Allison Waukau

Steve Thomas: Allison, welcome to the show.

Allison Waukau: Thank you for having me. This is quite fun.

Steve Thomas: Can you tell listeners a little about yourself including your experience with libraries as you were growing up?

Allison Waukau: Oh sure. Allison Waukau. I’m Menominee and Navajo. My clans are Ta’néészahnii and Awaehsaeh. I always like to say my parents’ names, Mary Alice Tsosie and Lawrence Waukau, and I’m here in the Twin Cities. Growing up, actually my mother is a librarian. She’s an academic librarian, and she was at the University of New Mexico for quite some time, actually in outreach. How funny is this? So I’m not sure where I picked it up from…

Steve Thomas: Nice parallels there.

Allison Waukau: So actually, she had me volunteer, I grew up in Wisconsin and volunteered in shelving books in middle school and I absolutely hated it. I thought it was so boring. I was just like, I’m not going to go into libraries. You know? So my whole intent through my education was law school. I always thought I was going to go to law school and come to find out, fate had a different direction for me.

I was a liaison for two different public school systems and I was a recruiter for my tribal college on my reservation, Menominee reservation and ended up moving into the Twin Cities about eight years ago and worked here in the public schools, and then my mom was here. She moved here from Albuquerque and I just remember the job posting coming through for this job. And she said, “You have to go for it. It’s outreach. It’s perfect. It’s right up your alley.” And at the time the job posting was concentrated on making library cards for folks in the Native community to increase them coming into the library, so I thought, oh, that sounds fun. I’ll try. We’ll see what happens. And I ended up getting it and yeah, I guess what do they say. That’s the story. Yeah.

So when I first started at the library, I realized that the library wasn’t necessarily suited for the Native community to come in, and so we did a few things. We created a Native staff library team. I think there’s about seven of us out of like 600, so a low percentage, but there is some here. We started the staff team, we started a county-wide employee resource group, and then we just did some things internally first and then I did tabling and really started working with community partners. Some were already working with my library and then also creating new ones. So, it’s been a fun ride so far.

Steve Thomas: Internally, what issues do you think the library was seeing in itself that it felt the need to have this position in the first place?

Allison Waukau: Well, I had a librarian say to me that there were no Natives coming into her library, and I was sitting in the meeting and I was just like, there has to be. There’s 10,000 Natives in Hennepin County, and that’s probably a really low ball number, right? That’s who filled out the census. So 10,000 in my county, and then within the Twin Cities, there’s about 35,000 and that’s like a really dated number. So I’m sure there’s plenty more. And I was like, there has to be, right?

And I think, though, really battling those stereotypes, like we all don’t look alike. Like even if you look at between me and my sisters, my mom, my dad, my son. I mean sure. You can tell we’re a family, but a lot of people mistaken me for being Latino. They’ll come up and speak Spanish to me and so I was like, I don’t believe that’s true. And so I really wanted to do, oh, what do they call it? Professional development, really start educating folks on what the community is and looks like. And that’s what’s important to me too, like, especially with Native representation in books now, is even showing us in different colors. We’re a variety and so we have short hair, we have long hair, we have braids, no braids, and so it’s really important. I really liked, there was one by Diane Wilson illustrated by Tashia Hart. And, it’s a middle school, mid grade book, and, just liking how she did that variation in skin color.

And so just really letting staff know that we are still here and doing those sort of educating, we did like lunch and learns and those sorts of things. My. Position has shifted to be more county-wide. So now I’m working on some educational lessons for the county and some online lessons for folks to do on their own, but really learn about boarding schools, the tribes of Minnesota, I think it’s really important for library staff to know what tribes are in their state. And then also we’re going to be doing, like calling them hot topics, but like Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Line 3. So different things that are happening here, and then also about sovereignty. I think that’s really important. I think this is one thing that I see a lot is that we are looked at as simply a community a lot of times. And we are so much more than that. We are tribal nations where it’s like a state to state relationship. So really having to acknowledge that difference. Yes, we’re a community. Yes, we’re tribal people, but there is some level of difference that lies between us and other communities.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I mean, it’s like saying all Natives are the same and all Europeans are the same. It’s like, no, France is much different than Spain is much different than, I mean, it’s like, but there is a unifying part of that as well. Up in Minnesota, is there a large population, just percentage-wise of Natives?

