ASU’s Firekeepers Initiative Receives Major Funding from Mellon Foundation

In January, Arizona State University (ASU) announced that its Labriola National American Indian Data Center received a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to enable the center to better help Tribal nations that want to establish archival collections. The project is called “Firekeepers: Building Archival Data Sovereignty through Indigenous Memory Keeping.”

Trevor Reed, Alex Soto, and Lorrie McAllister sitting at table
(l.-r.) Firekeepers Co–Principal Investigator Trevor Reed, Associate Professor of Law at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law; Principal Investigator Alex Soto; Co–Principal Investigator Lorrie McAllister
Photo credit: Kyle Knox.

In January, Arizona State University (ASU) announced that its Labriola National American Indian Data Center received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to enable the center to better help Tribal nations that want to establish archival collections. The project is called “Firekeepers: Building Archival Data Sovereignty through Indigenous Memory Keeping.”

Alexander Soto, an enrolled member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, is the center’s director, and through his work he saw the need to develop new methods of archiving for Native nations that would respect and honor the contents of those collections. “We recognized that Indigenous people have certain unique needs when it comes to archiving,” he said. “And the approach that we decided to take was more of a community-based participatory approach, meaning that we listen through the process to identify those needs. That could look like using Indigenous languages for metadata description or inserting protocols in library processes to restrict access, or anything in between.”

It's not just a matter of creating an archive to serve as a repository for Tribal materials and knowledge. Soto pointed to the need for a new approach to intellectual property as well. “We don’t want to perpetuate the older, standard approach traditionally used in archives, where it’s more of a one-way street with a deed of gift that confers all rights to the institution,” he said.

Lorrie McAllister, an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and associate university librarian for collections, services, and analysis at ASU, agreed. “Another reason why it’s important to us to do this project is that it helps us actualize our Indigenous land acknowledgement,” she said. “We want it to be not just an acknowledgement—we want it to be real reparative work that celebrates the Tribal nations [that share geography with] Arizona. We want to change how ASU supports and practices Indigenous knowledge-keeping, how we understand Indigenous knowledge systems and research methodologies, and how we can help move forward contemporary research practice and contemporary library practice that includes Indigenous ways of being and knowing.”

Soto points to archival projects done in the past that end up tucked away out of sight, and one of his goals is to make these past archives, as well as new collections, more visible, both for the Native nations and for non-Native universities to learn best practices when working with tribes to establish archives. That includes teaching the latter how to acknowledge and honor Indigenous ways of knowing.

A missing aspect of ASU’s archival practice, which the grant will provide, is access to an intellectual property attorney. “One of the main areas [of the work] is to build off our community-driven archives initiative started here in 2017 by Nancy Godoy,” said Soto. “Within that process, we want to empower the community with the knowledge that they are the experts [on] their archive.”

One of the challenges facing these types of projects is avoiding what can be perceived as intellectual property theft. In the past, groups that archived Indigenous knowledge maintained ownership of it with no benefit to the nation that provided it, or even assistance offered in collecting it. “The fruits of our labor here is to develop perspective in the space,” Soto said. “It’s not non-Natives with the solution coming in saying, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’”

He pointed out that many archivists today have had some training and education around being culturally sensitive to different types of archives, and are familiar with terminology such as data sovereignty or protocols for Native American archival material. But the Firekeepers project is meant to move these concepts beyond theory into practical application they can use in their everyday work lives.

Besides funding for an intellectual property attorney, the grant also will provide three much-needed library positions, Soto said: “A project archivist, education specialist, and language specialist. In conjunction with the community, each will work with Tribal partners to identify an archival plan that supports their needs and honors their intellectual property and cultural protocols. They will also create a best practices toolkit for non-Tribal institutions who want to work with Tribal communities.”

McAllister added, “That’s the other kind of expertise we need for each Tribal nation we work with, someone who has a deep understanding of Indigenous languages and can work with community members on how to describe materials and develop protocols for access in ways that are respectful and honor Indigenous knowledge.”

