Author Tags: First Nations
A longtime rancher and member of the Lower Similkameen Indian band, Harry Robinson was born in Oyama near Kelowna on October 8, 1900. He devoted much of the later part of his life to telling and retelling Okanagan stories that he first heard from his partially blind grandmother Louise Newhmkin on her Chopaka ranch.
Other mentors included Mary Narcisse, reputed to be 116 when she died in 1944, John Ashnola, who died during the 1918 flu epidemic at age 98, as well as Alex Skeuce, old Pierre and old Christine.
“When I become to be six years old,” he said, “They begin to tell me and they keep on telling me every once in a while, seems to be right along until 1918. I got enough people to tell me. That’s why I know. The older I get, [it] seems to come back on me.... Maybe God thought I should get back and remember so I could tell. Could be. I don’t know. I like to tell anyone, white people or Indian.”
With the help of Margaret Holding, Harry Robinson learned to read and write English in his early twenties. Weary of itinerant ranching and farming jobs, Robinson bought his first suit from a second-hand store in Oroville and married Matilda, a widow about ten years older than him, on December 9, 1924. By the 1950s they had acquired four large ranches near Chopaka and Ashnola where Matilda had grown up as the daughter of John Shiweelkin.
Childless and burdened by a hip injury in 1956, Harry Robinson sold his ranches in 1973, two years after Matilda died on March 26, 1971. On August 24, 1977, Robinson was living in retirement in a rented bungalow in Hedley when he met a non-Aboriginal graduate student from Nova Scotia, Wendy Wickwire, who was introduced by mutual friends.
On the evening before they all went to the Omak rodeo in Washington State, Harry launched into a story after dinner and continued until almost midnight. That experience drew Wickwire back to the Similkameen Valley for the next ten years, with her Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder, transcribing and editing Robinson’s stories, narrated by him in English.
For part of the 1970s, Wickwire lived in Merritt and Lytton, immersing herself in Aboriginal culture for a Ph.D. dissertation on Indian song. “I went to Lytton, to Spences Bridge, to Spuzzum, and all over to get a bigger cross-section of songs. Then I got to spend the whole year in the Nicola Valley, near Merritt, living in a cabin and tripping out to find people to record. During this time Harry kept telling me his stories.”
Now a member of the Department of History and the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, Wickwire first broached the idea of putting Harry Robinson’s stories into book form in 1984 and he approved. “I’m going to disappear,” Robinson said, “and there’ll be no more telling stories.”
For years Harry Robinson would wait for Wickwire at the bus stop outside his home near Hedley, waiting for her to climb into his old green Ford pickup truck so he could tell more stories. “We’d go out to dinner and he’d tell stories all night. The next day we’d drop around to all of the various places in town, buying groceries at the general store, or sightseeing or something, and I’d make him dinner, and then we’d spend another night telling stories. I’d come back and go to a rodeo with him, or go on a car trip, or something, and we’d always have a great time. Hanging out, we kind of became like a father and daughter.”
Interviewed in 1993, Wickwire said, “Harry was such a tremendous artist and a tremendous man, I just knew deep in my heart that this was really, really, really important stuff. I sent Harry's manuscript out—the first one—to almost everybody and it was turned down flatly by almost all of them. Then all of a sudden, one person, Karl Siegler of Talonbooks, picks it up. I knew Harry's work was important for British Columbia, for Canada, for the Oral Traditions—so I kept flogging it. Now Harry's on the map.”
The Wickwire/Robinson collaboration has produced three volumes of stories, Write It On Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller (1989), a finalist for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize when Robinson was 89; Nature Power: In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller (1992), winner of the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize in 1993; and the newly released Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory (Talonbooks, $24.95), containing Coyote stories and material about the new quasi-monsters, SHAmas (whites), who dispossess “Indians” of their lands and rights.
“The third volume contains many of the stories I put aside earlier because they were just too weird for words,” says Wickwire. “For instance, Harry tells a story about a meeting between Coyote and the King of England. I did not find anything like this in the published collections. But after a detailed study, I have decided that Aboriginal folks a century ago were likely telling such far out stories—but the collectors weren’t recording them very often. They weren’t interested in them because they saw them as “tarnished” stories. Franz Boas and his colleagues were looking for the authentic “traditional” stories. And of course they were busy defining authentic and traditional in their terms, for their own purposes.”
In his stories Robinson differentiated between stories that are chap-TEEK-whl and stories that are shmee-MA-ee. The former explain creation from a period when the Okanagan people were animal-people. The latter are stories from the world of human people, not animal people. He was always willing to incorporate modern influences, including the Judeo-Christian God, within his evolving world view.
