Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, Maryland State Library Launch Guide to Indigenous Maryland

On June 7 the Maryland State Library Agency (MSLA) and Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS) announced the beta launch of the Guide to Indigenous Maryland, a mobile app (for iOS and Android) and website that enable Marylanders—and users worldwide—to learn about the history of local Native and Indigenous people (PGCMLS's preferred wording uses both terms) and how their heritage continues to influence contemporary life in the state. The free educational resource combines 21 curated sites featuring information on Native American and Indigenous geography and heritage, local history, and present-day life in Maryland.

screen shot of Indigenous Maryland app showing mural of Indigenous, credits,On June 7 the Maryland State Library Agency (MSLA) and Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS) announced the beta launch of the Guide to Indigenous Maryland, a mobile app (for iOS and Android) and website that enable Marylanders—and users worldwide—to learn about the history of local Native and Indigenous people (PGCMLS's preferred wording uses both terms) and how their heritage continues to influence contemporary life in the state. The free educational resource combines 21 curated sites featuring information on Native American and Indigenous geography and heritage, local history, and present-day life in Maryland.

The guide is not a comprehensive resource, but rather samples historical sites and markers, culturally significant natural landmarks, and artistic works honoring local heritage, to encourage further exploration and interaction. The curated selection of resources offer representation of the state’s tribal nations, plus a mix of historical sites offering interpretations of Indigenous history, contemporary life, and culture. In addition to connecting past and present cultural influences, featured sites note Indigenous tribes’ relationships with slavery, state and U.S. governments, and the Catholic Church.

Featured sites, accompanied by a map, range from the Bald Friar Ford Petroglyphs in Harford County to Piscataway Park in Prince George’s County to the Askiminokonson Indian Town in Worcester County. Tribal communities represented include the Piscataway, Pocomoke, Moyaone, Nanticoke, Chicone, Haudenosaunee, Lenni Lenape, Susquehannock, Lumbee, and others, as many groups existed in flux and either allied or relocated. 

“The general public in our community and more broadly, throughout the state, all need to do better in terms of being aware of this history, and respecting the fact that it is still part of everyday life in our communities,” said Project Director Nicholas Brown, PGCMLS chief operating officer for communication and outreach and, as of August 1, acting co-CEO. “You cannot go to the Accokeek Branch, which is named after an Indigenous community, and not be aware of the fact that we are on Indigenous land, and that we are referencing Accokeek with our name. And that’s just one tiny example.”

The project curator, Dr. Elizabeth Rule, has developed and launched similar guides to Washington, DC, and Baltimore. Rule, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is an assistant professor of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies at American University, Washington, DC; her first Indigenous lands project, the Guide to Indigenous DC was inspired by her work bringing American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian students from across the country to Washington.

“While they were here, I became aware that they didn’t know much about the Indigenous presence in this place and in this space,” Rule told LJ . “So I set out to make a tool that would primarily serve them, and make them feel more comfortable”—including showing them how people had come to Washington from their home communities to advocate for tribal issues. The Guide to Indigenous DC, launched in July 2019, is available to the general public, and its success led Rule to create a Guide to Indigenous Baltimore in November 2021.

“One of the things I’m looking for is making sure that this conversation on Native communities—in this case, Indigenous Maryland—is not only about history, anthropology, or archeology,” said Rule. “I want to talk about us as contemporary modern people. I also want to showcase things like Indigenous art, and Indigenous organizing and activism, really pushing up against some of those disciplinary silos that oftentimes can create public misconceptions about who we are as Native people, and even contribute to our erasure at times.” She is currently working on an oral history component to the Guide to Indigenous DC, collecting community voices and stories from those who have personal and specialized knowledge of the sites included on the map.

Maryland Libraries Together, a statewide library collaborative that focuses on cross-cultural programming (read about Brown’s 2021 LJ Marketer of the Year Award for more about the group’s origins), hosted a virtual presentation on June 20, Examining and Interpreting Native American and Indigenous Heritage,” in honor of the Indigenous Maryland project launch. Rule moderated a panel of Indigenous historians, scholars, and leaders to discuss how to respectfully engage with history to promote greater awareness of Indigenous heritage in the United States.

 

CROWDSOURCING CONTENT

Brown first connected with Rule in November 2020 when she and Rico Newman, State Commissioner at Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, presented at PGCMLS during Indigenous Heritage Month. At the time, Rule was promoting the Guide to Indigenous DC, and Brown, who had been thinking about the need for libraries in the state to expand their programming and outreach for Indigenous communities, proposed that they collaborate on a similar project focusing on Maryland. Brown also floated the idea to the Maryland Libraries Together Task Force. Together with MSLA, the partners secured a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).

“From the very first time we pitched the idea to the task force in the state, people were really jazzed. This is a cultural heritage program and outreach area where we all know that we need to do a lot better,” said Brown. “We don’t necessarily realize what the tools are for addressing this inequity in our programming. And we viewed this as one tool that public libraries and other types of organizations can use to start to motivate more content.”

