IN 1864, Natives of British Columbia took up arms against a party of roadbuilders, thus triggering the Chilcotin War, the only significant aboriginal challenge to British authority west of the Rockies. In 1985, one of the last nomadic tribes on earth, the Penan, set up blockades to prevent roadbuilding and logging of their homeland in the remote jungles of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Economic development confronts aboriginal cultural integrity; but in these cases, culture loses. Technology and mass culture descend on small groups in remote areas, and they are engulfed. These are themes shared by two recent books by British Columbia writers: Nemiah: The Unconquered Territory, by Terry Glavin, and Shadows in the Sun, by Wade Davis.
Glavin, a former aboriginal-affairs writer for the Vancouver Sun and author of Death Feast of the Dimlahamid (New Star, 1991), tells the story of the Chilcotin people of central British Columbia in Nemiah. In a deceptively simple and informal style, Glavin weaves together a text that is part history, part contemporary travelogue, part political manifesto. We follow the author into the Chilcotin country west of Williams Lake, learning with him the real geography of the place, listening with him as the people talk. Glavin as narrator is unobtrusive, inserting himself only as an afterthought, a newcomer and a tenderfoot. People like Mabel William and Walter Lulua are allowed to tell their own stories. As the old-timers talk about the past, Glavin deftly inserts just enough historical data to give us a working familiarity with the Chilcotin War; as the younger people speak, we are given glimpses of the current battles over land use and logging in the Chilcotin. The writing is often pungent and descriptive, as here:
The sun went down over the mountainside and the horses grazed down by the shallows. Little Benson was looking at the pictures of Mabel's three-year-old copy of Crochet World magazine in one hand and a half-eaten deer rib in the other. He was the first to fall asleep.
Glavin's style and the easy transitions from history to narrative to politics are marred, however, by the photographs (excellent) and the Chilcotin legends (suitably obscure) that are interspersed throughout the book. The reader never gets more than two pages of uninterrupted text at a time. The inclusion of photographs no doubt sprang from a very real desire to give the reader a better idea of this spectacular place, but photographs and text can sometimes seem to be at war when they are within the covers of the same book. In this case, the text survives, but at a price.
Geography is fundamental to our view of a place, and if ever there was a culture-bound science, geography is that. Glavin allows us to see the dissonance created when one culture's geography is laid over another's. The aboriginal geography of the Chilcotin has to do with rivers, events, territories of seasonal use, good grazing, and sacred places. The British, and latterly, Canadian geography of the Chilcotin has to do with roads, bridges, orderly groups of dwellings, and permanent residences, none of which are typical of the area. Despite the author's compelling argument that in the Chilcotin, "maps are no use," I wished for a better one. The book's single small map should have been improved and expanded to include Bute Inlet and Homathko Canyon, which are described in the text as major flash, points of the Chilcotin War. Shadows in the Sun is a moving collection of essays about aboriginal cultures in places such as Haiti, the Stikine, Sarawak, and Amazonia. Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist with an enduring interest in remote places, and in the spirituality of the people who inhabit them. As Davis explains the logic of an aboriginal culture, he is also giving us a glimpse of his own desires:
Vodoun cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entire community.
Davis had me hooked as he described the South American tree sloth, which is covered with blue-green algae and plays host to a thousand symbiotic beetles. Why the sloth laboriously descends from the trees once a week to defecate on the ground is a biological mystery of the first order. The essay "Dreams of a Jade Forest" is Davis's account of Bruno Maser, a Swiss who became part of the nomadic Penan tribe in the final days before full contact with modem civilization. This contact comes in the form of the bulldozers and chainsaws of a multinational timber company. Maser organizes the tribe for non-violent guerrilla action, and alerts the international media to the situation. The government of Sarawak responds by putting a contract out on Maser, who turns from jungle nomad to fugitive. It is damned good storytelling.
"Cultural appropriation," a demon nearly all writers now wrestle with, hovers in the background here. The paradox is that both these volumes about aboriginal cultures are written by members of the dominant culture, but through these books we come to better understand the impact of the careless development of aboriginal domains. But fond and sympathetic accounts of aboriginal cultures are no longer enough. Perhaps a more important task for capable writers such as Glavin and Davis is to turn their attention to this culture, to explore the traces, however faint, of the earthbound mysticism and rootedness they so passionately embrace in aboriginal cultures. To appropriate our own culture, so to speak. To do so would not be from fear of the demon Cultural Appropriation, but from the knowledge that our dominant western culture must bond to the earth or face inevitable collapse; and our writers are the only shamans we have to help us form this mystical connection.