1537 syilx and Okanagan women

Okanagan Women’s Voices: Syilx and settler writing and relations, 1870s to 1960s
by Jeannette Armstrong, Lally Grauer, and Janet MacArthur (editors)

Penticton: Theytus Books, 2021
$34.95 / 9781926886527

Reviewed by Ken Favrholdt


Three women authors have compiled and written about seven other female writers, creating a unique and important tribute to the early voices of women in the Okanagan. To Okanagan residents, the women are familiar and famous for the writing they have left. The importance of this book is that they are brought to light to readers unfamiliar with this part of British Columbia’s geography, history, and literature.

The editors are well known in their own right – Jeannette Armstrong, Lally Grauer, and Janet MacArthur. Armstrong is Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at UBC Okanagan and a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy, an activist, novelist and poet, and a member of the En’owkin Centre, home of Theytus Books on the Penticton Indian Reserve, where the book has been published. Grauer is an Associate Professor at UBCO where she has taught both Canadian and Indigenous literatures. With Armstrong she published Native Poetry in Canada: a contemporary anthology (2001). MacArthur, Associate Professor Emerita of English and Cultural Studies at UBCO, has research interests in early modern poetry, settler memoirs, and illness narrative.

Co-editor Jeannette Armstrong. Vernon Museum & Archives via Facebook
Lally Grauer, co-editor. Photo by Heather Blackwell
Co-editor Janet MacArthur











Josephine Shuttleworth (right) and her daughter Louise, c. 1950

The authorial trio has amassed an important collection of writings by four syilx Okanagan women and three settler women that provide a look at the relationships between the two worlds of Indigenous people and newcomers. Each of the editors provides a discourse on their chosen writers, drawing on their published and unpublished “life writings,” letters, memoirs, stories, and articles. The writings of two daughters of marriages between syilx and settler, and the stories of two syilx women who each married into settler society, fill a gap in the literature of the Okanagan region, previously depicted as a privileged and male-dominated colonial society. As the authors state, “Our compilation of their writing speaks to the many changes in the way British Columbia history has been studied in recent decades and is part of the movement for the representation of diverse voices.” MacArthur reflects that “postcolonial theory and studies of race … put in question some of the assumptions upon which mainstream histories of the region were built.”

The women representing syilx and settler communities are presented in chronological order of their birth in both sections – syilx Josephine Shuttleworth, Eliza Jane Swalwell, Marie Houghton Brent, Mourning Dove, and settlers Susan Louisa Moir Allison, Hester Emily White, and Isabel Christie MacNaughton.

Most of the material has been previously published in various outlets but here the writers can be compared together. The effect is a very rewarding and important book — a contribution to postcolonial studies that counteract the largely British construction of a “genteel” society in the Okanagan found in histories of the 20th century.

Isabel Christie MacNaughton

Josephine Shuttleworth (1865-1950), a syilx storyteller of the traditional stories of her people, was born on the Penticton Indian Reserve, the granddaughter of high Chief Nkwala, who figures in many of the accounts in the book. She was a rancher, hunter, expert basket-maker, and syilx story-teller. Her stories in the form of dramas adapted by Isabel Christie MacNaughton achieved acclaim when they were performed by the children of the Inkameep Day School on the Osoyoos Indian Reserve. “Her voice and particular tellings were essential to conveying the living culture of the Syilx people,” note the editors.

A rehearsal of a play by the children of the Inkameep Day School, Osoyoos
Thomas and Eliza Jane Swallwell (right)

Eliza Jane Swalwell (1868-1944), a sylix storyteller, memoirist environmental essayist and spokesperson for Indigenous rights, published only one piece of writing, “Girlhood Days in the Okanagan” (1939), included here in Okanagan Women’s Voices.

Marie Houghton Brent (1870-1968) was born to the daughter of Chief Nkwala and so is granddaughter of “Walking Grizzly Bear,” whom Brent calls the most powerful chief during the fur trade era in the Okanagan. Brent writes expansively on them in her article “Indian Lore,” published in the Okanagan Historical Society Report. Another of her articles, “My School Days,” recounts her years at the Okanagan Mission (now Kelowna) School, then at the convent in Kamloops where she was taught by strict nuns.

Marie Houghton Brent and William Brent, circa 1910
Christine Quintasket (Mourning Dove)  (1880s-1936), ca. 1916
















Mourning Dove (1886-1936), the pen-name of Christine Quintasket, whom I have studied and written about previously in Okanagan History (OHS, 78: pp. 20-28), is one of the first North American Indigenous women to write a novel, Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range. She also wrote a book of Okanagan folklore, as she called it, Coyote Stories (1933). Published posthumously is her Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography (1990). According to her autobiography, she was born in a canoe crossing the Kootenay River near Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho. Her grandmother was born in the Nicola Valley, and her father, Joseph Quintasket, was not of mixed heritage although he is listed as a member of the Colville tribe. Mourning Dove received formal schooling at Sacred Heart Convent at Ward, Washington, and also at Indian boarding schools, including Fort Shaw Indian School near Sun River, Montana. Her mother died in 1902; in 1909 she married Hector McLeod, but the marriage lasted a short time. Living alone in Portland, Oregon, in 1912 she drafted her novel Cogewea and assumed the name Mourning Dove in 1921. Cogewea was published in 1927 with the help of Luciullus Virgil McWhorter, a Yakima Valley businessman, an ardent collector of American Indian artifacts, and an activist for the Yakama people, who met Christine in 1914 and became a mentor. Excerpts are provided in Okanagan Women’s Voices from Cogewea, and from Coyote Stories.