Although Rule had two similar projects under her belt, the Guide to Indigenous Maryland was the first to incorporate a crowdsourced component. The decision to open site submissions to the public was driven largely by the awareness that Maryland library staff did not have strong Indigenous representation. “We just don’t have the in-house expertise in this like we do in other content areas,” Brown said. Crowdsourcing would not only attract suggestions for a range of content, he added, but would also begin to create word-of-mouth buzz about the project outside the libraries’ usual outreach channels.

The team issued the request for submissions in fall 2021, ultimately extending the deadline into early 2022. The open call went out through library listservs, state Indigenous cultural heritage organizations, and tribal nations leadership as well as targeted paid advertising. Library workers throughout the state were also encouraged to contribute.

The crowdsourced model brought in contributions from community organizations from across Maryland, said Brown, including a number that had not been on the team’s radar beforehand. “We ended up hearing from a lot of different groups in the state who are doing projects that are aligned with this,” Brown told LJ. “For example, the State Arts Council, at the same time, was developing [its] land acknowledgments project. It’s a really robust resource that [offers] a historical overview of all the tribal nations that have been present in Maryland” up to the present, including useful language people can use in their own work to acknowledge Indigenous communities.

At the same time, the project team formed a task force made up of organizations that included representatives from tribal nations, Maryland State Archives, Maryland State Arts Council, archaeological organizations, historical societies, local universities, and libraries across the state. Task force members helped vet submitted sites and weighed in on any gaps they noticed.

 

CURATED, NOT COMPREHENSIVE

screen shot of Port Tobacco tour with site description, hand drawn mapOf the more than 125 sites submitted for consideration, Rule and the task force chose 21, with additional listings on the website; resources recommended by representatives of local tribal organizations were given priority. “We wanted to make it so that users wouldn’t feel overwhelmed,” noted Rule, “so that they had a very accessible and easy-to-use tool.”

Involving the community involved added an extra layer of authority control to the process, noted Brown. “We had, for example, a submission that came in from the public around one site where the nomenclature that was being used was not the appropriate nomenclature per the current tribal nation,” he told LJ. “The representative of the tribal nation was able to identify, for the task force and Dr. Rule, ‘This submission is great in concept, but if you were to [use] the naming that they’ve included, you’ve turned this into an offensive representation.’ He was able to give guidance on how to respectfully engage with that content.”

Maryland has more than 20 counties, and 24 public library systems. Rather than attempting to represent every county or jurisdiction, the task force decided to move away from contemporary governmental boundaries, which are not representative of tribal boundaries. “We were trying to find a balance point between this being a statewide project and all the public library systems needing to be engaged,” said Brown. “The way that we were able to do the shorter list of sites is that there’s reference to the geographic profile of the tribes in the site, so that every county and library system is reflected in some capacity in the sites that were selected.”

One issue the team discussed often, and that was highlighted in the panel discussion, was about who has the right to tell Indigenous stories. Maryland library staff are predominantly white, “so for an institution like ours, or any cultural heritage institution, what is our role in that—how do we engage in celebrating and honoring these cultures in a way that respects that it’s not our story to tell?” Brown pointed out. It’s a consideration, and a filter, that they applied to the project throughout.

“We are responsible for serving all residents of the state, and we are responsible for supporting the Indigenous and Native communities to make sure that other people have empathy and compassion and respect for their traditions,” he said. “We’re trying to facilitate access to this information in a way that is respectful to the people who the stories belong to. That topic weighs on everyone that was involved in this.” Among other considerations, the only people compensated for time spent specifically on the project were the Indigenous participants—Rule; project artist Troi Madison Newman, a Black and Indigenous artist and enrolled citizen of the Piscataway Nation; and the panelists.

Rule is not a member of a Maryland tribal nation—a concern that Brown took into account when assembling the task force. Her affiliation is “a very complex piece, but we knew going into it that we were not going to be perfect,” he said. “But we needed to at least take first steps with this type of work, because if we don’t, there’s not going to be better representation.”

Viewers have been logging in and downloading the app throughout Maryland, across the country, and even outside of the United States, with 712 downloads in the app’s first six weeks of release. Many use it in a linear fashion, as a virtual tour. But “we also have many folks who go in and are able to pick from any of the sites to learn more, to read more, to view the photo albums,” said Rule. “That was intentional to have multifunctionality, a way to access it if you’re local on the ground, a way to access it if you’re interested in viewing a handful of the sites, and then a way to access it if you are across the world, but are interested in the subject.”

Going forward, PGCMLS will maintain the website and cover the yearly costs of the app. While the website will expand on a more frequent basis, said Brown, the app likely be updated once a year. Community members are welcome to share feedback on the Guide at IndigenousMD.info.

Rule would expand on the model of guides to Indigenous lands “for everyone, for every city, state, tribe, even things like organizations or university campuses, that want one. I have a vision for moving across the country, perhaps internationally.”

Brown also hopes that the project will serve as a jumping-off point for other communities. “This is not intended as the solution to a lack of Native and Indigenous programming in libraries,” Brown added. “It’s a tool that is intended to excite more engagement with these topics, and also provides a base level amount of content that any public library can use to generate some of their own programming.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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