Sandy Littletree's new role makes room for research

By Jessi Loerch Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Libraries are a vital part of Indigenous communities, but there’s very little academic research that focuses on those libraries. Sandy Littletree is working to change that.

“A lot of people, when you say ‘libraries,’ get warm, fuzzy feelings about books and story time, and that’s great,” said Littletree, who was recently hired as an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School. “But there are really complex issues of information access for Native communities.”

In her new role, Littletree is excited to have more time to dig deep into her research, which focuses on Indigenous systems of knowledge and how they intersect with library and information science. Before being hired for the tenure-track position, Littletree was a teaching professor at the iSchool, where she also earned her Ph.D.

Tribal libraries are a relatively recent development, and they have not been well researched. Littletree wants to help remedy that.

“There is so much complexity to these issues that don’t often get the opportunity to be investigated or highlighted,” she said.

Littletree, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation (Diné) from her father’s side and Eastern Shoshone from her mother’s side, says it’s important to have researchers working to understand that complexity. Native communities face a variety of issues, including a history of colonization and boarding schools that attempted to take away their knowledge and culture. Each community and sovereign tribal nation will deal with its information needs in a different way, and researchers like Littletree need to understand that complexity.

“Students would just come in with hearts in their eyes and fires in their souls after being in her classes.”

For her dissertation, Littletree studied the history of tribal libraries, looking to understand how those institutions came to be. She didn’t grow up with a tribal library in her community, and she wanted to understand more about their development and their important role. Those libraries have helped preserve and share Indigenous knowledge, as well as offering a place for gathering and cultural and language renewal. She’s continued doing research in that area since.

Among Littletree’s current research is a Mellon Foundation-supported project called “Centering Washington Tribal Libraries: Building Relationships and Understanding Libraries from the Stories of their Communities.” Along with Cindy Aden, iSchool professor of practice, Littletree is working to build relationships and understanding of what is happening at tribal libraries around the state.

Littletree is also working on a second Mellon Foundation-supported project, “Data Services for Indigenous Scholarship and Sovereignty.” Indigenous data has a history of bad management from non-Natives. This project is working to help overcome that by creating a framework that will ensure Indigenous communities and scholars can decide how their data is controlled. 

In addition to her research work, Littletree will be teaching Indigenous Systems of Knowledge and Indigenous Ways of Knowing in the Digital World.

Miranda Belarde-Lewis, an assistant professor of North American Indigenous Knowledge at the iSchool, said Littletree’s teaching skills are among her greatest strengths.

“She comes in with a lot of humility,” Belarde-Lewis said. “She doesn’t assume that folks know a lot. And she doesn’t do that in a patronizing way. And she has a very empathetic teaching philosophy.”

Belarde-Lewis has taught students who had also taken Littletree’s class, and saw how effective and inspiring her teaching was.

“Students would just come in with hearts in their eyes and fires in their souls after being in her classes,” Belarde-Lewis said. “Her ability to inspire our MLIS students was something I got to see.”

The two have co-authored articles, which Belarde-Lewis said was a great experience, in part because Littletree is such an effective communicator.

“As a collaborator, as a professor, as a researcher and as a fellow faculty, she is such an asset to the iSchool,” Belarde-Lewis said. “She would be an asset to any school and we’re so lucky.”

Littletree won’t be teaching again until March. Until then, she’ll be working on her research and other projects and connecting with students.

“Being tenure-track gives me an opportunity to dive into some of these topics and hopefully bring students along with me,” she said. “I’ll have the capacity to recruit Ph.D. students or more MLIS students to work on these projects with me. I would like to see a lot more of that representation in our students. … Indigenous librarianship is a growing area and there aren’t many of us in academia at this level focusing on it. I’m really excited to have this platform and this opportunity to focus on some of these big issues that really need addressing.”