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  • Leonard Bruce

The O’odham Learning Library And Why I’m Doing It

I think of an autobiography I found while working on this project - “Desert Indian Woman, stories and dreams” (2001). It is the story of Frances Sallie Manuel (bat) from 1912-1985. Frances worked with Deborah Neff to record her story and a ton of poems and writings in both O’odham and English. There was a poem toward the beginning of the book that stuck with me:

We were poor

I had no shoes

two dresses

never had anything!



PROUD of it so

I’d like somebody to read it

[softly] after I’m gone.


Not every resource in this database is as personal as this, but throughout the whole project I had this poem running through my head. Our ancestors shared what they did for us. For us to learn, for us to teach, for us to discuss and analyze. Other people did work about us - and even that we should learn, discuss, and analyze. Then we should accept, correct, or reject - but not hide from it.

So I, for one, want to be someone who reads it.

One of my inspirations for this work is considering the folks who don’t have the privileges I do. Who didn’t have the opportunity to learn about our history and who didn’t get to have access to the training I’ve had to find it themselves. 

I recognize that I’ve been very privileged to have amazing people in my life from a young age to mentor me in my Community’s stories and culture, but many of our fellow O’odham don’t have that. They are urban members far from home, or they are in a home with no guidance, or they have been through the foster system with non-native families, or they are non-enrolled members or any other reason. Who knows - maybe they just turned middle age and realized that - holy crap - all this culture and history is important and I should learn it but I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to feel like a complete idiot trying to get started and I have a ton of anxiety because I’ve never even gone to a community event and where do I even start to ask questions? 

You can start here bud!

I think about my own children - O’odham girls, but not able to be enrolled in my tribe. Blood quantum taking its toll on our Community. 

Where would they be if I wasn’t here? If I didn’t teach them what I know? 

How would they access our history and connect with our ancestors? 

Would they ignore that side and lose their heritage entirely? 

If they protect their indigenous identity, would they be welcome in my Community? 

What about my grandchildren? What about my 7th generation? 

I don’t know if this project will help with any of these questions for my daughters or any other O’odham - but I want it to.

I’m also super privileged because most folks don’t get access to the training I’ve had. I’ve been supported by the Gila River Indian Community in my education and training. Going through college I had lots of training to do deep dives into archives and research repositories. These are skills everyone can learn, but I want to help so people don’t have to learn to access that knowledge - to not have to saddle themselves with thousands in debt just to find knowledge our ancestors left for us. 

My mom always told me to go out and get my education - then return back and figure out a way to use what I’ve learned to give back to Community. This is one of those ways.

As I’ve pondered this project, likely too long, I found my thoughts falling into a few themes - 

Culture is Power: A part of culture is history. The stories of our past are an important part of our legacy and it’s important to know they exist and how to find them. Our history and our culture shouldn’t be hidden - it should be celebrated as loudly as possible. We don’t grow our culture and our power by hiding. This database is my way of helping share the knowledge that has been generated by our communities so that other O’odham can reclaim that knowledge, revitalize that history, and grow our power. 

Stewarding the Past and the Future: We are part of an arc of knowledge that stretches across history, and we should be learning and celebrating our past and helping future generations access build on our knowledge today. This project is about finding a way to steward our past and equip our future scholars to continue to tell our story. 

Self Determination: Part of sharing knowledge is allowing our ancestors (and ourselves) the value of self-determination. That each of us has the right to share our stories and knowledge. I recognize that much has been extracted from our communities, but I want to assume those sharing their knowledge did so with the idea that us, their ancestors, will learn from it.This project is a way to honor those decisions. 

Technology Needs OUR Culture and Values: Modern technology is often not made by us or for us. Our communities aren't in mind when technologies are deployed - and so we need to assert ourselves into them. That means we need to take control of technologies to make our lives better, our communities stronger, and inject our culture and values into them. No one is coming to save us and build things for us - we need to do it ourselves. This project is a way to use technology to benefit our people and share our stories. 

I’m generally an anxious person - I fear that one of these projects will be the one that gets me in trouble. Well, more trouble. I likely overthink the work and the impact it could make. But, I believe this project could be a dramatic shift in the way we are viewing the past. There are so many amazing stories in our history that can, and should, be shared - but not easy ways to find them. 

Still, as anxious as I am - I’m even more excited for the next steps from here. Enhancing the database by adding more entries, cleaning the data, finding ways to dive deeper and share more widely. Excited to find ways to make this trove of information more accessible - to leverage technology to propel us into the future by learning from our past.  Excited to see the list of authors who have “O’odham” checked next to their name grow long with new entries. 

And more than anything, I’m just happy there might be a few more nerds willing to chat with me about obscure O’odham books and stories. 


Leonard Bruce

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