1639 A handful of seeds
Six books reviewed by Linda Rogers:
Meet Your Family/ Gikenim Giniigi’igoog
by David Bouchard (text) and Kristy Cameron (illustrations)
Victoria: Medicine Wheel Education, 2021
$24.99 / 9781989122662
The Corn Chief
by Karen Whetung (text) and Lindsay Delaronde (illustrations)
Victoria: Medicine Wheel Publishing, 2022
$16.99 / 9781989122907
We All Play
by Julie Flett
Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2021
$22.95 / 9781771646079
Majagalee: The Language of Seasons
by Shawna Davis (text and illustrations) and Toonsa Jordana Luggi (photographs)
New Westminster: McKellar & Martin Publishing, 2022
$22.00 / 9781990458002
Stand Like a Cedar
by Nicola I. Campbell (text) and Carrielynn Victor (illustrations)
Winnipeg: HighWater Press, 2021
$19.95 / 9781553799214
The Raven Mother
by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) and Natasha Donovan (illustrations)
They tried to “take the Indian out of the child,” but it never ended, the storytelling that united each generation of elders and ancestors to their children, watering the seeds that grow out of the oldest blanket, Mother Earth. And now the cultural renaissance witnesses translation of oral to literary tradition, making the garden inclusive as more and more Indigenous writers and artists show us how to talk with kids.
It’s a bitter irony that it has taken the disinterment of innocents to remind us that the Earth is not only home to lost children and humans waiting in line for sky burial, but the real stories of creation, which are far older than the dreams of voyageurs or shortsighted bureaucrats. It has taken this long for us to collectively understand that we are united in one story, which is told in the children’s books, variations on a theme, that came in the current sharing.
For those who argue that cultural recognition is only the beginning, we can be comforted in knowing that change happens in the minds of children as they assimilate the stories of their ancestors, narratives that remind them they are one with the universe and with each other as they go forward into a world that has been cursed with transactional values. We can hope children who assimilate their messages are the peace warriors of the future.
Meet Your Family, by David Bouchard and Kristy Cameron, is all you know and all you need to know about “all my relations.” Sometimes a book comes along that steals the breath, then gives it back, so we say “Soul come back” as after the happy sneeze. This is such a gift, the satisfaction no smaller than seeing the great Ian MacEwen finally control his ploticidal impulses in Lessons, his recent book of conjoined world and intimate family.
The only message that matters when Mother Earth is betrayed by conflict, man against man, man against woman, man against environment, humankind against itself is we are one, our finite partcles of being flowing through every living thing. The lesson is urgent and Bouchard and Cameron deliver it, in picture and verse, with deliberate gentility, love one another right now. Meet your Mother, they invite:
We all come from her
Those with feathers or fur
Those who walk on two legs
Birthed from water or eggs.
The format is perfect, verse embedded in delicious affirmations of life, a surround of art that is, by virtue of its Ojibway source, line and colour describing fellow creatures from the phenomenal and spirit worlds, at once personal and universal. It is a good thing that the book is hardbound because it will be read over and over by children and adults.
As we meet Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon holding up the sky, bathing the wakeful and sleeping Earth in light, lectures on matriarchy and world balance are made redundant. This is all we need to know. It is within the grasp of every child and every adult who listens and watches because the illustrations light up child world, a room with no walls. Just Meet Your family. Gikenim Giniigi’igoog. It is right in front of us, the real theory of relativity, no mystery, just a simple homily.
There is a beautiful fact about cornhusk dolls, traditional artefact of every nation where corn feeds the people: they do not have faces, a reminder to remain humble in the family of man, one face, maybe the moon, serving all as we move through the seasons of life. We come and go and the essential narrative remains the same, one story, one face.
The narrator of The Corn Chief, written by storyteller Karen Whetung and illustrated by photographer Lindsay Delaronde, is Linny who wants to inherit the mantle of Chief as the current incumbent rises to spirit. This she can do by raising more corn than other children, competition a questionable premise. As she falters, she learns from a wise Auntie who teaches the lesson of co-operation.
Auntie gave her (seeds) to plant,
She called them sisters three.
Each one supports the other two.
Grow them and you will see.
Since competition is the twisted settler legacy that has wounded her people, Linny must learn that co-operation is the spiritual basis of successful community. She learns to thank the earth with tobacco and song in gratitude for what she is learning. She wants to be Chief, but that is a shared responsibility.
Linny grew hope when she planted;
persisted and grew pride,
grew knowledge of our traditions.
She grew the most inside
Linny does not say why she wants to be Chief, either at the outset at the end, but we can hope the lesson is absorbed through her mistakes and final understanding of the precepts of chiefdom, balancing the voices and needs of every member of the family and doing right.
Victoria school children created the phenomenal details that illustrate this book in dioramas dramatically photographed by Delaronde. Her treatment of light and shadow gives a fairytale dimension to the storytelling as light and shadow create the tension shared by a girl who wants to be Chief. There is a nightmare quality to this crowded stage as she grows into her responsibility. This is a book for children old enough to absorb the scary conflict between generosity and greed, good and evil in human nature.
We All Play, a picture book with the earth-toned palette of the Twenties by Cree- Métis artist Julie Flett takes monochromism to its highest level, children and animal somersaulting in the air, reaching for the who knows which moment when ONE is the order of the universe.
“We play too,” the kids of synchronicity romp in analogous colour schemes with their brothers and sisters, swooping like birds, swimming like fish, slithering like reptiles through landscapes that are naturally designed to accommodate all of them, their play leading to the work that distinguishes adulthood from childhood, the only acceptable life division as we slip through the seasons from birth to death, our responsibilities to one another defined in ritual behaviours and storytelling, elder to child.
