Learn languages, appreciate art in new Indigenous library programs

The Calgary Library is offering a range of Indigenous programming, including language training that's open to everyone with a library card.

Calgary Central Library launches range of initiatives, free to anyone with a library card

The Indigenous Guidance Circle in the Calgary Central Library is open to everyone. (Calgary Library)

Since it opened in November 2018, the Central Library in downtown Calgary has become an East Village hub for the entire city.

It's now a tourist attraction for out-of-town visitors who stop by to check out the library's critically-acclaimed design, which has drawn glowing reviews from architecture critics around the world.

Close to 5,000 people a day have been visiting — 800,000 overall since opening day. 

Registration opened Monday for a variety of Indigenous programs now offered at the library, including language training, art, guest speakers and performance.

It's all a part of the Indigenous Language Resources Centre, created with $1 million in provincial funding. It allows anyone with a (free) library card to access language classes, elder guidance, storytelling and other cultural initiatives.

The project is being launched in conjunction with the United Nations declaration that 2019 is the Year of Indigenous Languages.

Alyana Many Guns, the library's Indigenous services design lead, spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener Monday about the role the Indigenous community plays in the new programming.

It's been a dramatic change, she said, from the way it used to be.

"It was very recently where Indigenous people on reserves were allowed to join the library at no cost," Many Guns said, in an interview with Eyeopener co-host Angela Knight.

"So it is a great start to start inviting people to come into the library and utilize their services — a step in the right direction."

Elder's Guidance Circle

While the entire library is inspired and animated by Indigenous artwork and themes, the heartbeat of the Indigenous community's presence inside the library is on the fourth floor, in the Elder's Guidance Circle.

"We have elders and residents who come every day and who provide guidance and share stories as a way of educating people and sharing cultural information," Many Guns said.

The gatherings in the Elders Guidance Circle take place around a table and chairs designed by Calgary artist Glenna Cardinal, which are works of art that aren't just beautiful but useful.

Cardinal, who also has a installation on display at the Esker Foundation in Inglewood, said there's power in designing art that also has everyday uses as a meeting place for community.

Calgary's Central Library, which has been celebrated by the global architectural community, is offering three different Indigenous language programs for anyone with a free library card. (Dave Dormer/CBC)

The chairs came from the old library, but Cardinal reinvented them, using Pendleton blankets and smoked moose hide.

"That was a huge challenge and kind of shows a lot of the expressions of home and beauty," she said in a February interview.

The laminated walnut table is embedded with Indigenous artifacts, including fossils, stones, a tree growing out of a rock, a cross (symbolizing residential schools), and other symbols, such as a black feather that recalls murdered and missing Indigenous women. It's also embedded with sage and sweetgrass that represent healing.

"My connection to Treaty 7 is in this table," she said, "and I take a lot of care making these chairs and making the atmosphere warm for people and comforting."

Language programs

Many Guns also expressed excitement about the library's trio of Indigenous language programs.

"We will be starting the Treaty 7 language programs and looking at urban indigenous populations and seeing how we can connect with them and how we can support and nurture their culture and language," Many Guns said.

She added that there will be three different divisions and levels of language programming, including a family language program, a youth program and an adult program (the latter two will start in the fall).

"In our culture and most native cultures we learn together," Many Guns said. "We don't separate the child from the parent.

"We learn together, doing this as a family, because once you learn your language, it's important that you have someone to speak with to keep it going."

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email:

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener