Summertime reading in the spirit of Aboriginal values

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 21, 2006

In this, the second in a series of columns on summertime reading suggestions featuring books recently written by some of our coffee companions, we will focus on titles dealing with First Nations in Western Canada.

David F. Stevenson, born in Moosejaw, Sask., raised in Lethbridge, Alta., and currently living in Toronto, Ont., is one of our newer coffee companions. I first met the historian/novelist/poet and his art photographer wife, Jane Hinton, over mugs of dark roast at Cochrane Coffee Traders last July.

His 2005 novel, The Frosts of Winter, is set in what is now southern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan during the frontier days of 1876–77. The story revolves around two very different sets of relationships: the hostility between Sioux leader Sitting Bull and General Philip Sheridan on the American side, and the friendship between Blackfoot chief Crowfoot and North West Mounted Police Commissioner James Macleod on the Canadian side.

"The book started as a search for an answer to why the American west was opened with such violence and the Canadian west with so little," David wrote me about its release. "I regard the friendship between Crowfoot and Macleod as one of the great stories of Canadian history and a relationship that saved Confederation."

The title for this penetrating historical fiction is taken from a statement Crowfoot once made: "The Redcoats have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter."

I first met writer/educator Philip Thatcher last Thanksgiving while he was touching base with George Parry of Cochrane's Westlands Bookstore. (Westlands, Canada's premier retailer of books on Aboriginal themes, carries all the selections mentioned in this week's column. George can be reached toll-free at 1-800-792-8318.)

Philip makes his home on the West Coast, the setting for his current fiction contribution, The Raven Trilogy.

This is a quest story. The protagonist, Nathan Solomon Jacob, is seeking to embrace his true name, Gwawinastoo – "Raven's Eye." Yet, as Philip points out, "he is also engaged in another quest: that of piercing through the riddle of the light and darkness of our modern consciousness."

In Volume One, Raven's Eye (published in 2000), the story – variously prose, poetry, and dramatic script – opens with Nathan's birth and progresses across lands, cultures, spiritualities and times, Aboriginal worldview intersecting with Celtic in his quest.

Volume Two, Mirror of the Moon (2003), sees Nathan as an adult struggling with relationships and their redemption. Philip is still in the process of writing Volume Three, with publication expected next year.

The trilogy is unlike anything I've ever read before but somehow seems mysteriously familiar. Even Nathan is caught up in the mystery of his journey, as at one point he must learn to "go with the drum" and "dance in the direction of the stars around the North Star, the direction of his people."

In an entirely different genre, Gary Botting's Chief Smallboy: In Pursuit of Freedom (2005) is a major contribution to First Nations biography written by a prominent legal scholar sensitive to oral tradition and skilled in storytelling.

I first sipped coffee with Gary at Traders back in March and was delighted to meet the Vancouver Island writer who had so much to teach me about his mentor and friend, Chief Bobtail Smallboy.

This is the story of how a courageous and visionary chief of the Ermineskin Cree Band of Central Alberta, no longer willing to put up with governmental double-talk on land issues affecting his growing community, set out in 1968 to occupy the Kootenay Plains in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Nordegg, Alta.

"'In the Treaty our chiefs surrendered most of our lands. But the Rocky Mountains were never surrendered by treaty,'" Gary quotes Smallboy as saying. This thumbing-of-nose at modernity and return to traditional roots inspired spiritual renewal and self-determination among other First Nations.

Gary's account of this and related threads makes for compelling reading for understanding the history and complexity of many issues Aboriginal peoples face today.

In closing, I note with sadness the passing of John Snow, for many years chief of the Wesley Band of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, of Morley, Alta., and author of These Mountains Are Our Sacred Places: the Story of the Stoney People (1977).

"Our proud history is unequalled and unsurpassed on this Great Island," he wrote in his conclusion. "Each of us can hold his or her head high, as one of the original people of this beautiful land, and say, 'I am an Indian.'"

Snow died June 15 at home. He was 73.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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