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Telling Indigenous stories through medicines of the land

Kwantlen U library collection features plant-based skin care items.


A skin care brand is taking centre stage at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Langley campus library as part of the third installation of KPU’s χʷəχʷéy̓əm Indigenous collections.

The new medicines of the land collection, launched in January, features skin care items from Squamish-area business Sḵwálwen Botanicals displayed alongside their traditional whole plant sources, such as sage and sweetgrass. The collection’s curator, Rachel Chong, Indigenous engagement and subject liaison librarian and member of the Métis nation, chose the brand to complement the strong nursing and horticulture studies programs at the campus.

She was inspired by Sḵwálwen’s founder Leigh Joseph, an ethnobotanist who draws on local Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) plant knowledge to create face and body products. Ms. Joseph’s forthcoming book, Held by the Land: A Guide to Indigenous Plants for Wellness, will join the collection alongside books by local and international writers.

“Her work is phenomenal in [the] community and academically so rigorous,” says Ms. Chong. “So it was a very good fit for Langley.”

Each of the collection’s three installments (two others are hosted at KPU’s main Surrey and Richmond campuses) of the collection so far is has been tailored to the particular educational and research focus of the campus where it’s located. The first was a general collection at the school’s largest campus in the city of Surrey which opened last year, and the second was created to celebrate the Wilson School of Design in Richmond which also opened in January.

The focus on Indigenous ways of knowing informs every aspect of the collections. The name χʷəχʷéy̓əm  was gifted by Sesmelot (also known as Fern Gabriel), a respected teacher of the Kwantlen First Nation’s hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language. It means “oral storytelling,” and each the collection’s spaces is have been designed with that purpose in mind with circular shelves that can be moved to accommodate either intimate or larger gatherings. Chairs in the spaces are covered in fabric designed by Métis artist Jennifer Lamont who is a graduate of the design school.

The books are organized according to the Brian Deer classification system, which uses geography rather than the alphabet as is usually the case in the Library of Congress system favoured at most university libraries. This means that nations that are neighbours in the land appear beside each other on the shelves.

“It’s such a beautiful way to honor the land in something as abstract as a book on a shelf,” says Ms. Chong. “When you’re looking through the shelves, you’re literally following the landscape and learning about the relationality.”

Ms. Chong has many plans for the future of the collection across campuses. To expand that focus on orality, she’s developing posters with QR codes that will link to recordings of the many hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language words used in the collection and around campus. She is currently gathering these recordings with the help of Lekeyten who is the school’s first Elder in Residence.

The next installment of the collection is planned for the school’s Cloverdale campus which has a large collection of graphic novels. Ms. Chong hopes to find just the right materials to celebrate the focus on trades and hands-on learning at that campus.

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