied at the iSchool. “Marisa and Miranda have gone through the formal process of graduating,” says Metoyer, “but they haven’t really left us or our work. Their abiding presence remains.”