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Introducing the Indigenous Law Portal

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The Law Library of Congress Indigenous Law Portal Map
The Law Library of Congress Indigenous Law Portal Map

At the recent American Association of Law Libraries Conference, Jennifer Gonzalez, Jolande Goldberg and I had an opportunity to unveil a new Indigenous Law Portal. The Indigenous Law Portal brings together collection materials from the Law Library of Congress as well as links to tribal websites and primary source materials found on the Web. The portal is based on the structure of the Library of Congress Classification schedule for Law (Class K), specifically the Law of the Indigenous Peoples in the Americas (Classes KIA-KIP: North America).

Indigenous law materials can be difficult to locate for a variety of reasons. Tribal laws are usually maintained by individual tribes or groups of tribal peoples who may or may not have the resources to make them available in electronic format, or they may only be passed on through oral tradition. In some cases tribal legal materials are available electronically, but they may not be available freely on the Web, or the tribe may want to restrict outside access to the materials. However, through our research, we have found many tribes compile their laws and ordinances into a code, and they often provide a digital version of their most recent code and constitution online. In the Law Library, we already have digitized copies of historic American Indian constitutions from our collection and other legal materials available on our website. It makes sense to bring all these materials together in one place.

But how to organize such a collection of digital resources? Especially when the complexity and availability of resources varies from tribe to tribe. We wanted a structure that would allow us the flexibility to organize and expand as needed. Something that would provide a basic backbone for organizing the materials and also detailed information about the tribes individually and as a whole. The answer to our dilemma came from an unexpected place: a new classification schedule developed by Jolande Goldberg of the Library of Congress Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate: the Law of the Indigenous Peoples in the Americas.

Typically library classification is used by catalogers to categorize and record bibliographic information about library resources. It is the complex formula by which cataloging professionals create often very long call numbers found on the spine of books in academic libraries, like this: KIK756.2 1936. Unfortunately, this looks like a mysterious code to most of us! But those letters and numbers can tell the informed user much more about a resource than its location on a shelf or in a library collection. They can provide a great deal of information about the topic, the author, and the date a resource was created.

Each part of a classification number corresponds to a caption, or text label. If we delve into the classification just a bit more, looking at those captions instead of the number and letters, we begin to see an incredibly rich, very detailed, amazingly structured set of information about indigenous law and indigenous peoples. The schedule is organized by jurisdictions, which correspond to geographic regions users already know, such as the Northeast Atlantic and Pacific Northwest. And within those regions in the classification, we find an extensive list of tribes.

Example page from Class KIA-KIX, the Law of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, showing the Hopi Tribe
Example page from Class KIA-KIX, the Law of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, showing the Hopi Tribe in the New Southwest Region

If we decode the classification number mentioned above, KIK756.2 1936, we find the initial “K” indicates Law, and the full “KIK” corresponds to “United States: New Southwest” in the classification schedule. What about that number with the decimal, 756.2? Well, “756.2” lies within a range of numbers designated for the “Hopi Tribe of Arizona.” The numbers “1936” are indicative of the date the resource was published.

Armed with this knowledge (the equivalent of super-secret classification decoder rings) we began to structure a web portal using the indigenous classification as the backbone of our website structure and filling in as much information as we and our cadre of fantastic interns from the University of Virginia could find. At the moment we are focusing on tribal laws within the geographic United States. We aren’t finished – and as with many collections of constantly changing materials, we may never be finished – but the portal is live in a beta release on the Law Library website.

One of the hardest challenges we face with this portal is a usability issue. The portal homepage includes a map organized by region as well as state. The classification schedule is organized only by region, not state, which makes good sense when you consider U.S. state boundaries have no bearing on a tribe’s location. In fact, some tribal lands cross state lines. Ideally, we would like to organize all materials by region. Unfortunately, when we tried to build our portal using just the regions as delimiters, the end result was not usable. We had five extremely long pages, which required the user to scroll down an extensive list. So for now, we are using states as geographic boundaries to break up the information into smaller, more easily navigated chunks. We are working to find a better way to provide access for future releases.

We hope all our users find this new resource useful. We still have a long way to go, but we hope you will take a look at our work and send us your feedback. We will complete the United States region in the next few weeks and plan to move on to the aboriginal peoples of Canada in the near future.

Comments (5)

  1. Though I didn’t attend the conference, I was lucky to see the end result of the labor that went into the creation of the mocked up indigenous portal that was showcased at the AALL conference. Kudos to all those who spent their valuable time organizing and working to realize the portal’s potential. As someone who took classes toward an American Indian Certificate, the indigenous portal would have been invaluable to me when I was trying to find first source material for my research, especially about the lesser known, regional tribes .

  2. Fantastic! Very much looking forward to seeing an expansion for First Nations in Canada as well – will be incredibly useful for our work.

  3. Boozhoo [Hello], I am a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and currently serve as their tribal governance intern. This tool has been so helpful in our current project of creating a public policy database for the Sault Tribe and I wanted to extend my gratitude for the time and efforts that went into creating this useful tool.

    As a point of clarification, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians is not known as or affiliated with the Omaha Tribe. I’d be happy to send a letter or further information from one of our tribal leaders if you have any questions about our tribe’s history or governance. Please feel free to contact me at the provided email address.

    Miigwech [Thank you]

    • Thank you! We will correct the error right away. Please let us know if you have any other comments or corrections. We appreciate your feedback greatly!

  4. I am so glad that this is finally being done. My Osage People have been so seriously deprived of the knowledge of their rights. Neither the tribe or the BIA of course ever supplied any type of source for the People to know and learn anything. I so hope but I know better that the tribe will still not help their own members out by putting up a library.

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