Institute of museum and library services: Preserving Tribal Cultures Across the United States

December 15, 2021

Dehrich Chya speaking into microphone during a podcast. 
Three people sitting at a table
Top: Dehrich Chya records podcasts for the Alutiiq Word of the Week. Bottom: Alutiiq speakers Katheryn Chichenoff, Nick Alokli, and Sally Carlough watch a presentation and discuss Alutiiq words at an Elders’ Session. Photos courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum.

Traditions and language are the basis of culture around the world. In the more than 100 years since the first American Indian Day was declared by the governor of New York, preservation of native languages and cultures has become a priority for Tribal and Native American libraries and museums.

In an interview with Indian Country Today, Christie Chambless, who has been leading the Skokomish Language Program since 2018, says, “Culture and language are so intertwined. I think the biggest thing is that feeling of wholeness, of being able to pray and mourn and celebrate in our language.”

Throughout the years, the Institute of Museum and Library Services has supported these endeavors through federal funding, including Native American/Native Hawaiian Museum Services grants.

To revive and preserve unique languages, some Tribal museums have developed games, books, recorded native speakers, and found creative ways to keep their traditions alive.

For example, Koniag, Inc. used IMLS funding in partnership with the Alutiiq Museum to enhance and preserve 22 seasons of the Alutiiq Word of the Week programs and complete 52 new lessons. Airing weekly on public radio, each broadcast features an elder saying a word and sentence in Alutiiq followed by a short cultural lesson. Alutiiq museum staff will record audio, write text, and create graphics to accompany these new lessons, and provide missing graphic and audio components to older lessons produced before the program became fully digital. The museum will assemble a complete program archive available through their website to provide broad public access.

The Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma received an IMLS grant to enhance learning of the Ponca language and culture by developing an app to capture recordings of 500 words or phrases along with 10 songs from the few remaining elders who speak its endangered language. The app will include historical and current photographs of Ponca people as well as a video, games, and quizzes to appeal to both children and adults. The app will be available for free download to all 3,925 Tribal members no matter where they live, and at a low cost for the public. The recordings will also be easily accessible for listening in the Tribal library.

The Skokomish Tribe in Washington State will use IMLS grant funds to document and preserve their Native language, Tuwaduq, before it becomes extinct. The Skokomish Language Program is working with consultants to scan and digitize paper documents and compile words and phrases into an accessible digital database. The project team will then create language books to learn the foundation of the Tuwaduq language with word lists, pictures, phrases, or stories that have historically documented audio, which will all be available free to all tribal members.

Screenshot of social media post
Waimea Valley's social media outreach includes Hawaiian cultural and botanical posts along with promotional content. Our IMLS project seeks to increase audience engagement and staff contributions. Photo courtesy of Hi'ipaka LLC.

Other museums have been collecting photos, artifacts, and histories from Tribal elders to supplement current collections.

The Native Village of Eyak’s Ilanka Cultural Center (ICC) is using federal funding from IMLS to purchase supplies and equipment to create a digital collection documenting its history and traditions. The project team will meet with tribal elders and their families to acquire historical photos, which will be scanned and documented with related information. Acquiring the digitizing equipment and providing training for the staff will allow the cultural department to access more historical photographs from tribal members in future years.

Hi‘ipaka, LLC is using an IMLS grant to enhance its efforts to sustain Hawaiian heritage, culture, and community knowledge by building the capacity of staff to adopt best practices and innovations to better care for and interpret the collections of Waimea Valley. Their collections include Hawaiian cultural sites, Native Hawaiian plant collections, and Native Hawaiian cultural artifacts. A longer-term project goal is to improve the wellbeing of the surrounding community by serving as a trusted space for community dialogue and the care and interpretation of Hawaiian culture.

The important work these organizations are doing will help provide their communities’ access to rich traditions, histories, and Tribal languages for generations to come.

ProgramsNative American/Native Hawaiian Museum Services