"Tenacity, dedication and pure stubbornness" kept a unique First Nations library open through hard times, according to Gene Joseph, founding librarian of the Xwi7xwa Library at the University of British Columbia's First Nations House of Learning.
And the library's new status as a full branch of the UBC library system puts it in a position to extend collections, services and outreach programs to Aboriginal communities.
"There were many years when we had very little-or didn't have any-funding, and it looked like the collection was going to die or turn into dust," said Joseph, who is Wet'suwet'en Nadleh'den and the first head of the library at a gathering of chiefs, Elders and friends of the library on Jan. 18 at UBC's Sty'wet'tan Hall.
"But there was always some group of people-First Nations people, faculty and staff-who pulled it out of the ashes and brought it back to life again. We were just determined not to let it die."
The Xwi7xwa (pronounced whei-wha) Library, named after the Squamish word "echo" with the blessing of the late Squamish Chief Simon Baker, began as the Indian Education Resource Centre established by the BC Native Indian Teachers Association in the early 1970s.
The small collection was originally housed in an old war hut in the Faculty of Education's parking lot, and maintained by UBC's Native Indian Teacher Education Program (NITEP) until the Longhouse-and Xwi7xwa- opened in May 1993 with a $1 million donation from William and June Bellman.
For decades, the library operated on donations while making a name for itself as one of only a handful of publicly accessible Indigenous libraries in the world. Now for the first time, Xwi7xwa will be furnished with a small collections budget and full support for its electronic cataloguing system.
"As Xwi7xwa becomes stabilized with core funding, it will have the ability to really develop its leadership role in Canada as a centre of-and for -Indigenous scholarship," said acting head Ann Doyle, who took over after Joseph's departure in 1998.
Xwi7xwa's current holding of 12,000 books, videos, journals, curriculum resources, newspapers, maps, theses and dissertations, and the G.A. (Bud) Mintz Special Collection of Pacific Northwest materials is organized according to the Brian Deer classification system, developed by a Kahnawake librarian for the National Indian Brotherhood and the Assembly of First Nations. The system shows relationships among First Nations by grouping them geographically rather than alphabetically and includes subject headings that represent Aboriginal names, concepts and perspectives.
Doyle said the classification system not only makes it easier to access Aboriginal literatures, but represents an integral philosophy of Xwi7xwa.
"Our founders envisioned this as a place where Aboriginal students can see their own experience and history reflected-or echoed, if you will-from Aboriginal perspectives," said Doyle in an interview.
"There are between 30,000 to 40,000 Aboriginal students in post-secondary education in Canada and they're hungry for curriculum that's relevant, that speaks to their experience, interests, and perspectives.
"We're now in a position to partner with faculty members, other libraries provincially, nationally and internationally to support that curriculum," said Doyle, who emphasized the potential role for Xwi7xwa to develop policy, in partnership with communities, around appropriate access to Aboriginal materials so their integrity and dignity can be preserved.
"The work I see being conducted here is special," Squamish Chief Ian Campbell told guests at the celebration.
"We appreciate the museums and the people who have taken a vested interest to compile the richness of our history and house it in this House of Learning and the Xwi7xwa Library. The echo, the reverberation of those teaching continues, with our Elders to guide us and remind us of our code of conduct, our way of expressing ourselves with integrity and compassion-things that are of value to all humanity.
"We're not assimilated people; we simply adapt. That's utilizing what I call Injun-uity," Campbell added.
"It was just a dream in our time and we got nowhere with it for many, many years," said Verna Kirkness, founding director of the First Nations House of Learning.
"I congratulate everyone who stuck with it and everyone along the way who helped."