Rhiannon Sorrell is a writer, librarian, and scholar whose work to perpetuate and share Navajo language, culture, and collections has been supported with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Heritage. This interview makes reference to the time we shared in the University of Rhode Island’s graduate school programs, where I first met Rhiannon and learned about her passion for making knowledge accessible to all and helping to strengthen her Navajo—and all Indigenous—communities. Getting to know Rhiannon and her philosophy on scholarship and its connection to community has changed the way I think about my relationship to my work. I wanted to spend this time speaking with her to celebrate her work and share her vision more widely with others.
Rachel May (RM): Can you talk a little bit about your goals as a scholar, academic, and resident of the Navajo Nation? How do you see all of these parts of yourself coming together? What was it like to return to the Navajo Nation after completing your MA/MLIS in Rhode Island?
Rhiannon Sorrell (RS): First and foremost, when you come back to the Navajo Nation, you have to embed yourself back into the community. A lot of people who come back have a hard time reestablishing that connection to the community, so they don’t tend to stay very long. You have a responsibility when you come back, to your community.
It’s also more than just your academic bubble. Here, everything goes back to the good of the whole. And that is the hardest thing, to start, because you have to be uncomfortable, to be able to take teasing and scolding and being lectured from a lot of the elders and a lot of the people who simply know more. And, you have to know and learn who everybody is.
When I first came back, there was this expectation that I would just be here for a little bit and then leave. I had the benefit of having a connection through my maternal grandfather, who was from the area I now work in, so through him, I know who all my relatives are. As soon as I was able to articulate that—not just being able to say my clans, but being able to go generations back—people know this is where my family is from, where we come through, where we herded sheep and planted our fields, and I can make all of those connections through not just our kinship system but also through land ties. This is where my mom’s ancestors have been, and my dad’s. Those connections come first and foremost.
Academics are very important, too. You have to challenge yourself all the time and ask yourself, this may be right for me academically, but how is this also going to help the community, my family? It’s definitely a balancing act, and it feels like you have to put in the extra work, not only to keep a certain academic standard, but also to maintain that connection with the community.
RM: Can you think of something you’ve done recently that was more community focused that you might have done differently if you were somewhere else?
RS: So, we had a Navajo-language virtual immersion camp earlier this year, and I was listening in. We were online due to the pandemic; everybody was pretty frustrated. The language instructors are usually in front of each other, in a live classroom, face to face, so transitioning to this online format was tough for a lot of them. Conversely, all the students were saying, this is hard for us because we grew up in a digital age. There are so many language-learning resources for English and Spanish. Why aren’t there as many resources online for younger people that want to learn Navajo? Why do we have to sit in a physical classroom and learn this?
The language instructors also expressed frustration with the fact that they didn’t have enough resources and had to create their own teaching tools. One of them suggested creating a central resource center for Navajo-language teaching and learning, like a library. That clicked with me, so I said, “Well, if anybody is interested, let’s explore that option. How do we make resources centralized and available to not only Navajo language teachers but learners as well?” People thought it was a good idea. They said, “I want to be part of that. We need this, we need this.”
So, the demand came from the community. That pushed me to pursue my first principal-investigator grant. That’s one example of how, when you work here, you work in the interest of the people in the community, not just your own personal goals. Granted, I, myself, am very, very much a Navajo-language learner, especially after being away for so long. I lost a lot of the language. I’m getting it back and I’m pushing myself to use it more and more.
RM: That’s really interesting. So you are going to be working on three grants and a fellowship at once? You’ve been awarded the Libraries Transforming Communities grant, for language-learning resources; you’ve received the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Heritage at the Rare Books School; and you’re working on two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, one for “Tribesourcing Southwest Film: Digital Repatriation,” and a second in partnership with Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library’s Special Collections and Archives, for the project “Digitizing the Moving Images of the Colorado Plateau and the American Southwest.”
RS: This is the first one where I’m actually a principal investigator. On the other grants, I’m a co-PI. This is the one where I did all that paperwork within my own institution, at Diné College, rather than teaming up with somebody from a larger institution like the University of Arizona.
RM: Wow, so you are going to create a language-learning database that will be centralized at Diné College?
RS: I don’t know. The grant is the Libraries Transforming Communities grant offered by the American Library Association. The idea is to focus it toward a community-facing forum event, and this will help me to get an idea of what the community wants. How do we develop it in a way that it is still available to the entire community? That was definitely a concern with our Tribesourcing grant. We had to move a lot of our stuff off the University of Arizona’s servers in order to recognize tribal agency and intellectual sovereignty.
This may be right for me academically, but how is this also going to help the community, my family?
RM: That’s so interesting.
RS: They might say, “We don’t want Diné College or their board president or any part of their governing body—their IT, for example—to have control over this.” If they want to set up something separate, how do we do that? So that’s the focus of this grant. I’ll let the community tell me what they want at the forum.
RM: That’s so interesting to think about setting up websites off the college servers, so there’s no interception of power.
