Connected \\ August 13, 2019

File Under: Indigenous

Ękwehę̀·we. Anishinaabe. Dine’é. 
The people or real people.


When Christopher Columbus reached the shores of Taíno territory, he mistakenly labelled the people he encountered “Indians” thinking he had reached India. For this reason, Gregory Younging in his style guide Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, calls the term “a misnomer from the start” and the name stuck. Take a look through any library catalog and you will find subject headings like “Indians of North America,” “Indian Art,” or “Indian Captivities” (there is no European equivalent).  The misnomer is used everywhere, in everyday conversation, in federal government documents and of course the Library of Congress Subject Headings. “Indians” carries with it certain stereotypes, not to mention confusion with topics pertaining to India.


Elements of Indigenous Style book


According to the Library of Congress’s website, “[t]he Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is perhaps the most widely adopted subject indexing language in the world, has been translated into many languages, and is used around the world by libraries large and small.” Subject headings link materials by topic to make it possible for researchers to search the library catalog via phrases like “Indians of North America” and “Indian Art.” These subject headings are created and maintained by the Library of Congress which comes with its own inherent bias (white, male, European).


library catalog cards


library files


In recent years, libraries and other cataloging institutions have started to look more critically at the way they catalog. As a Native American Fellow this summer, working with the Phillips Library collection, I was tasked with developing recommendations for evaluating catalog records. Some of the objectives of this summer project were to conduct searches in the library catalog to find instances of bias (there were many) and research how other libraries are working towards addressing these biases within their catalog records.

This provides the initial steps toward reaching the larger goals of the Library:

  • Replacing western-minded terms with terms preferred by Indigenous communities

  • Creating catalog records which reflect topic terms that researchers would actually be searching for

  • Creating catalog records which incorporate topic terms that Indigenous scholars would use

  • Enabling access to library collections for Indigenous people

  • Outlining policies for more culturally sensitive cataloging practices

I’m Skarù·ręʔ or Tuscarora. The Tuscarora Nation is one of the Six Nations that make up the Haudenosaunee (Ho-deno-SHOW-nee) Confederacy. You probably know us better as the “Iroquois,” a French mispronunciation of an Algonquian word meaning “snakes.” Europeans seemed to have a way with taking the words of a nation’s enemies and applying the name to the people they were dealing with in perpetuity. The first week I was at the library, I searched through PhilCat to find anything of interest for my own research. My instinct was to search “Haudenosaunee” -- our word for the Confederacy which means “they build a house.” My search returned five results. From past experience, I knew searching “Haudenosaunee” would yield little. Honestly, I was surprised the search yielded that many results.

librarian at book stacks

Taylor Hummel


Trying to find us in most libraries, you’ll have to search under “Indians of North America” and you’ll probably find books about us under the Library of Congress Classification E -- History of America or F -- Local History of the Americas, like we don’t exist today. I’m clearly a time traveler.

This was an eye-opening experience. To go through the subject headings and find headings such as “Yellow Peril” in the catalog or realize the subject heading “Women” is really about White Women and that my grandmothers and I would be labelled as “Indian women” instead of just “Women” was startling.

This project offers the first steps towards a more inclusive and accessible library. This work is part of a larger movement created by libraries around the world who are beginning to look critically at their catalogs.  The continued use of LCSH limits the accessibility of the collection to a broader audience because it utilizes exclusionary language.

This goes against PEM’s mission to “transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world.” When I search “Haudenosaunee” I want the material currently under the “Iroquois” subject heading to appear in my search. More inclusive subject headings would go a long way towards improving access to materials for a broader range of researchers. The Phillips Library is positioned to make changes as the staff reevaluates cataloging practices and prepares a guidebook for understanding their institutional rules. After all, words hold a tremendous power.

All photos by Sarah Bilotta


To learn more about PEM's Native American Fellowship program and how to apply, please go HERE.

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