Allison Waukau: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s been a priority in my life to live somewhere where you see your people, and so living in Albuquerque, living here, I lived in LA for a little time, but just really having that core folks. But yeah, we do have, we have the American Indian Center here. We have Native clinics. So it really is a strong Native population here in the Cities.

Steve Thomas: The library profession in general has a pretty big diversity problem, not just with Native, but it’s 88% white, and I looked up before we came on here, it’s about less than 2% Native and less than 5% African-Americans, I mean, it’s not good on any non white area there, but what are some ways that libraries can not only hire, but also retain Native staff?

Allison Waukau: I saw my mom struggle with it, it’s really hard. Having the Native staff team, having the ability to get together and have a safe space to conversate about our experiences. And then I think it’s also really important to have good leadership people that you can trust that can guide you. It is a very white system, right? Libraries were created for white people, rich white people. And like, I know I’ve said this before, but we say that they’re for everybody. And I could tell you right now, they’re truly not yet… yet, but I think we can get there. I may not see it in my time, but I think there’s some movement.

So recruiting Native staff, I really feel that there are a lot of barriers. Like, one thing that I learned when starting here, “Oh, we have Associate Librarian open. We have this!” And no one was posting it in the Native community, online or in buildings, but then I would encourage people to apply and I was like, what’s going on? And apparently, when you go into the online application, you have to select all 41 libraries in order to move on to the next level. Right? So like, it asks you what libraries are you interested in? If you don’t select all of them, then you don’t move on, but that is knowledge that has to be shared from one person to the next. That’s privileged information. And I didn’t have that, I didn’t know that, and honest to God, if my job was not for a Native person specifically, I would not have him made it through the application process because I would have only selected libraries near me. Why are you even asking the question? Why aren’t you just saying you have to have the ability to work at all 41 branches? It just is a barrier. It’s no longer that way, but it was that way for a really long time. And so it’s looking at what the application process is and you have to be committed to, okay, there’s five jobs, one of them will be Native, and making that commitment to yourself, your patrons, your county, your residents, everybody. And then retention, I think there’s things that are deemed common sense, right? “Oh, it’s common sense that you would do that.” Really? But is it? It’s common sense for white society possibly.

And so, I felt like quitting, I would say the first couple months of me working here, I was really isolated. I was shown my desk and said “good luck!” and I was like, okay, what am I doing here? And obviously I’m in community outreach. I am a people person and I really liked talking to people and I was just like, okay, what am I doing here? And so I think the first, like one or two months, you really need to talk to them and any person typically takes a long time to warm up or trust somebody. So I didn’t really talk to anybody about my experiences until three months in. Like I’m not going to say, “Oh, I don’t know if this is right for me!”, but like, why would you say that after a job you just applied for, right? No one’s going to do that. So it’s really taking the time to get to know somebody, have coffee with somebody. And so retention is really important and having just the safe space and then having mentors that you can really look up to, ones that you can trust, and sometimes it takes time to find those. It took me, I would say a good solid year to find some people within Hennepin County that I admire and trust and look for guidance because I don’t have the inside library information. I have the community information, so I think being intentional about hiring and then being intentional about keeping them.

Steve Thomas: And what about library patrons who are Native? What issues in the library did you see for them that were keeping them from coming in? Obviously they were coming in anyway, but in larger numbers that those people that said, “Oh, we never see them.” Why did they not notice? Because there was not a large number of…?

Allison Waukau: Well, there was no Native programming. When you come in for craft club or it doesn’t pertain to what I would like to put my time to, right? And I think shifting those and then having programming led by Native folks is really important. We had some huge bumps in the road, and it’s hard to decipher sometimes for people, like people that say they’re Native, but not really. So having someone like myself as staff that can just have a conversation and, “Oh, where are you from?” And that sort of thing, but really having the programming that was meant for them.