“A good example of Harry’s ability to incorporate current events in a meaningful way in his stories,” writes Wickwire, “is his interpretation of the landing on the moon of the American astronaut Neil Armstrong. When the news of this event reached Harry, it was not surprising to him at all because he knew that Coyote’s son had gone there years ago. The white people were naive, he concluded.
“Armstrong was not the first to land on the moon. He had simply followed the path that Coyote’s son had learned about long ago, which is recorded in the old story “Coyote Plays a Dirty Trick.” In this story, Harry sees the earth orbit and the moon orbit of the Apollo mission as the two ‘stopping points’ so critical to Coyote’s son’s return to earth.”
Eventually Harry Robinson needed full-time medical attention for a worsening leg ulcer. He went to live at Pine Acres senior citizens home near Kelowna, in Westbank. “It was very sterile,” Wickwire recalls. “He was used to driving his old pickup truck into town and getting his mail, and having lots of visitors come to his house.” Robinson moved to a senior citizens home in Keremeos. Later his condition deteriorated when his artificial hip dislodged and caused serious infection. He had 24-hour care at Mountain View Manor in Keremeos until he died on January 25, 1990.
Wickwire is married to Michael M'Gonigle, her co-author for Stein: The Way of the River which won the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award at the B.C. Book Prizes in 1989. [See M’Gonigle entry] Wickwire is working on a biography of James Teit, the ethnographer who lived and worked among the southern and northern interior peoples from 1884 until 1922. Her academic qualifications are: B.Music Hons. (Music) University of Western Ontario 1972; M.A. (Interdisc. Studies – Music, Anthropology, Folklore) York University 1978; Ph.D. (Ethnomusicology, Anthropology) Wesleyan University 1983.
[See Harry Robinson entry]
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Stein: The Way of the River
Wickwire, Wendy & Michael M'Gonigle. Stein: The Way of the River (Talonbooks, 1988).
Robinson, Harry. Write It On Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller (Theytus/Talon, 1989; 2004). Compiled and edited by Wendy Wickwire.
Robinson, Harry. Nature Power: In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller (Douglas & McIntyre, 1992; Talonbooks, 2004). Compiled and edited by Wendy Wickwire.
Wickwire, Wendy & Michael M'Gonigle & Marion Kelsey. Victory Harvest: Diary of a Canadian in the British Women's land army, 1940-1944 (McGill-Queens University Press, 1997).
Wickwire, Wendy (editor). Ethnographic Eyes: Essays in Memory Douglas Cole (Spring/Summer double issue, BC Studies, 2000).
Robinson, Harry & Wendy Wickwire. Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory (Talonbooks, 2005). With CD.
[BCBW 2005] "First Nations"
Write It On Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller
SHE WAS A YOUNG GRADUATE STUDENT from Nova Scotia. He was an old native `of the Similkameen Valley. On August 24th, 1977, they met in the sweltering heat of Hedley, B.C. He started telling his stories; she started her Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder rolling.
"I tell stories for 21 hours or more when I get started," he told her, "Kind of hard to believe, but I do, because this (is) my job. I'm a storyteller."
Hundreds of stories later, Wendy Wickwire has transcribed 89-year-old Harry Robinson's stories in Write It On Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller (Theytus $14.95). A long-time rancher and member of the Similkameen Indian band, Harry Robinson devoted much of the latter part of his life to telling and re-telling Okanagan folklore.
"When I become to be six years old," he says, "They begin to tell me and they keep on telling me every once in a while, seems to be right along until 1918. I got enough people to tell me. That's why I know."
"The older I get, (it) seems to come back on me..." he says, "Maybe God thought I should get back and remember so I could tell. Could be. I don't know.
"I like to tell anyone, white people or Indian."
The collaborative book, Write It On Your Heart, is the culmination of Wendy Wickwire's career-long interest in expressing native culture to a broad audience. In the late 1970's she lived in Merritt and Lytton, immersing herself in native culture for a PhD dissertation on Indian song.
"I went to Lytton, to Spences Bridge, to Spuzzum, and all over to get a bigger cross-section of songs. Then I got to spend the whole year in the Nicola Valley, near Merritt, living in a cabin and tripping out to find people to record.
"I would travel around with old cylinder recordings of native singers and try to find people who had known those singers or who could identify those songs. During this Harry kept telling me his stories."
Wickwire eventually married Michael M'Gonigle, an SFU professor of natural resource management, and moved to Vancouver. Last fall the couple co-authored Stein: The Way of the River, a bestselling book on the Stein River valley and its threatened culture. In her warm old Kitsilano home on a sub-zero winter night, Wickwire easily evokes a world in which Harry still waits for her by the bus stop outside his home near Hedley, waiting in his old green Ford pickup truck for her to climb off the bus.