Susan Allison
Susan Allison with Senklips or Synkelips, her pet coyote


















Ormsby, cover of A Pioneer Gentlewoman

Part Two of Okanagan Women’s Voices, “Early Settlement and Relations” by Janet MacArthur, introduces Susan Louisa Moir Allison (1845-1937). Born in Ceylon, where her father owned a tea plantation, Susan Moir came to BC in 1860 and settled at first with her family at Hope. Later, she and her husband John Fall Allison were among the “first wave” of interior settlers who settled in the Similkameen River area. 

McArthur provides a long essay followed by Allison’s writing, including “Sketches of Indian Life” and her poem In-cow-mas-ket, concerning the lives, manners and customs of the Similkameen Indians, as well as other valuable pieces. Some of her recollections were published in A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia (1976) by historian Margaret Ormsby, a classic settler memoir that is still in print.

John Fall Allison’s first wife Nora Yacumtecum with her granddaughter Maggie Terbasket, 1925

MacArthur analyzes Susan Allison’s work, situating it between the settler and the Syilx worlds. She spent much time running their store and ranch in the Similkameen Valley and learning Chinook jargon to communicate. In 1897 she lost her husband but continued the ranch, later moving to Princeton. MacArthur notes that her “Recollections,” published serially in the Vancouver Province in the 1930s, form “an important record of a close contact between syilx and settler in the domestic sphere.”

Hester Haynes (later White) seated at right
Hester White, née Haynes

Part Three of the book, “Continuing Relations,” by Lally Grauer, begins with a chapter on Hester Emily White (1877-1963). Born in Osoyoos in 1877, Hester was the eldest daughter of John Carmichael Haynes, the customs collector at the BC-US border in 1862, then gold commissioner and magistrate for the area. Haynes recommended and carried out the reduction of syilx reserves – a decision not without controversy then and today — and began pre-empting land after that, becoming a stock raiser. Upon his death in 1888, Haynes owned one of the largest cattle ranches in the Okanagan. Hester married Dr. R.B. White of Penticton and in her fifties started to write, beginning with a piece on Judge Haynes for the British Columbia Historical Quarterly, which became a venue for her literary output. She also maintained friendships in many letters with Mourning Dove, Marie Brent, and Matilda Kruger, a syilx woman and Osoyoos neighbour.

The final portrait in Okanagan Women’s Voices is of Isabel Christie MacNaughton (1915-2003), a writer, poet, and local historian married to Carleton MacNaughton, an early environmentalist. They lived near Okanagan Falls. Writing settler reminiscences in the late 1930s for the Penticton Herald, Isabel described her relationship with Josephine Shuttleworth and published her stories.

Matilda Kruger, 1901. Photograph by Augustus William Ericson

Okanagan Women’s Voices, a substantial book at 460 pages, is a variform and valuable resource, including a map showing Syilx Territory and many photos of the women and their families, as well as an extensive note section, a bibliography, and a useful index that will lead one back and forth through the book. The book’s endnotes, comprising 39 pages, are a wealth of information explaining syilx language as well as people and places mentioned in the women’s stories, and much miscellany. It is all fascinating. (Please note that I use the current lower-case spelling of syilx; it is also worth mentioning that, as a cross-border nation, Okanogan is spelled thus on the American side, where the term Indian is still used.)

Okanagan’s Women’s Voices is best viewed as an anthology rather than as a single master narrative intended to be read in “one go.” It is the kind of basic resource book where one can go back and forth between sections to understand the linkages between people. For example, the book contains many leads to various topics such as Chief Pelka-Mu-lox – an interest of mine — mentioned by Brent. My only grumble is that a family tree or genealogical chart of sorts would have been useful to show the relationships between the women concerned, their husbands, First Nations chiefs, settlers, and others. Apart from that quibble, Okanagan’s Women’s Voices is a welcome book — and a rich resource for any student, researcher, or writer of the Okanagan Valley’s people.

Jeannette Armstrong leads the academic procession at UBC Okanagan. Photo courtesy UBC Okanagan News


Ken Favrholdt

Ken Favrholdt is a freelance writer, historical geographer and museologist with a BA and MA (Geography, UBC), a teaching certificate (SFU), and certificates as a museum curator. He spent ten years at the Kamloops Museum & Archives, five at the Secwépemc Museum and Heritage Park, four at the Osoyoos Museum, and he is now Archivist of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. He has written extensively on local history in Kamloops This Week, the former Kamloops Daily News, the Claresholm Local Press, and other community papers. Ken has also written book reviews for BC Studies and articles for BC History, Canadian Cowboy Country Magazine, CartgraphicaCartouche, and MUSE (magazine of the Canadian Museums Association). He taught geography courses at Thompson Rivers University and edited the Canadian Encyclopedia, geography textbooks, and a commemorative history for the Town of Oliver and Osoyoos Indian Band. Ken has undertaken research for several Interior First Nations and is now working on books on the fur trade of Kamloops and the gold-rush journal of John Clapperton, a Nicola Valley pioneer and Caribooite. He lives in Kamloops. Editor’s note: Ken Favrholdt has also reviewed books by Arthur Manuel & Ronald Derrickson, Clarence LouieJohn Macdonald, and Brett McGillivray for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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