Library Collection Aims to Preserve Indian Viewpoint

Times Staff Writer

Librarian Tom Lippert piles dozens of books, newspapers and tape cassettes by and about North American Indians into a two-wheel shopping cart, packs it and a portable picnic table into his car and heads out to visit an American Indian senior citizen luncheon.

It is one of the dozens of trips he will make this year throughout Los Angeles County, carrying a tiny part of a unique Huntington Park Library collection to the diffuse Los Angeles Indian community.

He carries with him tribal histories, some of the collection's 400 cassettes of chants and songs, current directories of Indian businesses and books of all kinds relating to North American Indians.

The most important purpose of these outreach efforts, he says, is to let members of the native American community know the resource exists.

The 4,000-book collection composes the American Indian Resource Center, one of four ethnic book and periodical collections in the Los Angeles County Library system. The other three are Compton's Afro-American, Montebello's Asian-Pacific and East Los Angeles' Chicano book collections.

The Indian Resource Center was begun in 1979, and the book collection is growing by about "a yard a month," Lippert said. In addition to books and audio cassettes, the center also subscribes to 45 tribal newspapers, has more than 50 films and the start of a video cassette collection.

All four county library ethnic collections have current events files; the American Indian Center's files have some 300 subject headings. Staff members monitor and photocopy newspapers and magazines, looking for articles of interest to Indians. They add an average of six articles a day to the collection.

The collection, and the library's meeting room, are frequently used by American Indian groups. One of these is Eagle Lodge, a Long Beach alcohol recovery home for Indians of all tribes.

The director, Winslow Bull Child, said many of the home's residents are urban Indians. "They don't know too much background on their tribes," he said. "Alcohol has taken away a lot. . . . People get out of touch with their tribe."

About once a week, members of Eagle Lodge visit the library, and watch a film or listen to records or cassettes. Later, they check out books on Indian religion, the great chiefs, tribal histories and legends, Bull Child said.

The visits "refresh their minds. They remind them where they came from, who they are. It gives you a good feeling to hear that singing. It's different from English music."

Although the library's collection is also used by scholars, its main purpose is to serve as a resource for the American Indian community, Lippert said. "We try to avoid the old distorted views." he said. "We try to reflect the Indian perspective. I feel that we should reflect American Indians as they are now, rather than as historical objects of curiosity."

Immersed in the Topic

Lippert--who has one library assistant, Lorraine Cowboy, a Navajo--is a professional librarian who never had any particular interest in Indians before getting this assignment two years ago. Now, he says he is immersed in the topic and reads all the subscriptions that come to the library. He considers this the most interesting assignment he has ever had, even if it is somewhat esoteric. "Sometimes I need to talk to someone about the problems," he said.

One of the most difficult problems, he said, is logistics: Unlike ethnic groups that have formed communities based on a shared language or cultural background, Indians are scattered throughout the Los Angeles basin in no particular neighborhoods, Lippert said. "Indians tend to have a strong tribal identification, rather than seeing themselves as 'Indians,' " he said.

To help get material out of the collection and into the hands of users, Lippert offers free photocopying and mailing of some materials, and also ships books to other neighborhood libraries.

Other problems in promoting the use of the library are cultural, Lippert said. Native Americans have strong oral and dance traditions, which are not captured by books.

Refiling by Tribes

To make the collection more accessible to readers, Lippert is refiling the collection under tribal headings rather than by the Dewey Decimal System.

"This is meant to be a browsing collection, and most users are interested in a particular tribe," he said.

The Huntington Park center, at 6518 Miles Ave., is the only public collection of American Indian materials in the state, according to Yolanda Cuesta, chief of library development for the California State Library. There are only three other American Indian collections in California, she said, all connected to colleges: at UCLA, UC Berkeley and Evergreen College in San Jose.

All four ethnic centers are funded with about $50,000 a year each. Overall, the centers have three goals, county library spokesman Ann Bradley said: to build book collections, to maintain current events files and to provide information and referral files for community services. The centers, Bradley said, originally were funded by federal grants, but have been supported solely by the Los Angeles County Library since 1983.

Chicano Center Was First

The 7,000-book Chicano center was the first of the four, established in 1976. Its director, Linda Chavez, said: "We're very well-known in the community and easily accessible because of our location."

The Asian-Pacific collection, with 10,000 books, struggles to serve a community of many languages and cultures. According to director Florence Wang, the collection supplies English books translated into Asian languages to help recent immigrants adapt to American culture, as well as books about Asian-Americans and about Asian countries.

The Afro-American collection is without a director at the moment, but regional administrative librarian Joyce Sumbi said that the collection has about 7,000 books, with emphasis on the history of Afro-Americans in Los Angeles County and California. "The educational film collection is widely used," she said, "and it is one central location where people can come to find these materials."

Los Angeles County has more Indians than any other metropolitan area in the nation, Lippert said, an estimated 70,000, fewer than 1% of whom are from California tribes.

Although the library collection emphasizes California tribes--"After all, we are a California library," Lippert said--he said he is trying to make the collection as diverse as possible to meet the needs of the Los Angeles Indian population.

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