Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid
By Cecil Paul, as told to Briony Penn
(Rocky Mountain Books, 2019)
This is a beautiful gem of a book. The wonderful cover by Roy H Vickers sets the tone for a journey with Cecil Paul toward healing and connection to place. He is at ease telling both his own life stories, with their rapids and still waters, and the traditional tales that connect the people to the Kitlope and the Central Coast, in his Magic Canoe.
Like many victims and survivors of the residential school system Cecil struggled with personal demons, but emerged as a strong and engaged spokesperson for his people.
His own stories overlap with accounts of exploitation and resource depletion, in part due to his activist roles in politics. He details the struggle to protect the Kitlope, and interweaves anecdotes of the celebrities and organizations that participated.
The many negative impacts of the Kemano hydroelectric diversion and other consequences of Alcan aluminum smelters or logging contributed to fisheries decline and social disruption. People connected to and dependent upon the land and waters were forced to watch their resources depleted. But however much diminished or damaged, the richness of the central coast, with its Spirit Bears and forests and salmon is beautifully presented.
The true healing strength and beauty of Cecil Paul’s account is the connection to family, to people, both clan and tribe and broader friendships. The warmth and sincerity of his intense love for his home place comes through on every page. He is a wonderful and outstanding person, warmly conveyed by Briony Penn, in a small sweet book.
The Whaling People
Eugene Arima and Alan Hoover
(Royal BC Museum, 2011)
In The Whaling People
, the complex story of the west coast peoples, their intricate culture, and their survival of colonialism and disease, is masterfully presented. Eugene Arima’s classic work of 1983 has been updated and new material added to help us understand both the past and the present. As a well illustrated and attractive edition with lots of sidebars and Nuu-chah-nulth language content, it can be opened at random and will immediately engage the reader.
The historic transition from a powerful society to impoverished colonial subjects is of course painful to read, but the contemporary recovery is a story of hope. In many ways the past success of the Nuu-chah-nulth was determined by the need to collect, store and distribute seasonal resources. For example, the construction of salmon weirs, the capture of a whale, collection of herring roe on kelp, or even raising house posts all require organized labour. In turn, the redistribution of abundance leads to a hierarchical society, with fixed levels of status for every one from the main chief down to the least slave.
The brutal wars between various groups are well documented, as are stories of violent conflict with the “King George Men”, often involving boats, such as the Kingfisher
incident, the horrible Tonquin
explosion, and the seizure of the Boston
, which led to John Jewitt’s capture. Repeated shelling and burning of villages, smashing canoes and hanging various people characterized the British response. There is a classic account of Gilbert Sprout telling the Tseshat that they must move their village, that he had purchased it from the Queen of England, and that King George determined that they did not need the trees nor use the land.
This great book ends with an account of the rich “Spirit filled realms” of myth, magic, healing, art, and ritual. So much of the present success and future hope for this region depends upon the continuation of this complex culture. A photo of local carver Joe Martin, with one of the many canoes he has carved, exemplifies how the past has survived and thrives in the present, and this book is a huge contribution to understanding both.