Gregory Javitch and The Javitch Collection
Special collections libraries vary widely in size and scope. They give shape to abstract ideas, and personify the wide range of human curiosity. A fine example of such a collection, and one which deserves pride of place among the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library's many subject strengths, is the Gregory Javitch Collection. This collection of more than 2,300 volumes on North and South American Aboriginals was the finest in private hands in Canada when Gregory Javitch offered it to the University of Alberta in 1980 as half donation and half sale. Javitch died in November 1980, shortly after he made the offer. Bruce Peel, then Chief Librarian, immediately appreciated the significance of the Collection. The result is an assemblage of beautiful, rare, and important books and documents of enduring value to scholars and students at the University.
Javitch was born in Russia in 1898, and soon afterward his family settled in Transcaucasia, Georgia. He left in 1922, when the Communists took full control of the country, and moved to France, which was his home for the next twenty years. In 1942 he took his wife and two sons to Palestine to escape from the Germans. In 1948 the family returned to France for two years, then in 1950 they came to Canada. Javitch spent the remainder of his life living with his family in Montreal.
In the early 1960s Javitch became increasingly interested in the history of the North American Aboriginals, and he began collecting rare books that offered a whole and balanced view of Indigenous civilization. The resulting collection provides in-depth perspectives on the legends, ceremonial dances, music, and daily lives of Aboriginal peoples.
Javitch was extremely sensitive to the fact that the Aboriginals were the original inhabitants of North America, and that they had been persecuted, displaced, and nearly annihilated by the Europeans. It seemed to Javitch a kind of genocide, and having fled from such persecutions himself, he greatly sympathized. Javitch's interest in North American Aboriginals stemmed from his own life, not from a fondness for pretty bindings or collector's items. As a Montreal authority on reforestation and land reclamation, he realized that his profound attachment to the earth itself was shared by the First Nations. As a Russian Jew who had twice fled from persecution-by Communists in 1922, then by Nazis in 1942-Javitch well understood what was involved in the persecution, displacement, and attempted annihilation of a whole race. Javitch's collection amply documents that it was genocide the Europeans perpetrated upon the Aboriginals.
There are a number of subdivisions within the Javitch Collection, and one of the most important, and painful, is called "A Well Digested Plan". The phrase first appeared in a letter from American President James Monroe to Congress, in 1824, when Monroe began the policy of forcing the removal of Aboriginals from their own lands "for their own good". The step-by-step implementation of that policy in the United States and Canada can be traced through 181 different treaties, laws, and documents in the Javitch Collection.
The goal of the American and Canadian governments was to settle and legalize white ownership of lands, and as they increased their own stability through law, they inevitably increased the instability of the Aboriginals who were often unknowing parties to the treaties. There are fifteen relevant manuscripts, the earliest of which is a petition of 1798 from Eastern Woodlands tribes regarding their diminished lands. Later pleas can be found from the Sioux of South Dakota, as well as the Cherokee Nation, which was removed from its native Georgia to the plains of Oklahoma in 1838, on the infamous "Trail of Tears". The only alternative to "removal" was "civilizing", which meant that Aboriginals must abandon their own customs for those of the whites. Numerous pamphlets and proposals in the Javitch Collection demonstrate these views, such as the 1834 pamphlet that urged Seneca women to cease working the fields, since they should be "committed to the management of their families".
An adjunct to this portion of the Collection are the 250 volumes dealing with the Indian Wars-the many armed conflicts that erupted between the two civilizations. From Hubbard's rare Narrative of the Indian Wars in New England (1677), to modern debunkings of the myth of General Custer, these eyewitness accounts, sober histories, and official reports recount centuries of tumultuous events which ranged from the Seven Years' War, to the later Seminole Wars of Florida, and concluded on the Great Plains and in the Canadian Northwest.
Though many a polemic could thus be drawn from the Javitch Collection, his concern was to offer a whole and balanced view of Aboriginal civilization by providing in-depth sources for the legends, ceremonial dances, music, and daily lives of these people before, and in spite of, the arrival of the Europeans. Numerous books were specifically acquired because they contain illustrations of ceremonial dances. In Javitch's published checklist on this subject (Montreal, 1974), ninety-seven books are indexed by name of dance. All of these are now part of the Collection.
Legends, myths, and tales form another part of the Collection. Although Europeans often regarded Aboriginals as devoid of religious feelings, more patient inquirers realized that Aboriginal religious ceremonies vie with those of any other peoples of the world, ancient or modern, for allegory, symbolism, and intricacy of ritual. The Navaho ceremonial painting, Where the Two Came to Their Father (1943), is a particularly vivid example. It consists of eighteen paintings that were traditionally created during a ceremony lasting five days and five nights for young men going to war.
Good examples of Javitch's shrewd eye for useful, modestly priced books, include the quantity of children's stories which are actually retellings of Aboriginal legends. Removed from the context of anthropologists' footnotes, their narrative liveliness can be vividly appreciated, particularly since many of these authors have been deeply respectful of the original Aboriginal versions. The presence of this body of literature, as well as the virulent nineteenth-century propaganda about "bloodthirsty Redskins", makes the Collection unusually inclusive.