Sustaining and Advancing Indigenous Cultures at the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums

Posted by Mr. John W. Haworth, Nov 19, 2021 0 comments

Previously on ARTSblog, I have written about the programs and services that Native American arts service organizations provide on a national level to their core Indigenous constituencies while also serving broader audiences beyond tribal communities. In this blog, with a primary focus on the work of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM), I want to explore more broadly how getting to know the work of an international organization like this can have significance to the local arts agencies field. 

ATALM is a nonprofit organization that maintains a network of support for Indigenous programs, provides culturally relevant programming and services, encourages collaboration among tribal and non-tribal cultural institutions, and articulates contemporary issues related to developing and sustaining the cultural sovereignty of Native Nations. Over the last several years, Americans for the Arts staff and board members have been featured speakers and panelists at ATALM national conferences about arts advocacy, public art, and the social impact of the arts. Americans for the Arts also distributed economic research and other published reports at these conferences. 

Serving on ATALM’s Advisory Council and National Planning Council has given me opportunities to gain experience about key Native cultural issues. Seeing their work up close has given me a far deeper understanding of the nitty-gritty operational issues that tribal organizations face on a day-to-day basis. ATALM conferences and programs serve as a forum for discussing the broader contemporary issues of Native American communities, cultural professionals, and artists.

Arts Service and Membership Organizations

Mainstream cultural organizations including museums and performing arts organizations benefit from established arts service organizations that provide training and networking opportunities. Organizations like the Alliance of American Museums and Association of Performing Arts Presenters are important players in our cultural landscape, and certainly, Americans for the Arts is an advocate on behalf of the entire cultural sector. Over the last couple of years especially, the major national arts service and membership organizations have given greater attention to engaging diverse communities more effectively. Building meaningful dynamic and collaborative relationships with community-based partners informs programming and audience building work. Working effectively with organizations serving diverse communities has become an ever-higher priority for state, regional, and local arts agencies throughout the country. Addressing cultural equity in tangible and effective ways is critically important for all of us, including how arts organizations recruit staff and identify board candidates. 

Arts service and membership organizations serving culturally specific constituencies, however, have not received the level of attention and recognition that aligns with their contributions to the cultural sector. With a heightened awareness in our society about these issues during this time of major social and political change, the work of organizations like ATALM takes on even greater significance. Foundations and other donors are giving more focused attention to and support for equity and diversity efforts, and while most cultural organizations recognize the importance of this work, the challenges of achieving tangible and meaningful results are enormous. Becoming more familiar with the work of ATALM (and likewise with similar organizations serving diverse organizations) gives professionals working in local arts agencies both a better understanding of key issues, as well as connections to colleagues in the Native cultural field, to help them address these crucial matters.

ATALM’s History: Sustaining and Advancing Indigenous Cultures

In its brief history since being incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2010, ATALM has become a highly respected arts service organization serving the growing field of Indigenous cultural organizations. ATALM has played a significant leadership role supporting libraries, museums, and cultural centers based mostly in tribal communities, and through this work has strengthened the professional network among both tribal and other cultural institutions. At its core, ATALM’s work is deeply informed by collaborations with tribal cultural leaders and specialists.

In late winter and spring 2021, with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ATALM launched a strategic planning initiative to develop a unified approach to strengthening Indigenous cultural institutions. A National Planning Council takes a leadership role in ATALM’s strategic planning work which is informed by virtual Summits, Public Hearings, and National Needs Assessment Surveys. The Summits included sessions for tribal libraries, archives, and museums and cultural centers, and facilitated discussions for Native artists. Given the extensive work that local arts agencies (especially arts agencies based in major cities) have done developing Cultural Plans over the years, there are parallels in how this work is implemented. 

With funding provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, ATALM also organized a specialized workshop on “digital inclusion” which focused on ensuring that core constituencies (individuals and organizations) have greater access to communication technologies that give tribal communities robust broadband services, internet-enabled technology, access to digital literacy training, and a high level of quality support services that “enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration.” Many tribal organizations aspire to use technology more creatively for language and cultural preservation. 

The field of Native American community-based cultural institutions has expanded significantly since the 1970s when there were but a handful of organizations. Today, there are hundreds of tribal museums and cultural centers throughout North America, from major institutions like Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Museum and Research Center in Connecticut and the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Colorado to community-based cultural organizations like the Caddo Heritage Museum in Oklahoma and the Museum of Casa Grande in Arizona. ATALM has taken a significant leadership role through organizing hands-on workshops and providing technical assistance to strengthen the professional capacities of this field. Key topics include training related to collection care and documentation, digitizing photographs, audience building and tourism development, protecting cultural heritage and cultural materials, and managing repatriation efforts. 

The first National Conference of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museum was held in 2002 in Mesa, Arizona. Subsequent conferences and workshops were in Phoenix in 2005 (sponsored by Arizona State Museum and Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records) and in Oklahoma City and Portland, Oregon in the following years. The IMLS granted federal funding to support these early efforts.

“There will be many challenges to cultural survival and tribal sovereignty this century. It is through gatherings such as [the ATALM conference] that we face these challenges and renew our spirits.” —Walter Echo-Hawk

A seated person with two long light-colored braids, wearing glasses, a blue sweater, and jeans.
Author, attorney, and ATALM Board Chair Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee)

Doris Duke Oral History Collection Revitalization Project

Native cultural organizations and artists care deeply about preserving their cultural heritages and revitalizing their cultures and languages. From 1966 to 1975, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation provided funding to seven universities throughout the country to collect 6,500 oral histories from indigenous people in the United States. In recognition of the extraordinary value of these collections, the Foundation appointed ATALM to serve as the National Coordinator to work with the universities and Native communities to improve access to the Collections. Given the importance of moving this work forward in culturally appropriate ways, ATALM is the ideal partner for working effectively in partnership with Native communities. Providing the originating communities with copies of all materials collections and actively promoting and encouraging the use of the Collections is a priority. Ensuring the proper care, including conservation and appropriate documentation and storage of the materials in appropriate facilities, is critically important.

In fact, facilitating organizational capacity for Native organizations is a priority for ATALM; the organization takes a leadership role in advocating and providing tools for tribal communities to house locally their historical photographs, literature, songs, stories, and language recordings, their treaty documents, legal histories, historical data, and ethnographies. Through its initiative-taking and informed collaborative work with Native communities, ATALM understands that all of this is a critical body of knowledge. Oral traditions and traditional art and artifacts need to be preserved and made readily accessible, housed in appropriate facilities, and managed by professional trained staff. For Native communities, ensuring the cultural survival of tribal peoples is at the heart of this work and connects to the broader public discourse related to environmental, educational, and cultural policies. 

Cover of a conference program book featuring a painting of a wolf's face created with dynamic brushstrokes in reds and yellows.
The program book for the 2019 ATALM conference featured multiple artworks by Bill Soza Warsoldier (Soboba Band of Southern California). His iconic wolves were chosen for the book in alignment with the theme of “Cultural Survival in the 21st Century.”

For local arts agencies, knowing about challenges that tribal communities face can inform and strengthen the work—not only with the Native cultural community, but with other cultural organizations and artists. For example, there are opportunities for rethinking funding priorities and even how grant guidelines are written and distributed. Arts funders currently are focused on finding more effective ways to respond to diversity, workforce development, and related governance and policy issues, and yet more attention can be given to these concerns. ATALM has been exemplary in helping Native cultural organizations in addressing collection stewardship, strengthening cultural preservation programs, and, of course, incorporating an Indigenous perspective into all their programs and services. These are good practices for cultural funders at the local, state, and regional levels. 

President and CEO Susan Feller brings inspiring leadership to the table, and with a small core staff of only three people, the results of the work are tangible and extensive. ATALM manages major national projects, partners with national foundations and tribal leaders, manages substantive federal contracts, schedules peer review panels and advisory council meetings that inform the work, and organizes a major annual conference with rich content, workshops, tours of local cultural facilities, and training programs. ATALM serves a huge Native American constituency including hundreds of professionals, tribal leaders, and students who attend their programs. The Ford Foundation has recently confirmed its support on a multi-year basis to support ATALM’s work with local Native arts agencies.

The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums strives for excellence in everything they do as an inclusive organization supporting the work that advances the Native cultural field. Their excellent work is instructive for the entire cultural sector. 

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