things i heard at the library: national indigenous people's day 2024: an occasional series # 41

Libraries across Canada celebrate National Indigenous People's Day, and at the Port Hardy Library, that celebration is especially meaningful. The local population is at least 40% Indigenous, and a huge portion of our regular customers identify as Indigenous. 

This year, the branch team collaborated to offer two very special events.

Partners in service

In the afternoon, we hosted a "healing circle," facilitated by someone from the Kwala'sta Healing Centre, part of Gwa'sala-Nakawaxda'xw Nations healthcare. We invited our "regulars" -- folks who are grieving, and struggling. They are coping with immense personal loss, the impacts of intergenerational trauma, and some with substance use and mental health issues.

This was part of my ongoing mission to bring service providers to the library, so people can access more community services in a space they are already comfortable in -- a literal take on the maxim "meeting people where they are". I also wanted a program that would welcome our regulars and focus on their needs, as opposed to special programming which -- almost without exception -- they do not feel comfortable attending.

The healing circle was the idea of a community member who, for National Indigenous People's Day 2023, taught a Kwak'wala language lesson. I was so pleased to make her suggestion a reality. 

The healing circle

A bowl of fresh bannock to boost attendance

We publicized this in advance, but many people in need can't plan too far ahead, or at all. So on the day, an outreach worker invited and encouraged people to attend, person to person, one at a time. Staff and I invited and encouraged people using our public computers to join. We also had a huge bowl of freshly baked bannock, which a member of our library family from G-N Nation made for this event. There is nothing like bannock to boost attendance!

Offering a sharing circle in the public library was risky. We really had no idea if anyone would participate, or how it would come off in a public setting. First one person sat, then another. Someone would watch from a distance, then tentatively sit. And gradually, the circle filled out. 

Some people spoke a lot, some said only a few words. Many people cried. Some got up and stood behind someone who was speaking or crying. The facilitators shared some of their own experiences. They share a common culture and history, and much lived experience, so their words were very meaningful. 

One of our neediest customers watched for a while, then took a seat. She didn't speak, but just sitting there was huge. Staff and I were thrilled. 

We are hoping to build on this success, and to offer this monthly, and then perhaps twice-monthly or weekly. There is food outreach daily, so we're arranging for that to happen outside the library, then folks can take their food to the circle and eat and share.

Button blankets

In the evening, we hosted an elder from Quatsino First Nation (the grandmother of one of our regulars) who led a group in making miniature button blankets. There were small squares of felt, and sequins (standing in for buttons), needles and thread. 

Button blankets are integral to Kwakwaka'wakw culture. (Kwakwaka'wakw -- pronounced kwa-wok-ya-wok -- means "Kwak'wala-speaking people".) We see the blankets at ceremonies and dance demonstrations; their creation is a pillar of cultural preservation.

A button blanket, no doubt
stolen from a Pacific Coastal nation,
on display in the Denver Art Museum
The elder talked about the significance of button blankets, how she learned to make them, the many blankets she has made. She talked about how the residential school experience impacted that knowledge, and how the children imprisoned there created forms of resistance. 

Typically, elders tell stories while they lead a creative session. This is very much an Indigenous way of knowledge-keeping and teaching.

A few years ago, I worked with a Kwakiutl (kwa-gi-ooth) elder to create a video and templates for making mini button blankets. Librarians from our system used this as a base for "take and make" kits, one for kids and one for adults. They were incredibly popular. What a privilege and joy it was to be part of that. 

That lovely elder has since passed away. And now, through the efforts of a staff member who has many ties to the community, I have a small connection with another elder. It's a special and wonderful thing.

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