iSchool faculty adds another ally for indigenous scholars

Miranda Belarde-LewisMuseumgoers look at a Native American basket and see a beautiful object. What many don’t see are the layers of knowledge it contains, says new iSchool faculty member Miranda Belarde-Lewis. There is the knowledge of what plants to gather for weaving, at what time of year, and how to prepare them. The chemistry of which dyes to use and how to make them. The history behind each design and what it represents. The knowledge of how to construct something that holds water or clams. The rituals involved in different stages of production.

“There is so much knowledge encoded in each basket. That goes for textiles, jewelry, everything we create as a Native community. It is not just art,” says Belarde-Lewis, who earned her Ph.D. at the iSchool in 2013 and brings to her job challenging new ideas, including perceptions of the term “information.”

“Native American communities don’t really talk about information. They talk about knowledge. It’s more than information,” says the new faculty member, who is a member of both the Corn Clan in Zuni Pueblo and the Takdeintaan Clan of the Tlingit Nation.

Belarde-Lewis’s new title at the iSchool is Assistant Professor of Native American Indigenous Knowledge. “That is the longest title ever,” she says. She shares the title with iSchool colleague Clarita Lefthand-Begay, a citizen of the Navajo Nation. “These are the only two positions like this in any information school in the world,” says Belarde-Lewis.

The positions reflect a strategic plan to expand the field of indigenous knowledge at the iSchool, one of the first information schools to bring Native American faculty onboard. “We aim to establish the indigenous knowledge field as a core domain of study at the school,” says Dean Harry Bruce. “Our vision is that researchers around the world will follow our example by honoring and exploring indigenous forms of information creation, collection, representation, and sharing.”

Belarde-Lewis grew up in New Mexico’s Zuni Pueblo surrounded by legacy jewelry makers, potters, painters, fetish carvers, and weavers. Art was her culture. It became her vocation. After earning a B.A. in cultural anthropology at the University of Arizona, a master’s degree from the UW’s Museology Graduate Program, and another master’s and Ph.D. at the iSchool, she became a highly regarded freelance curator at such prestigious institutions as the Frye Art Museum in Seattle and the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. She is currently guest curating an exhibit called “Raven and the Box of Daylight” opening at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass in 2018; it features the work of renowned Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary.

Belarde-Lewis also contracts with the Suquamish Museum on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, helping with development and curating the public programming of the museum. And she is an artist herself, working in pen-and-ink and flat beadwork, finely patterned.

She’ll be hanging up her curatorial hat – during the school year, at least – to concentrate on her teaching and research at the iSchool. She was first recruited to the school by iSchool Associate Professor Emerita Cheryl Metoyer, an Eastern Band Cherokee and one of the first Native American Ph.D. graduates in library and information science in the country. “When Cheryl explained the interdisciplinary nature of the iSchool, that made a lot of sense to me. I realized everything could be discussed through an information lens,” says Belarde-Lewis, who, during her studies at the iSchool, helped found the Indigenous Information Research Group, a group fighting for social justice for Native populations.

The iSchool faculty job will be a big switch for the museum professional, who has enjoyed a schedule that allows both immersion in the art world and treasured time at home on Suquamish tribal lands with her husband and 10-year-old son. But she is ready. “As a researcher, you go through waves where you intensely collect data, then do the writing, based on data analysis, process, and outcomes,” she says. “What I’ve been doing the last four years is collecting data as I work with artists and museums. I’ve been on a giant data sweep. Now it’s time to write.”

In her Ph.D. work, Belarde-Lewis developed the concept of Indigenous Knowledge Visualization, a way to study how objects reflect the ecological, spiritual, political, and genealogical connections of one particular Native community and how that layered knowledge passes from generation to generation. She wants to share that lens with iSchool students and help them learn about the incredible diversity among the nation’s 560-plus federally recognized tribes, as well as tribes that are not recognized. “It’s one thing to say, Native people do this, but to generalize this way takes away from the beauty and complexity of every individual Native community,” says Belarde-Lewis.

She also wants to develop courses on tribal museums and tribal representation in mainstream museums. “In tribal museums, she says, “Native artists get to be the heroes of their own stories.”

She intends to explore with students proper research protocols for working in Native communities – protocols that respect and protect the intellectual property of sovereign groups whose private information is too often made public with the snap of an iPhone and a posting on Facebook. “People say information science is about the democracy of information. That’s not always the case,” she says. “It’s something Native communities really challenge.”

In her graduate work, she examined how, over hundreds of years, anthropologists, reporters, ethnographers, academics and others came into her Zuni homeland with cameras and notebooks and carried away sacred knowledge, presenting it out of context in their publications and exhibits. “They extracted Native knowledge about ceremonies, art, gender roles, plant medicines, and have used that to advance their own careers,” says Belarde-Lewis. “I want to show students that this extractive research is still an ongoing problem and it’s why Native communities have a really hard time with researchers. There’s an innate distrust.”

It’s a distrust she herself experienced as an undergraduate working at Arizona State Museum. Representatives of various tribal nations had come to the museum one day for a consultation on the 1990 Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law that requires human remains, burial goods, and other sacred objects be returned to descendent tribes upon request, often to be reburied or used in ceremonial practices, as intended.  

As the tribal representatives toured the museum that day – asked to put on gloves before handling artifacts -- one kept saying “You people, you people.” That’s when it hit her. “He was talking about the museum people, and he was saying it to me,” says Belarde-Lewis. “And I realized then that I had crossed over, that I wasn’t seen as a tribal representative but as part of the museum establishment. That was my first realization of how deep the split was. I didn’t like it, didn’t like being placed on the establishment side.”

She has never forgotten that encounter. It helped shape her role as a strong advocate and voice for Native communities. “I have worked really, really hard to maintain the relationships with the tribal folks represented in collections and exhibitions,” she says. “I want them to know they have a trusted ally within the system.”

She’ll carry that role into the university system, where indigenous knowledge is too often disrespected as being less than science, she says. “Part of my goal in being on the iSchool faculty is to create a safe space for indigenous scholars to come to the school and get a certificate or degree or partner with us knowing they are protected and respected.”