As for how this archival collection will be different from other Native archives or museums, Soto pointed to ownership and stewardship as the major distinction. “It’s not for [the university]. It’s for [the Tribal nation],” he said. “Historically, big museums and cultural heritage institutions have gone into Tribal communities and collected Indigenous material for the sake of collecting. Then, when Tribal communities want their material back, they are met with resistance from the library, archival, and museum world. In this grant, we are putting forth a model where the community retains ownership and stewardship in all interactions with the library. They get to determine how it will be shared and establish access restriction protocols for the public sphere.”

He noted that ASU is a public institution with a fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural, and overall health of the communities it serves, including the Indigenous nations. He sees the project as a way to open new conversations and approaches going forward. “This will really have far-reaching impacts for the library profession. Now Tribal communities will see what’s possible through Indigenous librarianship.” The archive will serve tribes from across the United States, as well as several nations in the Arizona region, including the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community, Tohono O’odham Nation, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, San Carlos Apache Tribe, and Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

The grant will also help the current team understand some of the difficulties with current archive pieces that were in place before Soto or McAllister began work at ASU, items that may not have been acquired with Native permission or knowledge. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have books and collections. But now we have a different way to talk about it, a different way that informs all aspects of our library system [and] the web, and in many ways complements what we’re already doing at Labriola,” Soto said. “But now we have resources, some capacity to really build it out.” He sees the Firekeepers project as just the beginning. “This will probably be the rest of my life’s work, to fine tune it more and more in the Southwest. But this grant gives us foundational capacity, really providing a framework to build on what we’ve already done. Because every tribe is different. I think the key part is participatory, or listening, because it’s going to look different in every community.”

McAllister noted, “I’m just glad to let people know that there are institutions of higher education working with Indigenous communities that aim to have reciprocal relationships and have this kind of reparative archival approach.”



Christina Andrews, an enrolled member of the Hia-Ced O'odham (Sand People) tribe who works for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, has a personal stake in the project. She remembers her grandmother, Fillman Childs Bell, interviewing Tribal elders on tape about what happened when Tribal lands were taken from the Indigenous people to become national parks. As a child, Andrews accompanied Bell and remembers her grandmother using a typewriter to transcribe the tapes.

“I remember asking my grandma when I was little, ‘What are you doing? Why are you always on your typewriter with these recordings?’” Andrews said. “She said, ‘I’m trying to do this for you. Because I don’t want us to die out.’” The cassette tapes were passed down through the family after her grandmother’s death, and Andrews wanted to preserve them. That’s when she met Soto.

“He explained that because they were old and had wear and tear, he would advise digitizing them,” she said. “I thought that would be great. So we wrote a grant proposal and got a $10,000 grant to pay someone to take these tapes and digitize them. And it was beautiful, because I finally got to hear my grandmother’s voice, which I hadn’t heard for decades.”

Andrews and Soto had discussions about the ongoing preservation not just of her grandmother’s tapes, but other recordings and artifacts from elders of decades earlier. Soto introduced the idea of an online archive that would allow future generations to benefit from her grandmother’s work, but without of assigning the ownership or sovereignty of those archives to outside groups.

Andrews began to see the possibilities the archive offered beyond the preservation of priceless history. “I’m thinking bigger than this,” she said. “Because I have a background in medicine, I’m thinking, why can’t we do this with public health? Why can’t we do research and data? I’m thinking this could touch Native Americans because the tribes have the ability to decide what’s preserved for us. What do we think is important? What do we want to share with other people? What kind of data do we want to share with others? What do we want to remain with ourselves because of our ancestry or things that are sacred to us?” Sovereignty means the archives still belong to the Indigenous communities, and they can decide who will or won’t have access to them.

“It all goes back to my grandmother,” Andrews said. “She made a difference. Think about it. She didn’t know what she was doing with the little cassette tapes and writing things on her little typewriter, didn’t know back in the 1970s that it would make such a great difference not only for us, but for Indian Country.”

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