1235 The Mothers of Xsan series

Four books reviewed by Kenneth Campbell:

The Sockeye Mother
by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), illustrated by Natasha Donovan

Winnipeg: Portage and Main Press, 2018
$23.00 / 9781553797395

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The Grizzly Mother
by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), illustrated by Natasha Donovan

Winnipeg: Portage and Main Press, 2019
$23.00 / 9781553797760

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The Eagle Mother
by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), illustrated by Natasha Donovan

Winnipeg: Portage and Main Press, 2020
$23.00 / 9781553798590

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The Frog Mother
by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), illustrated by Natasha Donovan

Winnipeg: Portage and Main Press, 2021
$23.00 / 9781553799016

Reviewed by Kenneth Campbell.

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In recent years there has been a flourishing of publications featuring Indigenous authors and illustrators on many topics relevant to First Peoples in Canada, including Oral Traditions and cultural knowledge and awareness. They have also dealt with more difficult issues such as Indian Residential Schools and Reconciliation. These are welcome additions for teachers and parents seeking authentic Indigenous resources in the areas of English Language Arts and Social Studies. However, there are far fewer resources by Indigenous creators in the area of Science. The Mothers of Xsan series helps to fill that gap.

Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett Huson)

The four books in the series (with a fifth, The Wolf Mother, to be published this fall) each tell the life story of one animal species that is significant to the Gitxsan Nation, the home territory of author Hetxw’ms Gyetxw. The relationships between the animals, their ecosystems and the Gitxsan are brought to life through lively text, and also the detailed illustrations by Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan.

The books are organized around the passing seasons of the Gitxsan traditional calendar, which is based on moons that relate directly to Gitxsan connections with the land. The books, which are told in narrative form, start from the time when new life emerges; The Sockeye Mother and The Grizzly Mother begin in Wihlaxs, Black Bear’s Walking Moon (March) while The Eagle Mother and The Frog Mother open in Lasa ya’a, the Spring Salmon’s Returning Moon (April). The stories focus on the roles of the mother in nurturing her young through the seasons.

Illustration by Natasha Donovan

The theme “Mothers of Xsan” is well chosen. Mothers are immediately engaging for children, and the theme gives a focus to the series. Perhaps more importantly, it fits well with the matrilineal nature of Gitxsan society. As Hetxw’ms Gyetxw notes at the end of the books, “the Nation follows a matrilineal line, and all rights, privileges, names and stories come from the mothers.”

It is significant that the books are specifically located along the Xsan, or Skeena River, in Gitxsan territory. and key words and phrases in the Gitxsan language are embedded in the stories. Traditional Indigenous Knowledges are inherently locally-based, reflecting the diversity of the First Peoples, their languages, and the land. This British Columbia-based series, from a Manitoba publisher, exemplifies the importance of Indigenous resources that relate to particular First Peoples.

Natasha Donovan illustration

Although they are told in a narrative form, they are not traditional stories from Gitxsan Oral Traditions. Through both text and illustration, the books integrate Gitxsan perspectives and science. The biological and ecological knowledge is skillfully intertwined with the traditional and contemporary lives of the Gitxsan.

An example is a section entitled “A Shared Land” in The Grizzly Mother: “It is now Lasa ‘wiihun, the Fisherman’s Moon, which happens during the month of July for the Gitxsan. After gathering and preserving berries for winter, the Gitxsan people begin to move to their fishing camps in preparation for the salmon run. The grizzly mother has been feeding on the valley grasses and sharing the berry patches with the people who live along Xsan, the River of Mists.” The illustrations show both a grizzly family and a contemporary Gitxsan family picking huckleberries.

The artwork is exemplary. It works with the text not only to illustrate but to add layers of meaning and connections. Natasha Donovan’s illustrations use a rich, colourful graphic style to represent the natural environments and the animals and people set in them.

Illustration by Natasha Donovan

The illustrations are enriched with the subtle inclusion of elements in the Northwest Coast art style of the Gitxsan and other First Nations. One lovely example is in The Eagle Mother. In an illustration of the mother and father eagle in their nest, one of the eggs is shown with a tiny form-line eaglet.

Another feature of Northwest Coast art creates a pattern throughout all the books that children will be intrigued to spot as they read, or are read to. As each stage of life of the animals progresses to a new moon, the moon is represented in a unique Northwest Coast formline design representing that moon, hidden in the overall illustration. (In all but the first book, the author is credited with the formline illustrations.)

Also integrated into the artwork is the more academic side of the books. Footnotes are used to define unfamiliar scientific terms, which gives children some exposure to the formal style of scientific writing. The definitions are given unobtrusively in features that are incorporated into the illustrations.

Natasha Donovan. Photo by Tiffany Brooks

The books include a brief overview of the Gitxsan Nation and cultural information such as the importance of Clans and, in all but the first book, the Gitxsan moons. This is accompanied by an illustrated map of Gitksan territory.

One feature that is not included is a pronunciation guide for the sounds and words in the Gitsxan language. These guides can often be problematic, as they try to approximate the unique sounds that are not represented in English. However, it does leave the issue of readers who are not familiar with the orthography when reading the books mispronouncing words, particularly with the key sound represent by “x” in words like Nox (mother) and Xsan (Skeena River). The publisher’s website does include a short video of Hetxw’ms Gyetxw pronouncing some of the words in The Salmon Mother. It is available on YouTube.

The books are 32 pages unpaginated, hardcover with a sturdy dust jacket, beautifully bound and printed by Friesens, and should stand up to many re-readings.

The publisher suggests these books for ages 9 to 11, and the reading level is appropriate for that level, or even older. Children that age will find this series ideal for their research projects. But the Mothers of Xsan series has a wider appeal, for younger children who will love them as picture books, and anyone who is inspired by authentic works by Indigenous writers and artists.

Brett Huson (Hetxw’ms Gyetxw) at the Gitxsan village of ‘Ksan (Xsan), near Hazelton, at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers

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Kenneth Campbell is an historical researcher and curriculum developer based in Victoria. He has had the privilege of working closely with a number of First Nations organizations to develop curricular materials for over twenty years. Editor’s note: Kenneth Campbell is the author of North Coast Odyssey: The Inside Passage from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert (Sono Nis Press, 1993), and is the keeper of the online database Wooden Boats of BC. He has also reviewed The Codfish Dream: Chronicles of a West Coast Fishing Guide by David Giblin (Heritage House, 2018) for The Ormsby Review.

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The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

 The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Illustration by Natasha Donovan from Frog Mother

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