Native Librarian Advises, ‘It’s OK to switch gears’
When you talk with Dr. Sandy Littletree (Navajo Nation) about her background, she admits that she didn’t have a clue when mapping out her education.
“I knew that I wanted to get a Ph.D because I just knew that was the highest educational level you could go,” said the lecturer at the University of Washington Information School, who graduated from U of W in 2018 with a Doctorate in Information Science.
“But I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t even know why I wanted a Ph.D, and I didn’t know what that even meant,” Littletree said. “I also had no role models and I had zero clue. I figured it out along the way.”
Littletree went a long way in figuring it out. Littletree, who grew up in Northwest New Mexico in Kirkland, started off as a communication disorders major at New Mexico State University studying speech language pathology after having a lisp when growing up. After reaching her junior and senior years, she realized that the career involved a Master’s degree, which included the study of medicine, the brain, anatomy and physiology, subjects she really wasn’t interested in. Still, she kept with the program.
After graduating from NMSU, her interests then turned to teaching when she did a year of AmeriCorps back in Farmington, New Mexico, and worked in adult literacy and adult education.
“I really fell in love with literacy and education, and helping people read and getting ready for the GED. Then I thought, ‘Oh, OK, I want to be a teacher or help with education.’ And then I went back to NMSU to focus on literacy or reading specialist,” Littletree said, who received a Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction and went on to obtain a teacher’s license for high school and secondary school to teach language arts.
But the teaching career would be short-lived after federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind, a law that penalized schools and teachers for little improvement, deterred her as an enthusiastic, recent college graduate.
Taking the ‘Long Way Around’
After “kind of stumbling along,” but still supporting herself and being accountable to her family, Littletree learned about and applied for a library science scholarship called Honoring Generations for Native Americans interested in Tribal librarianship from the University of Texas at Austin. Under the direction of Dr. Loriene Roy (Anishinabe), Honoring Generations provided mentorship, tuition support and a small cohort. Part of the program also included travel to other areas of the world, including Canada and New Zealand, that were doing ground-breaking work in Indigenous libraries and prospectives.
Indigenous libraries in these countries were re-looking at classifications and labels from their own culture and worldview. For example, a shield in these libraries may get cataloged or classified as something other than a weapon or utilitarian object such as an item used for healing. The Maori in New Zealand were creating their own thesaurus for their language to help find items faster within the larger, established academic system.
“I didn’t have a lot of experiences in a library growing up – I liked them but I thought that libraries were just about books until I realized that there was so much more to this,” Littletree said of the program that would plant the seed for her Ph.D and studies into Indigenous libraries.
After earning a Master of Science in Information Studies at UT-Austin, Littletree then went to work as an academic librarian at North Carolina State University Libraries in Raleigh through their Fellows Program. Though helping build new collections and instructional tools was something entirely new, she knew something was missing.
“I had awesome mentors and I was learning a lot but I had this feeling deep down that I needed to do something, that I was giving back,” she said.
A new opportunity then presented itself to oversee the University of Arizona’s School of Information’s Knowledge River, a scholarship program for Native and Latino students who want to become librarians. Knowledge River focused on leadership, program development and retention of these librarians of color. It was that moment Littletree realized how much she enjoyed helping to create the next generation of information-keepers.
“I could see myself in some of their struggles – a lot of them were first-generation college students and a lot were dependent on that funding, so I really worked at helping them stay in school, keep that funding and finish,” she said.
Seeing how much a support system aided these graduate students, Littletree sought a Ph.D program that had a similar cohort structure. At the University of Washington, not only were there other Indigenous Ph.D students but Indigenous faculty, which she says was one of the keys to success.
“As an undergrad, I didn’t have a strong cohort but I’ve always been able to figure things out and get by. But I felt as a Ph.D student at this level and academia at this level were so much different than being an undergrad. Having that support from other Indigenous Ph.D students and Indigenous faculty helped in achieving my goals and feeling more comfortable in using the research methods I wanted to use,” she said.
“It also helped in expressing my criticism of these information systems and helped me to understand the problems with these systems but we could work together to try and solve them … Having these other scholars and group of women showed me there were other ways to engage with literature and other ideas in finding ways in making things better for other people.”
She also said having scholarships and American Indian Graduate Center’s funding and support also helped her succeed in school.
“I’m actually debt-free,” Littletree said. “I have three Masters and a Ph.D and it’s all debt-free because of programs like American Indian Graduate Center and my Tribe. I was able to figure out opportunities, all helping me focus on school and my family did not have to worry about it.”
While she jokingly says she’s still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up, she admits trying to figure out what she wanted to do in life was always a challenge. But she wasn’t afraid to investigate her interests, advice she gives to others who also don’t have that educational road map.
“It’s OK to explore and go down to different roads and if it doesn’t feel right, it’s ok OK switch gears,” she said. “Finding the right path is challenging for a lot of us. Keep exploring. Don’t give up.”