One of the pushbacks I always got was like, “Oh, we have to have it for everybody!” Everybody has to be welcome, everybody. I’m like, no, it’s okay to have a program specifically for the Native community. That is okay. And the majority of residents will say, I fully support that. Like if you asked my neighbor, I’m pretty sure she would say, go for it, use my tax dollars for that, especially when it is government institutions why we don’t have a lot of these traditions and cultural ways. And so really looking at reconciliation that way and supporting us and paying and funding for the artists and walk away, you don’t need to be in the room, and that’s what’s really been great about the libraries here is knowing that our community knows what’s best for us, what we would like. And so, what you’re offering is who you want to get in the door. And so if you’re not offering anything for our community, we’re not going to come in.

And I think it’s a little bit easier now. There’s definitely more books that have Native characters but growing up, I didn’t have one book that, um, I think I finally got one, like, Island of the Blue Dolphins or something, which, oh my God, I was just like, is this for real? Like as a child, you know, that this is kind of off, but I had this one farm book that had this little girl, and obviously it’s a white girl, but she had darker hair and bangs like I did. And I was like, oh my gosh, that’s me. But that was the only book throughout my entire childhood. So I think when you come into a library and there’s no books or they’re very stereotypical books, and people like to say, “oh, they’re not racist” and yeah, they are, and it is okay to use the R word, you know, don’t be afraid of it, I think. It has been one thing where a patron has come into the library and said, “this is a really offensive book. It needs to be off the shelves.”

And our library’s like, “oh, well, we’ll take that into consideration.” It’s really hard as a community member to say, “Hey, I’m saying this is offensive. How do you get this off your shelves?” And so I think it’s really taking account what you have and one example I like to give is Little House on the Prairie., I think it’s called. Oh my gosh. I mean, I read them, sure, but you look at it, you look at the images, I don’t remember what page it’s on, but it’s Native men and they’re wearing skunk skin. And I was like, I’m pretty sure that, I don’t know any tribe that uses skunk, and so I really researched it. And the only thing I could find was a tribe was using it for the oil, like to repel, like a repellent, right? Yeah. But we don’t wear skunk. I mean, it smells just as bad to us as it does. The human nose works the same way, I’m pretty sure. So it was intentional. It’s intentional to put something disgusting on a Native man, and that is what the illustrator wanted you to , and feel, and smell, like when you see a skunk, no matter you’re the car, you know what it smells like. And so through a book, you can smell that.

 So really looking at your materials with that kind of lens, like if this was reversed, how would I feel about? And really putting some funding towards there’s a lot of Native authors, really great Native authors out there now. Yeah, you might have to really search. Yeah, you might have to order them from a publisher, something that you don’t typically use and have to do a new process and do a new form, but it’s worth it. And even if it’s not a huge Native population, you still have the responsibility to show your patrons that Native Americans are still here. Natives are still here. A lot of folks in the K through 12 system only get to learn about us. And I think Illuminative has been an amazing organization, so look them up if you can, but Illuminative is amazing, and it was talking about only a certain number of states even teach any sort of Native history, and it’s only up to 1800. So it’s really important to have that representation in your library, regardless of who is walking through your doors so that you can show non-Native folks that we’re in fact alive today.

Steve Thomas: So, talking about publishing, do you feel like the major publishers are doing a better job of getting that Native friendly content out?

Allison Waukau: Well, I think they’re trying, but there has to be way more commitment. I was part of the American Indian Library Association, the youth literature awards. And, I have to say that it’s super exciting to come home and books are delivered to your door. And I mean, if anybody would have told me in middle school that that was a job… I was an avid reader so I would’ve signed up for that. So I had a really great time with the youth literature awards and we did get some books and it would maybe have a Native author, but not a Native illustrator, so it’s like halfway there, come on. You have the ability. I know you do. There are plenty of illustrators out there. People have reached out to me and it’ll be a Navajo book and they’ll be like, “can you look at this?” And I’m like, oh my gosh, that’s not even Navajo. They’re just throwing different things that they think are Native in it, and putting a Mesa in there and all of a sudden it’s a Navajo book and I’m just like, this is ridiculous. It was something with lightning and what I was told is you, like when lightning strikes, you move away from that area, you don’t, and it just did not make sense.

