Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Little Big Horn College Library Director Tim Bernardis holds his “Honored One” Award from the Guardians of Culture, Memory and Lifeways International Awards Program near the book collection he helped build. The Awards Committee was unanimous in its decision to honor Bernardis.Pictured is Tim Bernardis’ “Honored One” Award.

Perennial bookworm

Tim Bernardis awarded for expanding LBHC’s Native American book collection
Before he expanded the Little Big Horn College Library from about 2,000 volumes to 25,000, Tim Bernardis’ three decade-long career grew from humble beginnings. He lived in the college’s sewage plant and traded barbs with a Marxist. Said Marxist was a Montana State University history teacher, Craig Howard, who had a penchant for wearing cowboy boots.
“This instructor said, ‘Oh boy, we got the white guy from Berkeley who teaches Native American studies on the Crow Reservation and lives in a sewer,’” said Bernardis, a former Sacramento resident and teaching assistant at the University of California. “Then, I would say to him, ‘What about you? The Marxist cowboy professor from Bozeman, Mont.?’”
Since the sewer plant doubled as the college science lab back in 1985, Bernardis – now the library director – used the lab’s incubator as a stove and “the late, great” professor Bob Madsen brought him a fold-out couch. Madsen, he said, would go on to improve the college’s science program. As stated by LBHC President Dr. David Yarlott, Bernardis did the same for the school library.
“He went out and collected a lot of books from a lot of locations,” Yarlott said. “He helped develop the library program from the ground up.”
In forming his library, Bernardis figured it was best to emulate a book collecting “fanatic.” He discovered that spirit in Bob Bigart, founding librarian of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont. Like Bernardis, Bigart has continued work in his college as director of the Salish Kootenai College Press.
“I call him Bob ‘Books’ Bigart,” Bernardis said. “He taught me about collection development, cataloging and inter-library loans.
“Now he’s trying to get us to start a Little Big Horn College press, and publish materials on Crow history and Crow culture.”
Further input has been provided by retired MSU librarian, Mary Bushing who, according to a 2001 article from MSU News, “sees herself as a human version of the inter-library loan.” She began advising LBHC in 1985 on collection development and strategic planning, Bernardis said, and continues to do so.
Preserving Native heritage
Bernardis recently received the “Honored One” Award from the Guardians of Culture, Memory and Lifeways International Awards Program for his work preserving Native American heritage through the library, which contains a section specifically on the Crow Tribe. He was originally supposed to receive the award at a Washington, D.C. conference in 2015, but could not attend due to a last-minute family medical emergency. One year later, he attended the conference held near Phoenix.
His award was provided through the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries & Museums, an international non-profit organization founded in 2010 to support indigenous programs, services and collaboration. According to Bernardis, the award serves as an endorsement of his life’s work.
“[Bernardis] has shepherded the library from a tiny ‘shack’ to one of the best equipped facilities anywhere,” said Walter Echo-Hawk, a Native rights activist and attorney from the Pawnee Tribe, as the medal was placed around the librarian’s neck. “The facility features a full-service library and archives that has become the center for preservation and sharing of many Crow materials. Tim continues to lead by fostering projects that seek to digitize and further preserve Crow language and historical materials.”
In an email to Bernardis, Association President Susan Feller stated, “The Awards Committee was unanimous in its decision to honor you.”
Journeying to the Plains
Bernardis’ interest “in Custer and the Indians” that brought him to Montana was inspired, in part, by books he read as a child. He said, as a kid, many times he would get into bed with a book rather than go outside to play.
Another influence in his childhood, he said, was the 1970 movie “Little Big Man.” He can still quote lengthy monologues from the movie, which tells the fictional story of Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman. Crabb was raised by the Cheyenne and served under Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
“‘There once was a human being and he was very small, but he won a name: Little Man,’” Bernardis quoted, imitating the gruff voice of Crabb’s mentor Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George. “‘He went on a war party against the Pawnees, but the Pawnees were many. One by one the human beings were rubbed out. Little Man was very brave.’”
When he got older, he attended Crow Fair in 1978 and ‘82, where he saw the colorful regalia of American Indians swirling as they danced in powwows and heard the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as they journeyed past rows of teepees. Watching movies and reading books were one thing, but this was real life.
“It all made a definite impression on my mind,” he said.
One year later, he began work in Crow Agency at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, at the time called Custer Battlefield National Monument. He didn’t know it, Bernardis said, but this was the beginning of his move into the town.
He had heard about Little Big Horn College before and took a risk on the up-start school when they offered him an opportunity to teach about Crow culture and learn about the area.
“The Department Head of Crow Studies position came up and I had the nerve, as a white guy with an academic background in Native American studies, to apply for the position – which I didn’t get,” Bernardis said. “It went to Dale Old Horn, but Dale hired me to teach classes in Crow studies as an adjunct faculty [member].”
Building a collection
Once he began his work, Bernardis and a small staff, sometimes of two, worked for three years cataloging books in a 25-by-50 foot metal building that served as the library before establishing its Crow collection and the college’s archives section.
“I know he’s quite proud of that,” Yarlott said.
In 1989, two grants helped fund the expansion of the collection and archives. For the collection, the college received a Library Services and Technology Act grant from the U.S. Department of Education. For the archive, they received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Both grants have become a permanent part of operations.
More grants spaced from 1994-2014 would bring Internet access to the whole college, upgrade library ordering processes and revamp their website, purchase new furniture and start a children’s summer reading program, and expand and enhance the library’s Crow collection.
Grants are written through the help of Ted “The God” Hamilton, who served as archivist for South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation. During his time at the college from 1986-94, he wrote more than $1 million in grants for the South Dakota institution. He now serves Oglala Lakota as their assessment officer.
Using a “conservative estimate,” Bernardis believes Hamilton has helped him raise $300,000.
“If you put his name in there, make sure to put ‘The God’ in quotation marks,” Bernardis said. “He is a great grants writer, still is…most of the grants we wrote together, we got funded.”
The library building eventually grew from 5,565 square feet in 2002 to 9,045 in 2007. Now, he said, they have a staff of five people in the library and two in the archives.
According to Bernardis, the library is “home-grown” and the result of “a lot of dedicated, low-paid people with few resources making something out of nothing.”
“I’ve now become more of a pure director and not involved, so much, in the day-to-day stuff,” Bernardis said. One of his more difficult tasks, he said, is trying to keep up with changes in inter-library loan and cataloging technology.
This work, according to Yarlott, can help move toward educating future generations and encourage them to learn about the Crow tribe, along with other tribes available for study. Children who check out books, he said, can be as young as 5 or 6.
“When you actually see kids come in and look for books when they have the summer youth programs or the reading’s pretty exciting,” Yarlott said.
Perhaps, as happened with Bernardis, one will read a book that sparks the imagination.