Paige Olson, a candle company owner, has started a project called The Little Indi Bookshelf, that aims to distribute books by and about Indigenous people into every registered library in the city.
When Olson was a child, she read three books that she said taught her empathy, heavily influencing her as a person.
One was about the war in Afghanistan, one was about the life of a struggling Black girl who got made fun of for her dark skin and one was about a girl who made sandwiches who brought them to a mute, homeless woman. Olson, who owns Land of Daughters candle company, believes it’s the lack of access to the culture and cultural experiences that perpetuates harmful prejudice against Indigenous people.
“People fear what they don’t know. They fear what they perceive as different,” Olson said.
Non-Indigenous lenses and Indigenous stories
Olson believes more children and adults should read stories that illustrate the atrocities that Indigenous people have suffered and continue to endure.
“Any sane person wouldn’t have a choice but to realize that stereotypes are very dangerous,” she said.
Her biggest hope as a Métis woman is that the Little Indi Bookshelf will teach people new things, resulting in having them show more empathy towards Indigenous people.
However, the possibility of non-Indigenous people understanding the books through the wrong lens runs deep.
Michelle Robinson, a political organizer and Indigenous activist of the Sahtu Dene people, runs a book club called Chapters and Chat with the Community Development Learning Initiative, and a podcast called Native Calgarian. She has found that others tend to see First Nations people and experiences as trauma porn.
Trauma porn is a term some attribute from Thought Catalog’s Wayne Wax to identify the public’s exploitative treatment and obsession with oppressed communities’ traumatic experiences.
Because Indigenous culture has been seen through this dehumanizing lens, it’s difficult for others “to see the beauty, to see the positivity, to see the language, the culture,” Robinson said.
Olson wants people to lean into any uncomfortable feelings that arise when reading the books in order to recognize their privilege.
“If you lean into those uncomfortable feelings, you’ll grow from them and you’ll be able to become an ally,” she said.
The Little Indi Bookshelf
Olson is always looking for ways to use her strengths and platform to help others, so she took to her instagram @landofdaughters to promote The Little Indi Bookshelf.
She is raising funds with the goal of $5,000 to buy enough Indigenous books to be placed in Little Free Libraries in the city, which she said will begin in the new year.
The idea to use Little Free Libraries came from Olson’s belief in the value of reading, and the easy accessibility around the city.
“I love when I’m driving around and see one somewhere,” she said, “It’s joyful.”
To aid the process, Olson curated an Amazon wish list of books from her own collection, recommendations from some of her Indigenous friends and from book lists online.
So far, she has raised $1,633 dollars, collected about 159 books and filled 30 libraries around the city since Nov. 3, 2021.
Olson said donors to the gofundme have mostly been anonymous, but support from the community is evident in fundraising as well as the comments on her social media.
“I have a LFL in YYC and would love to host more diverse books!” Mary Minnett wrote on an Instagram post from Land of Daughters.
Championing diversity in Little Free Libraries
Olson is not alone in her efforts to diversify little libraries. In New York, a high school counselor and Little Free Library steward started the Little Free Diverse Libraries project.
As of July 2021, Sarah Kamya has raised over $5,000 and collected over 1,100 books that celebrate Black and Brown identities, which have now been distributed to approximately 275 Little Free Libraries in the region.
With the apparent support of the community, the Little Indi Bookshelf might resonate with Calgarians and New Yorkers in the same way.
However, Robinson said that Indigenous representation in books is important, but it’s just a small sliver of a huge picture towards substantial changes in school curriculums and institutions.
The project’s full traction could be clearer in the future as Olson has been placing stickers that read “this book was provided by The Little Indi Bookshelf,” and include a URL that will connect readers to the project online.