RS: Right, and that is what came up with the Mukurtu software, which was what the Tribesourcing site lives on. The idea there is that it’s a content management system for Indigenous peoples wanting to share information and still have some control over that knowledge or artifacts or collections.
RM: Can you say a little bit more about the counter-narration digital repatriation project? I know the goal there is “shifting the emphasis from external perceptions of Native peoples to the voices, knowledge, and reflections of the peoples represented in the films.” These are films made by white outsiders in the early 20th century, to encourage tourism. They depict Indigenous people making jewelry or weavings, for example, with narration overlaid from the colonist/setter point of view, which is obviously racist and reflects no knowledge of how the artists’ actions and work reflect cultural values, traditions, and skills. How did this project come about?
RS: As we were watching these films in the American Indian Film Gallery, I would point out certain things and relate them to myself, especially weaving films, sheep-herding films. My grandmother was a weaver, so the films would inspire my stories. I started telling stories about what they’re doing in the film, and how I remember my grandma doing something similar, but she did this part of it in a different way. That was unique to her and how she learned from her grandmother.
If you turn the volume up on these films and listen to the original tracks, some of them are really awful. They can be racist and are definitely a product of their times. They’re being narrated for non-native audiences, or are very touristy.
I told my co-PI, “Every time I show these films in the Navajo community, I just turn off the volume, and for a few minutes, people stare at it, and then they start talking to each other and pointing things out.” So we wondered if we could capture that, because the stories and the feedback that they give in response to these films is so much more rich and powerful than the original recorded narrative.
So, that’s what we wrote the grant for. We wanted to be more community facing. It wasn’t just the Navajo films. I was the coordinator for the Navajo region, the Diné region of the films, but we had other partners and coordinators that oversaw recording for films that came from other tribes. There was someone who was looking over the Tohono O’odham films, others looking over the Apache films, and so forth. We’re the largest tribe in Arizona, so of course mine was the biggest selection of videos to oversee.
It started with our partners here at the college. We have the Diné Policy Institute that oversees a lot of the policymaking in terms of research. They were closely tied with both the Navajo Institutional Review Board (IRB) and they themselves are part of the Diné College IRB that works closely with the Navajo Cultural Arts Program. Their main goal is the intergenerational transfer of knowledge of cultural arts: silversmithing, weaving, moccasin making, basket weaving.
Everybody was compensated for their work, of course. We didn’t want to ask for free labor, and we didn’t want to silence anyone. We told people that they could pause the video if they wanted to, because storytelling happens very organically. The film might be only five minutes long, but if a couple of people are watching it and have a lot to share about it, we wanted to make sure they had space to do that. So, some counter-narrations are an hour, an hour and a half long, even though the movie is only ten minutes. They have so much to share. We were adamant that we were not going to put a timer on anybody.
So that was the idea behind the Tribesourcing film project and what we did with this grant in the past; it’s been almost three, four years now.
RM: Will it expand to other states as well?
RS: That is actually the next phase of our grant. This was an NEH grant that focused specifically on the state of Arizona. That’s the thing that’s really hard about doing a lot of this work, that Indigenous nations are not bound by borders or state lines. So it is difficult to try to navigate that in the grants’ world versus the outside world.
RM: I’m teaching a class on maps and stories this semester and we’ve been looking at Indigenous digital mapping and how all these boundaries of the states are false distinctions, and learning about some of the colonizing power structures of the internet.
RS: It’s very difficult. One of the things that I really want the community’s feedback on is the Navajo language, which is strongly tied to stories ingrained within family histories. Some of them are widely known across the Navajo Nation, across the Rez, but, some of them are specific to seasons, some of them are specific to differences in dialect or region, even though we are one Navajo Nation.
Since the language is very much tied into the culture, there are people who want to share more language content online—for example, they did some animated coyote-story cartoons all completely in Navajo, and I remember watching those as a child on one of those big film projectors. They recently digitized those cartoons based on the traditional coyote stories. But, even though it could be used as a language tool, traditionally, we are not supposed to be sharing or talking about it during the non-winter months. I remember people were getting upset with each other, saying, “Well, we want to save our language, so we should make this available,” but others said, “No, you are not supposed to be listening and watching these during the summer months; this is wintertime stuff.”
So, I want to put this to the community: What is appropriate to share?
I remember a few years ago they did that map on the most popular language, after English and Spanish, in each state. Of course, in Arizona it is Navajo. And I believe it was in Connecticut and Massachusetts: Navajo was the most widely spoken Indigenous language.
RS: In those states, yes, on the East Coast.
RM: Is there a bigger population of Navajo people than Narragansett or Wampanoag?
RS: I never really got a straight answer to this question, but part of me thought, for example, does anybody speak Narragansett? Is it a language that is spoken anywhere? I knew there were some language programs still focusing on Wampanoag, but, I got the sense that the languages were almost near-extinct or they just had a handful of speakers. Of course, the Navajo Nation right now, we still boast over 100,000 speakers.
RS: But, I always say that with a caveat: we don’t know proficiency levels. The proficiency level is taking a nose dive. A lot of people are falling into the novice category, and there is a real concern about it being all the way down to only 10 percent, if not fewer, of the entire Navajo Nation speaking Navajo by 2030.
