Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Fiction
A member of the Spallumcheen Indian Band, just outside Vernon in Enderby, Gerry William of Merritt is Associate Dean at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. He has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Victoria in 1985 and a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies. He first published a speculative fiction novel called The Black Ship: Book One of Enid Blue Starbreaks (1994), regarded as the first science fiction novel by a Canadian First Nations author.
Having taught at the En’owkin International School of Writing in Penticton, Williams, an avid “Trekkie” and sci-fi reader, believes science fiction is compatible for themes and characters to be explored by Aboriginal writers.
In his follow-up novel, The Woman in the Trees (2004), about the syilx (Okanagan people) during the time of contact with European settlers, the character of Wolverine meets the young priest Black Robes in the Okanagan. Wolverine, Blue Dreams and Horse also encounter the first settlers, ranchers and orchardists in the Okanagan area. The stories "artfully blend reality and fantasy," are "told with integrity and humour," and represent "a valuable addition to the canon of Canadian Aboriginal literature" (according to Canadian Book Review Annual). This novel also features the character/spirit named Enid Blue Starbreaks, aka The Woman in the Trees, the woman from the other side of creation. The Woman in the Trees and Coyote observe and comment upon the “contact” period that brought disease and devastation to the Okanagan and Shuswap First Nations. In 2016 The Woman in the Trees was made available as an e-book.
As a child Jeannette Armstrong witnessed the large salmon harvests on her people’s lands which later declined to almost nothing. She has referred to her mother as "a river Indian," someone who was deeply connected to the traditional fisheries of the Columbia River system. Consequently the loss of the salmon run for her people has resulted, for her, in "the deepest possible grief." Revering water and salmon as inseparable, she pledged in 1998 to "forge something new, a new course chosen for the right reasons. A course insuring the preservation of the precious gifts of life to each of us and our generations to come as true caretakers of these lands." After a team of researchers gathered a wealth of information from and about the indigenous cultures along the Fraser River, Jeannette Armstrong and Gerry William co-edited River of Salmon Peoples (Theytus Books 2016), a book focussed on the waterway's most valuable resource, the salmon. Nine communities were consulted over a two-year period to gather research, photographs and artwork that complement the oral narratives of each community and the book's exploration of the environmental challenges now facing the waterway and its contents.
The Black Ship: Book One of Enid Blue Starbreaks (Theytus 1994)
The Woman in the Trees (New Star, 2004)
River of Salmon Peoples (Theytus Books 2016). Co-editor
The Woman in the Trees
review by Cherie Thiessen
"Owning a story in the syilx way meant not just memorizing a story, but owning its center. Each story had its own heart, and stories could not be told unless the teller knew and understood the heart, and could use the heart to tell different listeners the same story using different words."
Gerry William must believe this. This is a story he really owns. Like an ancien drama, you can imagine how this story has been told and will continue to be told as long as there are people to tell them and ears to listen.
These kinds of stories have always been the center of the indigenous world and the strands of this one twirl around this magical story of the Okanagan peoples (syilx) who have lived in the lands around Vernon for untold generations.
"Often, the way a story is told is as important as the story itself," begins
the publicity blurb that accompanies this fiction. First Nations Literature is like none other and in the hands of a master storyteller like William it will wrap itself around the reader every bit as much as that capricious wind blowing around Coyote.
So part of the tale tells of the syilx and their first meetings with the settlers. It would be so easy for it to be a diatribe against these newcomers as smallpox, raids, despoliation of the land and missionary zeal threaten and eventually overtake the Okanagans, but this isn't allowed to happen for long as the story is swished away by Coyote. In and out of time and realities we go, as animals, spirits and people unfold their tales in different bands of fantasy/reality. The Woman in the Trees is Enid; she's as real as Wolverine¹s mother, Sky Woman. Enid can be seen by some of syilx and has even rescued two of their children. It¹s to her that Walking Grizzly, one of the great Syilx chiefs, returns at the end of the book. They swap stories until it is time him to accompany her to the other world.
This storybook is full of memorable phrases. Like the cold blue stone that Horse shows to his grandson, they shine out from the book and attract attention: "Love and hate cannot be taken back once they are spoken." "There are fifty ways to tell the beginning of everything, but there is only one ending." "When I give to you, I give myself."
There is also, welcomingly, much humor, as in the story of Coyote: "At the beginning, there was only water, Coyote, and the Great Spirit. Coyote wanted things different. He wanted the sun¹s name then the moon¹s, then grizzly bear's syilx name (Kee-lau-naw), and, finally, even Fox's name. But the day the Great Spirit handed out names, Coyote slept in."
The mighty Walking Grizzly, a warrior who has nine wives and many followers, begins and ends the story. The elder Horse, his son Blue Dreams, and his grandson Wolverine are the other main syilx characters. The soldiers and the settlers are nameless and ever increasing until two of them wrest attention - one a rancher and one an orchardist. They feud with one another, much to the bemusement of the now aged Wolverine, who is friend to both of them. The rancher, Ivan, has a daughter, who like Wolverine can span both worlds. She unknowingly brings them all together during a dramatic storm and subsequent foiled rescues, but there is no end to this story. Nor should there be. Coyote, the Woman in the Trees, and the wind will remain to tell many more tales, but these humans, who lived between 1780 and 1865, now only exist in the mind of the storyteller and in those of us who listened to him.
Some may be surprised to learn that the author, the Associate Dean at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, is also a science fiction writer, but why not? Science Fiction and First Nations literature share much in common: they both deal with the future while pointing backwards, they both blend worlds, and they both travel beyond the mundane.