Department News

Department News

Preserving Native American culture, from Standing Rock to Berkeley

November 13, 2018

By John Hickey

Melissa Stoner and Howard Nez Sr. are related by blood, and always have been. Now more than ever, they’ve also been related by language.

He was a language warrior. She is a literary warrior. For his part, Nez was a Navajo code talker. His granddaughter is a librarian. He was a warrior, a Marine in World War II, helping keep the Allies’ secrets secret. She is the head of the Native American section of the UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Library. She went to war, too, allied with the Standing Rock tribe in its war against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016-17.

Stoner wasn’t specifically thinking of following in her grandfather’s footsteps in 2016, when she put together a learner’s guide on the 1,172-mile pipeline slated to run from northwest North Dakota through South Dakota and on through Iowa to Illinois. She was joining a war.

The Dakota Access Pipeline was met with waves of protest, many of them centered around the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Standing Rock was joined by many indigenous nations around the country as a 15,000-person sit-in developed. The purpose was both to preserve sites sacred to American Indians and to protect environmentally sensitive lands.

Stoner, who’d come to Berkeley just months earlier, put her library skills to work and quickly produced a library guide to Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline at that became the counter-narrative to the viewpoint being pushed both by the oil companies and the government. The protests worked in the short term; Sen. Bernie Sanders supported the movement and President Barack Obama spoke with tribal leaders, offering his support. Eventually his administration denied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers an easement for construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River. Ultimately, just about a month after Obama’s term ended, President Donald Trump used an executive order to overturn the Obama-era legislation and the pipeline went on to be completed. And on Feb. 23, 2017, Trump had the National Guard and local law enforcement evict the remaining protesters.

“I felt that in this library and others there were resources that could tell a story I felt passionate about,” Stoner says. “There was plenty of news coverage out there about Standing Rock, but there wasn’t anything being said about the human rights violations. I wanted to highlight that.”

Her passion didn’t go unnoticed.

“What stood out early on for me was the library guide for Standing Rock and the Dakota Pipeline,” Catherine Choy, professor and chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies, says. “She did it in response to a contemporary event, and it was so relevant and thoughtful. I appreciated that at the center of the project was the Native American perspective.

“Even with the gains we have made in 21st century, we are still confronting stereotypes from the past. What she did was to highlight (that) Native Americans and their concerns are here with us, and we need to pay attention.”

Stoner didn’t start adulthood with the idea that she’d be a librarian. She had an aunt who was an elementary school librarian, but “this was never something I thought I’d be doing. To be here in Berkeley is a little unbelievable.”

The first in her family to attend college, Stoner was concerned about the drug problems in her native New Mexico and began at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in pursuit of a degree in criminal justice. She says she picked Las Vegas over staying in her home state because a cousin who lived there could provide a place for her to live, and UNLV had exactly the kind of criminal justice program she sought.

Along the way, fate had some detours in store for her. She needed to work while she was in school, so she got a job as a computer lab assistant. That led to a position as a reference assistant in a library and then she earned a position as a document librarian. The funding for that position ultimately ran out, but by that time she was pursuing a degree in library science from San Jose State while still living in Las Vegas. Degree in hand, she applied to the University of Colorado and to Berkeley at about the same time. She got the Colorado gig … and passed on it.

“It was Berkeley where I really wanted to be,” she says. “Hey, I was in Vegas. It was time to gamble. It was a risk I was willing to take. So without having a job, I said no to Colorado.”

Berkeley came calling with a job a month later, asking her to handle the Native American portion of the ethnic studies department’s library. In many ways it was an easy call for Berkeley. Stoner had already been selected by the American Library Association as an “Emerging Leader” in the field. She was already being seen for having leadership skills when Berkeley brought her aboard.

Together with Lillian Castillo-Speed, the head librarian who handles Chicano studies, and Sine Hwang Jensen, who is in charge of Asian American studies, Stoner has helped make the library a force on campus.

“The impact of Sine and Melissa in the last few years has been that they have made a whole lot more contacts,” Castillo-Speed says. “They have made us more visible via social media; they’ve been active in bringing in students. The many resources we have here have become more visible to Berkeley.”

In the end, it’s all about the students. Stoner has the typical office hours in which students visit, but more and more in the last two years she’s spent time directly in classrooms at the request of professors wanting to bring her expertise to their students.

“I enjoy that a lot,” Stoner said. “There was a learning curve coming to Berkeley, and now I find that I’m still learning every time I go into those classrooms. There are always questions I don’t know the answers to, but I know how to find them.”

And her work goes far beyond the 1 percent of Berkeley students who identify as American Indian. Choy said she regularly brings her Filipino American classes to the Ethnic Studies Library to visit with Stoner, and also has her come into her classes.

“For grad students and for undergrads, I make that part of our mission,” Choy says. “The students welcome that. Her bringing Native American contemporary and historic perspectives to us and putting them front and center is important.”

Stoner doesn’t speak much Navajo. She says she knows some rudimentary phrases and “can count to 10,” but her father, who is fluent, decided her education and prospects for the future would be better served speaking English. She has mixed feelings about that. But being in Berkeley and the Bay Area, she has still found a way to connect with her roots.

She spends time working with students who want to perform Native American ceremonies and frequently goes to powwows around the region. There was a major one in Berkeley on Oct. 6 as part of Indigenous Peoples Day.

“I miss a sense of community that I had in New Mexico,” she says. “This is a way in which I feel more connected.”

 Under Castillo-Speed, the Ethnic Studies Library has embarked on a “digital path forward,” making the library’s unique and special materials more easily accessible. Stoner has fit right in.

“We needed forward thinking, proven experience in this area, and the attitude that it could be done,” Castillo-Speed says. “Melissa has skills in design as well as social media, which have helped us make our efforts more visible.

“She has a strong sense of social justice, which has driven our library’s move to make our cataloging and subject headings more sensitive to the needs of indigenous and other ethnic groups. And she wants to help students, especially Native American students, navigate through the often overwhelming information sources available on campus.”

Stoner appreciates the plaudits. At the same time, she sees no shortage of things that need to be done to advance the library, its patrons and its subjects. Even now she sees words and language sometimes at war with her heritage. And this is one war she’d like to win.

“The access to cultural sensitive material is important,” she says. “It can’t be applied in an ethnocentric manner. There isn’t enough oversight being done. I’d like to help fix that.”