And so, I’m sure the half a million, I think it’s like a half a million Navajos, I think you can find one to write that book. I’m pretty sure. So I think they’re like, “oh, we’re going to do this!” But it is not a full fledged pledge, and so I would like to see more out there, for sure.

Steve Thomas: It’s the same as, like you said, of having Native staff do these programs or at least be involved in the programs of making crafts and things. I see that a lot of where you kind of cringe a little bit, I was like, I don’t know if you should be doing that craft, white person. You don’t really know what that means.

Allison Waukau: I mean, there’s always pushback with change and that’s the kind of human nature. I know very few people that like change, they’re kind of a rarity. We like our routines, it’s like our safe space. And so yeah, it is hard to do change and accept change, but definitely we’re getting there.

Steve Thomas: It’s sort of the Martin Luther King quote of the long arc of history is bending in the right direction, but it takes a long time for things to get better. It is better, compared to a couple hundred years ago, obviously things are much better, but it doesn’t mean that things are great.

 There’s a particularly troublesome figure in your area that you’ve talked about, TB Walker. Can you talk about who he is and why he’s problematic?

Allison Waukau: Yeah. So TB Walker was a lumber baron, fancy old name, and he kind of, kind of, no, he did rape and pillage the reservations for their lumber and he then was the richest, he was a Jeff Bezos of the time he was the richest man in the entire world, here in Minnesota, and he came and he created the Minneapolis Public Library. And it was for his friends to read books and share knowledge, and it was only the very elite could attend his library.

And so Minneapolis did merge with Hennepin County, gosh, I think it was over 10 years ago, I don’t know the date, but Minneapolis and Hennepin County merged and one of the libraries here is the Walker library. It’s something that definitely is on my to-do list to help change. I think that people don’t really realize how much power is in a name. I really am wanting to be intent about honoring folks that are here and now and have really contributed to the area in which the library resides. I think that’s really important. And then that is a reflection then on, showing like we are here for you patrons, and the name is the first real step before you walk through the door.

We did change one of the library names to Arvonne Fraser, who is a person here in the Cities. And that was a really great thing to honor someone in the community of Minneapolis, so it is possible, but it’s slow, slow movements sometimes.

Steve Thomas: So I do want to talk a little bit about land acknowledgement, and that’s a kind of reparative action that you can make, but it can also just be a statement sometimes, but we want it to be more than that. Before we get too much into it, just for listeners who may not be aware, can you talk about what land acknowledgements are and then why they’re important for libraries to practice?

Allison Waukau: Yeah. So a land acknowledgement is a declaration acknowledging the relationship between land and person or human, and a lot of times it does say the specific tribe that would be nearby the location that you’re speaking at.

Our impressions have really come more from Canada. And Natives, we do honor the land, respect the land, and so they adopted this to show respect to Native communities, Native tribes, tribal nations, and I feel like they have progressed a little bit farther in Canada and in other places, and we’re slow moving here in the States, but this is with anything, right. We’re going to have some growing pains and some are somewhat problematic. Like I have been in places where they say it and walk away. Like, it’s just the words, please don’t do that, and I even heard from a colleague here that she was at a conference in like Portland or somewhere in Seattle maybe, wherever Amazon is, and they said the land acknowledgement, and then they said a little joke at the end, like, “Oh, we want to thank the Amazon tribe.”

I was just like, that shows, please don’t do that. Just don’t even do a land acknowledgement if that’s going to be the case, if you’re not going to honestly do something more. So when you have a land acknowledgment, it needs to come with action items. It needs to come with reconciliation and change and truth. And so you have to be willing to accept that and increase individuals’ knowledge and be committed to that. Nobody likes to just have empty words said, nobody appreciates that. So we are working with creating different action items that will show our commitment to the community. I think they’ll be significant and it’s way more than we have done in the past for the Native community here.

