How the iSchool is building partnerships with Indigenous communities

TLAM group with Indigenous partners

From Left: Cassy Leeport, Paula Maday (Bad River Museum Coordinator), Jennifer Maveety (Bad River Library Coordinator), Louise Robbins, Brigid McCreery (TLAM Student Group Officer), and Ruth Thomas (TLAM Student Group Officer) at a recent trip to Red Cliff and Bad River. Photo taken in the newly opened Mashkiiziibii Agindaasoowigamig (Bad River Library).

In 2008, Louise Robbins, then director of the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, received a call from a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. The tribal government was seeking guidance about potentially reopening its small community library, so they had reached out to Robbins. She replied with a question: “Does the community want it open?” 

Eager to partner with the Red Cliff community, Robbins and a group of students set out for the answer. Subsequent community surveys all pointed to the same one: a resounding yes. Today, thanks to continuous community support and the university’s ongoing partnership with the tribe, the Red Cliff library is more than just open – it has a new building, staff, and monthly book club meetings. And it serves as a gathering space for the Red Cliff community.

Origins of TLAM

In the process of reopening the Red Cliff library, a new student group emerged at the School of Library and Information Studies (now the iSchool) at UW–Madison. The small group of graduate students, who shared a desire to build lasting partnerships with Wisconsin’s Native Nations, became the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums (TLAM) student group. Their mission: to help address information, literacy, and cultural preservation challenges in tribal communities by harnessing the resources of the university. 

To that end, the TLAM group created a graduate-level course at the university with a special emphasis on Indigenous Knowledge and tribal cultural institutions of the western Great Lakes region. First offered in 2008, the class is designed to help students gain a deeper appreciation for tribal cultural institutions and understand the range of issues affecting Native Americans today. Over the past decade, hundreds of UW–Madison students have taken part in the course’s semester-long service-learning projects, which allow them to work directly with tribal communities.

A new era

Now, new leadership is helping to expand TLAM. As of this fall, the project is being spearheaded by Cassy Leeport, who will be serving in the newly created position of TLAM & iSchool Library Manager. Leeport previously served as Director of Library Services & Tribal Archives at Red Lake Nation College on the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota.

“Tribal communities are an incredibly vibrant and important part of the Midwest.” -Cassy Leeport

A direct descendant of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, Leeport is also a Badger alum, having earned a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from UW–Madison in 2015. Leeport also holds a master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Minnesota State University Moorhead, where she studied depictions of Native Americans in children’s literature.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Cassy back to Madison. No one is more qualified to lead the TLAM program into a new era,” said iSchool Professor and Director Alan Rubel. “Cassy’s unique background, extensive experience, and strong relationships with tribal communities will be extremely valuable for TLAM, the iSchool, UWMadison, and the state of Wisconsin.”

Leeport is working to strengthen TLAM’s existing partnerships with tribal communities, including the Red Cliff Nation, Ho-Chunk Nation, and Menominee Nation. But she’s also hoping to strengthen newer relationships with others, such as the Oneida and Bad River tribes. “Tribal communities are an incredibly vibrant and important part of the Midwest,” Leeport said, adding that when building connections with those communities, it’s vital to create “a true partnership, not one person saying what needs to be done.”

The future of TLAM

To foster better conversations with and about Native Americans, the TLAM course aims to counter harmful stereotypes and misinformation and educate UW–Madison students about “life as a Native American in 2023,” Leeport said. The course, which Leeport will be teaching in the spring of 2024, “teaches students how to build relationships that are sustainable,” she said, a skill that is valuable for any information professional – not just those who work with Indigenous communities. In the semesters to come, Leeport plans to revamp the curriculum of the TLAM course while keeping it a participatory experience where students both learn about and directly serve tribal communities. 

Ultimately, the Red Cliff library project served as a first step toward closer relations between the iSchool and Native Nations of Wisconsin. With the arrival of Leeport and the expansion of TLAM initiatives, including a revised course curriculum and emerging relationships with other tribal communities, the next steps in the evolution of the project are on the horizon. More tribal libraries, archives, and museums can be part of the initiative, and more students can learn about the complexities of modern Native American life. TLAM exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea – a growing bond between UW–Madison and tribal communities that enriches lives outside the university.


Written by: Thomas Jilk, Marketing & Communications Specialist.

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To learn more about the TLAM Project, visit its website. Website updates are coming soon.