Oral History Revived: First Nations Stories Rise from the Page

August 10, 2014

I majored in history (and herstory) in university and I have written many historical profiles, some of which are already posts in this blog. Anyone who does historical research, knows the thrill of discovering something new in the dusty documents (well, maybe not so dusty anymore with the use of more and more new technology) in a government archives or library.

Technically, it is not new at all. It may have been filed away for a century and often much longer than this. It is new, in the sense, that it has never or rarely appeared in a newspaper, magazine or a book.

I am sure all historians feel excitement fluttering around in their insides when this kind of discovery is made. I know I always have.

I cannot speak for Chris Arnett but I am willing to bet that he was ecstatic when he first found out about Beryl Mildred Cryer and the stories that she once relayed to the general public during her lifetime in the last century. Read on:

Aqua
Summer 2008
Oral History Revived: First Nations Stories Rise for the Page
Book review by Tanya Lester

Two Houses Half-Buried in Sand: Traditions of the Hul’g’umi’num’ Coast Salish of Kuper Island and Vancouver Island by Beryl Mildred Cryer, compiled and edited by Chris Arnett, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2007,351 pp. $24.95

Chris Arnett is what good authors and historians are made of. He is a sleuth into the past and a stickler for details who puts aside his own ego to shine a spotlight on history that has been “half buried” from academics and the public in general.

He also knows a good story — or in this case, a total of 60 — when he comes across one. The ones told her by Mary Rice and other natives living on Vancouver Island and some of the Gulf Islands, including Salt Spring where Arnett is based, make for fascinating page turners. Anyone who still believes Canadian history is boring will be converted to a new way of thinking by perusing these offerings that were recorded in the 1930s.

Arnett’s long book title is itself a lesson illustrating how he records history. Two Houses Half-Buried in Sand, the first part of the title, was chosen for several reasons. One is related to the Puneluxutth’ people’s origin story.

Arnett writes that the ancestors said,”A tiny man and woman, emerged from half-buried logs and sand; it is time that their stories emerge once more, after being ‘half buried< for decades in the official British Columbia Archives."

Reading a footnote on a masters university paper led Arnett to the archival material containing the Oral Traditions of the Hul'q'umi'num Coast Salish of Kuper island and Vancouver island by Beryl Mildred Cryer. The storytellers had worked with Cryer, a Chemainus freelance writer, who wrote down their stories and had them published in the Sunday magazine of Victoria<s Daily Colonist.

He realized the "narratives of the women Beryl Cryer worked with are particularly valuable given the overwhelming lack of female ethnographic texts from this period."

After quoting Cryer in his first book, The Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849-1863, Arnett pulled together these stories over a 10-year period. His dedication to including these women's stories in the historical canon is admirable.

His new book covers the same geographical area as his first one and discusses many conflicts that occurred at the time. Unlike his earlier First Nations history book, however, this one is mostly written in the first person. Readers experience an immediacy that makes them feel almost as if they are in the time period when the story occurred — often back into the 1800s. Cryer's wrotomg techniques help, too. She writes about arriving at her sources' homes, describes how they look and act, and is a persistent interviewer in drawing out the details.

The storytellers' talk includes people flying through the woods (hard to believe until one considers yogic flying, which is practised today), 13-month or moon names, herbs and healing methods, whales and other animals, slaves, hunting, time balls, potlatches, burials and the knitting of the famous Coast Salish sweaters.

Arnett<s summaries at the beginning of each story are invaluable for researchers and those who might prefer to select certain stories for reading…

–END–

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To read the earlier posts in this blog, please go to http://www.writingsmall.wordpress.com
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Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader by Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or by going to the title and the author name at amazon.com

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