Academic Movers Q&A: Rhiannon Sorell on Sparking Conversations Among Indigenous Communities and Cultural Institutions

Rhiannon Sorrell, assistant professor and instruction and digital services librarian at the Kinyaa’áanii Charlie Benally Library at Diné College in Arizona, was named a 2023 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for her work preserving and digitizing Native films and storyteller narration. We recently spoke with Rhiannon to find out more about what she’s working on.

Rhiannon Sorrell head shotRhiannon Sorrell, assistant professor and instruction and digital services librarian at the Kinyaa’áanii Charlie Benally Library at Diné College in Arizona, was named a 2023 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for her work preserving and digitizing Native films and storyteller narration. We recently spoke with Rhiannon to find out more about what she’s working on.

LJ: Your Movers & Shakers profile talked about the work you’ve done with the “Tribesourcing Southwest Film: Digital Repatriation” and “Digitizing the Moving Images of the Colorado Plateau and the American Southwest” projects. Are you still work on those?

Rhiannon Sorrell: We’re still working on them. For Tribesourcing, we had to pause a bit during the pandemic because the virus hit tribal communities particularly hard. But we’re slowly starting to come out of it and finally starting to move forward with many of the recordings and outreach that we had on pause. We’ve been partnering with the Cline Library to talk about where we’re going to put Tribesourcing. So the ongoing work is continuing the recordings and then expanding our partnership.

For the second project, we’re expanding to work with Northern Arizona University, as they have their Seven Generations Initiative. Northern Arizona University came over to Diné College and started the transfer of the films for digitization. We found a lot of interesting stuff, including some of the old college footage from back when the College was established. We’re working on metadata terms and the nuts and bolts of digitization, cataloging descriptions, that sort of thing.

What else are you doing?

I’m also working on the Mellon Fellowship for Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Heritage’s Rare Books School. Part of the fellowship is to do a public-facing symposium. It was up to us how we wanted to approach it. I wanted to highlight the special collection we have here at the Kinyaa’áanii Library, mainly because of lot of special collections items usually end up off tribal lands in big state museums or a state school, university archives, and museums. But we still have quite a few things here at the campus library that I want to highlight to the people who still work and produce scholarship here.

I put together one of the first credit-bearing information literacy courses here at Diné College. It’s the first time we’ve done that. We’re now in our second semester. The first iteration was online, the second iteration was in person, and it was pretty successful. We had a full class. We were actually requested to expand the cap, so we’re working closely with our Arts Humanities Department to expand it to all the research across the curriculum.

That’s a lot! Are there other projects you’re looking at in the future?

I have one more that’s still in the works. Last year, the Kinyaa’áanii Library did a joint project with the University of Arizona and the University of Kent [UK] on Indigenous knowledge, a transatlantic pilot project. We did get follow-on funding for that because we really need to work on expanding that conversation. During the first one, we found that working with huge institutions is not very feasible because some of those institutions are just so huge, and a lot of tribal communities are very small. A lot of times there were things that made sense to us as tribal librarians, who are in the field—things like the protocols for Native American archival materials. Often, in institutions overseas, they’re not aware of those protocols or even how to build relationships with tribal communities. The second iteration of the project is to put smaller UK institutions that have tribal materials in direct conversation with the smaller cultural heritage institutions, specifically tribal museums and communities. The most relevant focus is on relationship building. In terms of being able to have more reciprocal exchanges, it’s more possible on a smaller scale as opposed to working with those huge institutions.

What outcomes are you looking for in this type of international project?

There’s a lot of talk around repatriation, and that’s also the goal. But in a lot of institutions, and not just the UK but European holding institutions, they don’t even know what they have. I’ve been to institutions where they’ve had Southwest materials on display, and the description is super general and may not be things that are extremely rare. There are certain ceremonial objects that should be given back. Then there are things that are a bit more contemporary, but the descriptions are so wrong. It comes down to these institutions not knowing what they have, but along with that, they still don’t know how to start those conversations with tribal communities in a respectful and reciprocal way. A lot of it is lost in translation, and we’re all speaking the same language.

We have some upcoming workshops where we’re going to put people in contact with the ideas to have a conversation. We found that it doesn’t help to have just one person take up the entire time lecturing people, rather someone start a conversation and take a talking stick type of approach where everyone can contribute. The first one is focusing on relationship building and Indigenous research ethics. The second one is on studying the protocols for Native American archiving materials. Then we’re going to have one on Indigenous data sovereignty.

Any advice for someone that’s not a member of the Indigenous community, but works in one of these large institutions and is interested in becoming involved in this learning and these conversations?

I’d say definitely join the communities, like the American Indian Library Association. Join the conversation, join the listeners—it really helps. I always say, “Stop and listen for a while,” because a lot of times their questions have already been answered. Look through the resources that have already been offered through those institutions. The Indigenous communities are usually very helpful. For example, the biggest conversations we have are usually around representation in literature, usually brought up by non-Indigenous librarians who want to do right by the Indigenous authors and are looking for advice. They come into the forums, the listservs, and ask their questions. But it’s really helpful to get involved first, take an interest. Ask questions when you’ve been sitting and listening for a while.

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