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The Talking Stick Festival: Vancouver, BC February

abstract:Residents of the Pacific Northwest have many opportunities to cross into the rich cultural firmament of our indigenous peoples from their own perspective of the immigrant mosaic. The Talking Stick Festival (Feb. 5-11) in Vancouver, BC brings together established and emmerging Aboriginal artists from across Canada in expressions of theatre, storytelling, writing, music, dance and visual arts.  I attended a reading by the captivating and acclaimed author, Joseph Boyden Three Day Road (Penguin, Canada) at the First Nations House of Learning at UBC on Feb 7th, and came away with a greater appreciation of the proud and steady strides of this nation's founding culture.


February 08, 2007

Holder of the Talking Stick

It is a drizzly Vancouver day. Water droplets suspended in the air moisturize the skin and frizz my hair into a wild tangle resembling, I imagine, the mythic woods-woman in Haida culture. Native parents told stories of her cannibalism to discourage children from leaving the narrow ribbon of beach where their homes stood beside the sea, and entering the dense coastal forests where they could become lost or get eaten by bears.   

I enter the glass doors at the side of the slant roof bighouse. Its architectural class is a shed design of the Coast Salish with the modern addition of glass walls that allow you to look out onto surrounding gardens. This is the First Nations Learning House on the campus of the University of British Columbia. From the air the campus sits on a forested point of land (Point Grey) at the westernmost point of Vancouver city proper in the Quilchena municipal riding. 

The campus promintory is surrounded by steep banks covered by a tall second growth forest whose understory paths stretch down to the rocky beaches with views across the water to the North Shore mountains, the Gulf Islands and as far as the Vancouver Island peaks on a clear day. There are still concrete underpinnings on the shores where naval batteries watched out for sea attacks from Japan in World War II.

From the generation at the end of that same era, we are greeted by Richard Vedan, PhD. RSW one of the earliest Aboriginal graduates to be appointed faculty at UBC. He holds a carved ceremonial talking stick, and in true oral tradition tells the history of the building, a donation by Jack Bell fourteen years ago. The open room can hold 1500 people; today it is setup with a semi-circle of chairs around an enormous tree stump podium.

Starting from the east entrance, Profesor Vedan tells us there were 72 native graduates last spring who filed through these doors to collect their degrees, including twelve Masters degrees, three Ph.Ds, and two MDs. When he graduated there were only three Aboriginals.

Walking "in the direction of the earth's rotation" he describes the native carvings on the four main support beams whose dimensions, found anywhere other than the Pacific Northwest, would be considered massive in an architectural structure. Stopping at each pillar, he uses a combination of native and english language to describe the design and its carver's history. The language is mesmerizing.

The eagle symbolizes strength, the beaver symbolizes hard work and steadfastness, the raven is the teacher – the transformer, the wolf and wolf cub symbolize family. Sprinkled in his speech are small wisdoms such as, "the longest journey is from here," (points to head) "to here," (points to heart.)  The audience is familiar with these expressed reverences and traditions.  

Professor Vedan's grandparents were both Residential School survivors, and his grandfather was a WWII veteran. This point helps to introduce our feature speaker, author Joseph Boyden, whose fabulous novel Three Day Road is a war story in which the main character, a young native soldier, returns home from WWI and is met by Niska, his aunt and taken by canoe back to their village home. On route Niska recognizes the depth of her nephew's post-war trauma and begins to tell him healing stories, stories of their people.

Joseph Boyden

Joseph wears an open collared shirt under a casual blazer with designer jeans and comfortable shoes. His curly dark hair shines about his wide forhead. A tuft of lowerlip beard, popular with surfers and almost all the characters on the HBO series "Deadwood," gives the impression of a hip and stylish man.

Joseph possesses a humerous, modest demeaner that the audience immediately responds to. But there is no need to win them over --- they've already devoured his book and come in rapt supplication to meet its creator. He is a hero among Canadians and a beacon of truth among his people.

Opening with a disclaimer of his slight nervousness he goes on to introduce the passage he will read over the next 27.5 minutes -- with a laugh about the precision of the noted time measure. He tells us that the book derived from stories and experiences his physician father told him from his decorated service in the World War. Aborigine regiments from Canada discovered (like Australia and other former colonial countries sending Aboriginal troops) though their numbers were large, their sacrifice equal—their post-war treatment was not something their countries can be proud of.

The other real life person the book's character was modeled upon was a Cree soldier who still to this day holds the record as the most sniper kills of Germans. He returned home and wanted to take-up a business in the area of work he loved--- working with horses, and was denied a bank loan from a bank officer who said he could not be trusted with live animals.

Boyden's reading is taken from a passage in the book where the villagers have been struggling with a mean, cold winter and are starving. A bear is killed by hunters and strung upside-down in the center of camp, awaiting the chief's decision on whether it should be eaten. A skinned bear has the uncanny resemblance of a man, and this is partially why the people revere and consider the creature more brother than prey.

When the chief commits infanticide to unburden a greiving half-mad young widow whose starving body cannot lactate to feed the hungry babe, the people understand the action, but the Hudson Bay Company men notify the RCMP and their whiteman's law dictates that the chief must be arrested. Two cultures, trying to live at the intersection of ignorance and predjudice.

The writing is rich, direct and honest. The characters will haunt you. I look forward to presenting this book as a future Whistler Reads selection.

Further Links

CBC Interview: Canada Reads series 

Penguin Group Reading Guide



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