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The Javitch Collection, Bruce Peel Special Collections Library

Collection Profile

The Javitch 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. Javitch was born in Russia in 1898 and moved in 1922 to France, which was his home for the next 20 years. In 1942 he took his wife and two sons to Palestine to escape from the Nazis, and in 1950 they came to Canada. Javitch became increasingly interested in the history of the Americas and began collecting rare books that offered a balanced view of indigenous civilizations. 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 these people, the original inhabitants of the Americas, had been persecuted, displaced, and nearly annihilated by Europeans. It appeared to Javitch to be a form of genocide, and, having fled from such persecutions himself, he was sympathetic. As a Russian Jew, Javitch well understood what was involved in the persecution, displacement, and attempted annihilation of a whole race.

The Javitch Collection contains a number of subdivisions, 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 the Congress, in 1824, when Monroe began the policy of forcing the removal of aboriginals from their own lands. The implementation of that policy in the United States and Canada can be traced through 181 different treaties, laws, and documents in the Javitch 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 their religious ceremonies vie with those of any other culture or society, ancient or modern, for allegory, symbolism, and intricacy of ritual. Javitch also had a shrewd eye for useful, modestly priced books, including many children's stories which are retellings of aboriginal legends. Their narrative liveliness can be vividly appreciated, particularly since many of these authors have been deeply respectful of the original oral versions.

Javitch's fascination with the visual portrayal of aboriginal life also led him to acquire many remarkable 19th-century illustrated portfolios depicting views and costumes. Among these are such landmark works as Sir Robert Schomburgk's Views in the Interior of Guiana (1840) and the vibrant multicolored chromolithographs of Frederick Catherwood's Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1844). Numerous books contain illustrations of ceremonial dances. In Javitch's published checklist on this subject (Montreal, 1974), 97 titles are indexed by dance.

Further material on native culture is found in the collection of aboriginal-language books, comprising 120 volumes in 36 languages, from Abenaki and Biloxi to Wyandot and the hieroglyphs of the Mayans. The Javitch Collection, a cornerstone of the Bruce Peel Library holdings, continues to grow through the acquisition of further titles that complement and broaden the collection.

Collection Profile and Overview: Robert Desmarais
Illustrations: Karin Fodor

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