"We'd go out to dinner and he'd tell stories all night. The next day we'd drop around to all of the various places in town, buying groceries at the general store, or sightseeing or something, and I'd make him dinner, and then we'd spend another night telling stories.
"I'd come back and go to a rodeo with him, or go on a car trip, or something, and we'd always have a great time. Hanging out,' we kind of became like a father and daughter."
Eventually Harry needed full-time medical attention for a worsening leg ulcer. Although the prospect of a senior citizens home was threatening to him he went to Pine Acres native senior citizens home near Kelowna, in Westbank.
"It was very sterile. He was used to driving his old pickup truck into town and getting his mail, and having lots of visitors come to his house."
Robinson moved to a senior citizens home in Keremeos -his home base where he could look after himself. Later his condition deteriorated. He now has 24-hour care at Mountain View Manor in Keremeos.
Wickwire first broached the idea of putting Harry Robinson’s stories into book form in 1984. 'I’m going to disappear," says Harry Robinson, "and there'll be no more telling stories."—by Ian Robbins
[Spring / BCBW 1989]
Nature Power (reprint)
Press Release 2004
Many of the stories in Harry Robinson¹s second collection feature the shoo-MISH, or ³nature helpers² that assist humans and sometimes provide them with special powers. Some tell of individuals who use these powers to heal themselves; others tell of Indian doctors who have been given the power to heal others. Still others tell of power encounters: a woman ³comes alive² after death; a boy meets a singing squirrel; a voice from nowhere predicts the future.
"Epic, mesmerizing tales by a great Okanagan storyteller that lift [one] eerily and movingly, into a different world."
Michele Landsberg, Toronto Star
"Nowhere have I read a more productive synthesis of the Indian oral tradition and the written word. A few other books have come close, but only close."
Terry Glavin, Vancouver Sun
ISBN 0-88922-504-4; 6 x 9; 272 pp; Trade Paper
-- Talonbooks, 2004
Filmmaker Paul McIsaac interviewed Wendy Wickwire in Penticton for B.C. BookWorld on the morning after she received the Roderick Haig-Brown Prize for Nature Power by the late Harry Robinson.
BCBW: How's it feel to win the Haig-Brown Prize?
WICKWIRE: It feels great, especially because Harry was from here. Harry Robinson to me represents the soil of this area. Harry was Okanagan and what he talked about was this place; the Similkameen Valley and this valley. He knew everything about this place. So having the award presented here feels great. On the other hand, Vickie Jensen's book is wonderful. I know Vickie. And the other book, the Vancouver history "I just knew deep in my heart this is really, really important stuff book, is also wonderful. So it was one of those things where I was thinking, 'I hope they all win'.
BCBW: What does it mean to a writer to win this prize?
WICKWIRE: It puts Harry on the map. That's really important to me. The publicity part. You want the book to get out there. Every bit helps and this will help a lot. It's interesting to see how these things work. I'm realizing more and more you can do a wonderful book, but if nobody hears about it, it doesn't go very far. I still don't feel that the general public knows enough about these books. 50 for that reason I think it's really important these B.C. Book Prizes.
BCBW: In your acceptance speech you also mentioned the importance of appreciating 'the depth of oral wisdom'.
WICKWIRE: Yes. Obviously we rely pretty much on the print medium. Whereas Harry was a storyteller who could go on for hours and hours and hours. In fact, if you went to visit him for an afternoon to hear a story or two he would say, 'I'm sorry, you've got a couple of hours and I can't do it. You need at least a day or two. Because when I get started I can go for 24 hours or more without stopping. So it's a different concept than what most of us are used to.
BCBW: If you had to give some advice to young writers or someone who is part way into their first book, is there anything you would suggest?
WICKWIRE: Just believe in what you're doing. If there's a ton of passion involved in it, it'll probably work out. For me, with my relationship with Harry, he was such a tremendous artist and a tremendous man, I just knew deep in my heart that this is really, really, really important stuff. And don't let anybody say 'No'. I sent Harry's manuscript out--the first one--to almost everybody and it was turned down flatly by almost all of them. Then all of a sudden, almost by a fluke, one person picks it up. So don't be deterred by the negativity that you're going to encounter. Keep flogging. Keep flogging. And don't take it personally. I knew Harry's work was important for British Columbia, for Canada, for the Oral Traditions--so I kept flogging it. Now Harry's on the map.
[BCBW 1993] “First Nations”