ASU opens space dedicated to Indigenous librarianship & students

When Alex Soto launched the Labriola
National American Indian Data Center at Arizona State University Library
in 2021, he was the center’s only full-time employee.

Two years later, he reimagined the
center into the first Indigenous-led and staffed library spaces at a
research university in the United States. The newly created space for
the Labriola Center officially opened on the second floor of the Hayden
Library on ASU’s Tempe campus on April 3.

Soto, who is Tohono O’odham, said
this is the first time Indigenous people have led the center since its
establishment in 1993 to be a space that supports Indigenous students
and academia.

Now, the Labriola Center has six
full-time Indigenous staff members and 12 student workers. It is 6,000
square feet and reflects ASU as an institution and the land on which it
was built.

When designing the space, Soto said
he knew he wanted to include O’odham culture because ASU is located in
the ancestral homelands of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee Posh
(Maricopa) peoples.

The space is surrounded by artwork
showcased in two ways: murals on the glass walls enclosing the space and
a large painted mural welcoming visitors at the entrance. 

“These murals depict significant
mountains in O’odham culture to let students know that we’re still an
O’odham land, but the land also has knowledge, more than a book will
ever have,” Soto said. 

The painted mural showcases how
modern and traditional knowledge meets by showing a book and traditional
O’odham staff connecting at the top of the land. It was painted by
Indigenous artists Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham) and Dwayne
Manuel (Akimel O’odham).

Jacob Moore, the ASU vice president
and special advisor to the president for American Indian affairs,
celebrated the grand opening of the new Labriola Center and commended
the hard work that led to its completion. 

“These things don’t just happen on
their own. It takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes to commit,”
Moore said. “I think everybody all along the way has been committed, and
it shows.”

Moore said it’s been exciting to see what started as an idea and concept come to fruition.

“We have Native students who aspire
to complete their degrees in a variety of fields, from education to
American Indian Studies to law. This is a place where they can not only
gather, but also advance their work in a very unique way that isn’t
typically offered at any major university,” Moore said.

He said that the center is an example
of how ASU honors its charter, which commits to the health, education,
welfare and culture of the communities it serves, including Indigenous

Moore said Indigenous communities
often get marginalized, but having a space like the Labriola Center
shows ASU’s commitment to ensuring equity for those who want to go to
college because they can do so at ASU.

With the grand opening of the
Labriola Center, Soto said that it highlights the value and importance
of the roles of Indigenous librarians and library staff.

“It’s been two years in the making, but this really is 31 years overdue,” Soto said. 

Soto said that having a library space
dedicated to Indigenous students makes sense because ASU has over 4,000
Indigenous students and more than 70 Indigenous faculty members who are
involved in many high-level programs across various disciplines. 

“We should have Indigenous subject specialists in all disciplines,” he said.

ASU also has an American Indian
Studies Program, an Indian Law Program and a Center for Indian
Education, which operates alongside many other resources available for
Indigenous students. 

“We have all these Native programs.
We need a space that can be a place to access pivotal resources around
research and primary sources such as archives,” Soto said.

Gila River Indian Community Gov.
Stephen Roe Lewis said that the new Labriola Center is a point of pride,
and it creates community within ASU, which is what helps Indigenous
students thrive in an academic setting.

“When we talk about Indigenous
academic excellence, this type of space fosters that aim,” Lewis said,
by ensuring that Indigenous students are welcomed.

Lewis said that, as an alumnus of
ASU’s American Indian Program, he wishes that the Labriola Center
existed as it does now during his time at the university because it
would have been a valuable resource for him. 

He said he is proud that current Gila
River Indian Community students will have access to this space because
the space is “next level” and will support the research they want to

Lewis said he hopes that the Labriola
Center’s model will urge other institutions of higher learning across
the United States to take notice and replicate it within their

Another part of the work the Labriola
Center hopes to do is helping the 22 federally recognized tribes in
Arizona with archive projects.

Soto said it could be as simple as
providing consultation on what an archive project looks like because, in
his experience, many tribes may lack the capacity to do it alone. 

That work is being led through a three-year project, “Firekeepers: Building Archival Data Sovereignty Through Indigenous Memory Keeping,” which will allow the center to support tribal nations that seek to establish archival collections.

Soto said having access to
information is important, but it is also essential to understand the
type of information being accessed. He said it is vital for people to
know where that Indigenous knowledge is coming from and exactly how it
may affect the Indigenous communities it comes from because not all
Indigenous knowledge is meant to be shared openly.

Historically, Soto said, information
has been gathered from or within Indigenous communities that may not
have been appropriate at the time, whether it’s ceremonies or
traditional knowledge. 

He said the Labriola staff can offer
that lens to process information and remind students at all levels to
think about the information they share and how they utilize it.

Soto added that the materials and
resources at ASU have always been available, but there have never been
Indigenous librarians at the institution to put it all together and make
it more accessible for students and the community.

Lewis said he appreciates the
culturally sensitive research methods that the Labriola Center intends
to use because ASU is a leading research university that supports
Indigenous research and conducts research on Indigenous communities. 

It is important for one of the top
research institutions to ensure that there is an Indigenous presence to
support that research, Lewis added, and the staff at Labriola can do

Soto said a lot of the work he does
with the Labriola Center he learned from the community as an activist
and a rapper, but now, he’s a librarian. 

“The main component here is to
provide scholarly support to our faculty and students at all levels
around our reference materials,” he said, and the center has about 5,000
books that are either written by Indigenous people or are about
Indigenous people. The Labriola Center can offer research support in a
culturally appropriate way, he said, because a lot of Indigenous
knowledge that is in Western formats is colonized. 

Unfortunately, there are things that
non-Natives have documented and given to the institution that are just
very bad, Soto said, and it does take someone trained to utilize Western
educational knowledge set alongside Indigenous knowledge to find the
proper material. 

“As librarians, (it’s) finding the
information that’s appropriate and then being mindful that we need to
share it in a culturally appropriate way,” he said. “That’s the level of
care we put in our service.”