RM: That’s really daunting. Will those readers that you have in your collection be used back in the schools? Is there a chance that they would be reproduced?
RS: I don’t really know. I definitely want to make them more available. I know the University of New Mexico had their own readers that they had published, and they are available online. They are completely digitized. I read them myself. A lot of people don’t know that they are there, so part of my job is to try to put people in touch with those resources, and what I want to do at the very least is let people know that we have these resources here. I don’t know what the logistics are going to be of digitizing them, because of the cultural content. Some of them have imagery like sand paintings and ceremonial-type stuff that shouldn’t be viewed or consumed by anybody of certain conditions—someone who just had a ceremony themselves, or pregnant women, for example.
One of the tools that we use in the Tribesourcing project is Mukurtu; it’s a content management system that allows us to make markers on those materials that have those restrictions on them. That is also the challenge—letting people know the materials have culturally sensitive contents. So, we have to work around that, either at the inventorying level, at the cataloging level, or at the curating level.
One of the things that is really popular is institutional history. I wish we could digitize a lot of our original pamphlets because, back then, when they were proposing Navajo Community College to the Navajo Tribal Council, they were in disbelief, they didn’t think Navajos should be running their own college. Raymond Nakai said, “We’re not asking for your permission, I’m saying we’re going to do it.”
RM: You’re doing so much amazing work. I’m curious if you are still writing? I loved the stories of your grandmother’s weaving and your creative nonfiction. Are you still able to work on that or has that fallen to the wayside for now?
RS: That has fallen to the wayside since I came back. The shift has definitely been toward library science. But we are in the process of creating a BFA program in creative writing. I’m thinking of teaching a creative nonfiction course.
I really should try to get back into it, but then, there is another portion of me that thinks, I’m back on the Rez, I’m back in an area where I can do things with my hands. When I was on the East Coast, it was more like being creative through words, through my writing. And now I’m starting to find myself wanting to do what my grandmother did and actually go do some weaving. I’ve gotten into helping my relatives. I shear sheep.
RS: I have these big hand shears.
I’m torn, because on the one hand I know I really have that aspect of me that does my creative writing and I am wanting to pull that out here at the college, but at the same time, there is another part that thinks, this came from something further back, and that was my grandmother’s weaving. I’m seeing all these awesome artisans around and silversmiths, basket weavers … I can write, but I also want to create something with my hands.
RM: Totally, yes.
RS: Maybe I will do the two in tandem, I don’t know.
RM: If you taught a class on weaving and personal history and nonfiction writing—
RS: There is something about weaving, creative nonfiction writing, and, I will say this last—coding—that overlap with each other. Sometimes when I’m coding, the way I pay attention to some of these lines of code, it really reminds me of sitting at the loom and trying to figure things out. Like, I see something in my head, and I’m just trying to make it happen on my screen.
RS: And, I don’t know how my grandmother and other weavers do it—they have an image in their brain and they make their hands form those images on their looms.
RM: Yes, and it’s also a really technical art, you have to have the warp and the weft—and I don’t know all the words for it, obviously, in Navajo—but setting up the structure might be similar to a digital—
RS: In a digital environment, all of these tags are content containers. As I am doing so, I’m thinking: Am I lining this up? What is the right code for that? Where do I put this? Yes, I find myself seeing an overlap among all those three things.
RS: I don’t know how it would tie in together, but I find them all being pulled together.
RM: You should teach a class on weaving and coding and nonfiction writing. That would be amazing! The poet Stephanie Strickland has made a lot of digital poetry, and she’s really interested in the structure of the digital world and the structure of poetry and language.
RS: I’m going in that direction. Being in the library sciences, I deal so much with metadata and code and all of these tech tools that are supposed to make resource finding a lot easier, but I start thinking about database structures and I’m thinking, What is this data, especially cataloging? There’s a big thing in libraries, especially in library services, to Indigenous peoples, about how the current cataloging system does not fit with Indigenous knowledge organization and world views. So, they’ve come up with a different cataloging structure called the Brian Deer system. Most academic libraries use Library of Congress classification. There is a push for Indigenous-serving institutions to move toward Brian Deer. We need to come up with our own, a Navajo one, because we already have a knowledge structure in place, but then how does that work with books, with something that is written? We’ve never had our language written before. We are an oral-history culture. The written word only came, started being transcribed, with Franciscan missionaries.
RM: That is so fascinating.
RS: My main priority is to try to get more of our own students involved in librarianship. Indigenous people are still underrepresented in so many different fields, but particularly in librarianship.
I’m starting by offering credit-bearing information literacy courses. The process for writing, articulating, and getting the courses approved has been tricky because something like this is so new to tribal colleges in our area. The current course proposal process requires me to do a comparison with similar programs in the immediate area—with other area tribal colleges—which hasn’t been done before. However, a few of the community colleges in the area do some of this type of information literacy credit-bearing courses.
Based on that, we’ll see how it goes.
This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.