I think you really need to look at Land Back. Land Back is a movement and white folks tend to freak out. Like, “I give my land back?? Like, what does that mean? Where would I live?” So I think you need to look at Land Back more. This is more of looking into, like, the reason parks were created, the national parks, was to keep land from becoming part of reservations, keeping it away from Native folks. Like you think parks are so wonderful, but it was intentional. It was not with the intent to save it or take care of it because the tribe would have been way better at taking care of it.

So when you have a land acknowledgement, you have to take that ability, and those words, and look at what land possibly your library resides on. The Minnesota Historical Society here did something really cool where they did give the land back to the Lower Sioux here, a tribe. And it basically is in trust to the Historical Society. So in perpetuity or whatever the contract language is, but it is returned, and I think that’s the kind of commitment that we really should be showing. And Land Back, I think people freak, but I think it is something that can be adjusted and done. So we would like to look into doing an assessment.

The thing that that’s hard that I found here in the county, and this might be true in other places, is that we lease a lot of buildings, and so we’re trying to figure out, what do we own, what don’t we own? And that sort of thing, but it’s a process, but I don’t want people, people to be scared of looking into it. And you know, they’re library staff, they know how to research and find things and ways to do things, so I have yet to meet a library staff member that can’t do a proper search.

Steve Thomas: In addition to doing the reparative actions that you talked about, actually giving the land back and not just acknowledging it verbally. What circumstances for those people who don’t know exactly when to do that, when should you do a land acknowledgement?

Allison Waukau: It’s really up to you? I think churches are doing them now, but I think with doing land acknowledgements, you can have them internally simply at a staff meeting. I think with a staff meeting, it would be more of an action item, like follow this podcast, follow this Instagram, look at this, look into Illuminative, making the commitment to read this Native article, research a Native author.

So I think it’s really making that commitment or putting in your catalog, I think it’s really important to have our tribal nations after our name in parentheses. So you can do it internally at events, whatever it may be, but as a Native person sitting in the audience, you definitely need to back it up with something else. Let’s say you, “Okay, I’m not committed yet to doing a land acknowledgement and all that may come with it,” make sure you have a Native person on the panel, make sure you have a Native person involved in whatever event it may be. It’s simply having us, especially when things are virtual, we’re able to really visit and speak. And then also make sure that you are paying people for their time. I’m a huge believer in, don’t just send a cold email and say, can you do this for this amount of money? Nobody likes that, so just being respectful of people’s time and prepping if there’s prep with the event, that sort of thing.

Steve Thomas: The last thing I wanted to ask about before we wrap up is if libraries are thinking about this issue, listening to this podcast, thinking about this issue, they want to get more involved with their Native community, to get their Native community more involved with the library, how can they best start engaging with the Native community?

Allison Waukau: Oh, well, I’m pretty sure, nobody knew who was Native staff here at the county until I was here, and I started asking. It’s not something HR can share out. It’s really asking, on staff, does anybody have any relationships? There may already be someone that has something already installed. I think library staff think of library programming only within library walls, and that does not have to be the case, so taking programming outside and to community centers, to different areas. And don’t be afraid to go table at a Native event, that sort of thing. Just treat people the way you would like to be treated.

So if you’re in a location where you don’t necessarily know where the location is, I would say the first step would be joining American Indian Library Association. It’s $25, I think for the year, we have an amazing listserv. You can send out an email and say, “I really would like help creating this relationship. Is there anyone in my area?” So asking a Native to ask a Native, right? I think that is a good first step. You don’t have to be American Indian to be in American Indian Library Association, and if you’re really intentional about it, I’m always a click away, an email for you to reach out to me.

Steve Thomas: So if people did want to reach out to you, how could they get in touch with you?

Allison Waukau: So Facebook is always good. It’s so easy for me, but my email is just awaukau[at]

Steve Thomas: All right. Well, Allison, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, and I think it’s an issue we don’t talk about enough, so I’m glad you came on to talk about it. I’m sure your community is very appreciative of the work that you do for them. So, thank you so much.

Allison Waukau: Well, thank you!