This is what has been lost in the heroic narratives sold to children by Disney and Goldren Books, the fear-based narratives of the Brothers Grimm, where boys are tested in adversarial moments with beasts and raging elements and girls are passive observers, the pretty prizes. In these stories from the patriarchy, winning is everything, its apotheosis in the moment of American unexceptionalism, where a naked emperor exposes the mendacity of competition in stadium appearances.
Flett understands the roots of community live in a blanket of shared experience and mutual understanding, her objective to show that when children lift their shirts to compare similar landscapes, ribs and bellybuttons, they are affirming the oldest principles, we are one and the same. It is never too soon to remind children that fear is difference and love is unity. Her book does that, the palette saying everything the young need to know as they tumble through pages smudged with mud, the living Earth.
Majjagalee, meaning “flower” and always referencing little children aka sprouts, the seed of life, is the constant treasure, asleep and awake, in the Eve blanket.
This book, by Shawna Davis and Toonsa Jordana Luggi, of bejewelled paper and bead collage, tells the story of family and seasons as colour and texture roll with wings that barely touch, just nudge, day and night in their constant journey across the northern sky.
A welcome song is sung by little birds.
Land awakens and stretches upward.
Adult memory, precious time captured in images to share with children, is compounded in oral to visual history, as each generation learns that they are the many in the one that plants seeds in the ground that sustains us despite perverse interventions, despite language that is not big enough to embrace every meaning.
Xwisit, the onomatopoeic word for fall that, like many other words for autumn in Indigenous languages, is a leaf twisting in a storm. The pictures show rather than tell and beads planted one stitch at a time in the vast blanket that combines the immutable narrative that is as much about the persistence of culture as sky dancing.
The artist tells us she is the granddaughter of a residential prison survivor and yet we are left with the smell of her grandmother’s baking, recipes that are never forgotten, her heritage affirmed in primal responses. That is sentient information planted in the unconscious minds that survive every cruelty.
even in silence
stories are told.
Stand Like a Cedar, a non-fiction book for children doing walkabouts in the woods, explains the spiritual and phenomenal relationship between trees, plants and humans with lyrical graphics that reach for the sun.
Respect is the basis of this treatise as children learn to thank the trees and respect elders who teach them how to be in the world.
…in search of traditional foods to nourish our families.
We are grateful for the land that takes care of us.
The integration of various Interior Salish dialects enriches the prose and provides opportunities to incorporate sound, picture and idea in an immersive experience.
This is a Nicola Campbell trademark, the integration of information for a generation that needs to recover the details that woven together make the whole cloth of nearly lost culture.
Artist Carrielynn Victor puts flesh on the details. In my favourite illustration, a child sits with his mother, his face covered in blackberry juice listening to the birds, and forest people know what he is hearing: “The berries are ripe,” the song that announces the appearance of salmonberries, blackberries and the whole range of food shared by birds, animal and humans in a healthy ecosphere. This is Salish Blueberries for Sal, a classic. When berries are for keeping and sharing over the winter season, the child in us can’t resist and the evidence is part of the humour of living with impulsive children.
Story and picture, information and wisdom, are perfectly integrated in this book as readers live the experience of food gathering and preparation. Gratitude is the essential ingredient in spirit religion and living on the land. We all depend on one another.
The Raven Mother is one in a series of books, Mothers of Xsan, that Gitxsan writer Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) has written to explain the matrilineal foundation of his culture. (Editor’s note: previous books in the Mothers of Xsan series were reviewed by Kenneth Campbell).
Raven, a unique character, trickster and plenipotentiary from the Creator, brings the light, as always, with cracking humour and resourceful wisdom. She is a wise woman. That is inherent to her species and that is a survival tool both for her and for the humans with whom she interacts, bringing knowledge with laughter, diverting pain with laughter.
Natasha Donovan has illustrated this book mindful of the transformational relationship between body and spirit, human and bird. Like others in this group of books, she has integrated human characters with traditional iconography. Rather than othering spirit animals, this assists the young reader in understanding the different degrees of being, representational and non-representational art, while introducing them to traditional Gitxsan gestalts.
“Big words” for little kids are explicated in text notes as are words translated from languages protected by elders through the dark years.
This saves dictionary visits in the middle of the story for young readers anxious to stay with the narrative that follows the phases of the moon. This is a well thought out book for both entertainment and information about the co-dependance of species. As Raven and Wolf co-exist, so might all of us.
And as the raven’s hoarding nature creates balance in the coming seasons, the wolves provide balance, keeping larger animals from overgrazing the land. The Gitxsan view all life as being part of this sacred balance. One life cannot exist without all of the others.
Amen to that.
In a recent conversation, YA writer Leslie Gentile, a woman of combined heritage, communicates her guiding principles through her singing and writing, as must all who find room to tell their stories.
Gratitude is the lesson in this new writing, as children learn by watching the connections between creatures, big and smile, living and gone to spirit. That is civilisation, a concept that has been abused in the capitalist construct of competition and waste. These books are lessons in balance, loving mothers and fathers leaning into a state of grace, every one valuable in the big ecosystem of life on Earth.
Linda Rogers, long an advocate for Indigeneity in publishing, is thrilled with the tsunami of books explaining Indigenous values for young listeners and readers. It is the children who will make the future what it needs to be based on storytelling. Her own recent work includes Yo! Wik’sas, a children’s book with artist Chief Rande Cook (Exile Editions, 2019), Mother the Verb, the Swan Sister Treasure Book (Friesen Press, 2022, reviewed here by Cathy Ford), and Hallelujah! She’s Back. Editor’s note: Linda Rogers has recently reviewed books by Nicola Campbell, Robert Joseph, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Carol Shields & Nora Foster Stovel, Mandi Em, and Sue Goyette 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, Barry Gough, 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