Trevor Herriot's River in a Dry Land is nothing short of a poetic masterpiece. Every reviewer of the book thus far has been hard-pressed to find anything wanting in it and collectively we are running out of superlatives to praise it. It is meticulously researched, and "beautifully written and overflowing with humanity" said David Carpenter in one of the first reviews (Globe and Mail). It's the kind of book that can change your life and change the way you think.
River won three awards and was shortlisted for three others since its release. Early recognition of its merits began when it was in draft form in 1996 and Herriot won the City of Regina Writers Award. That award enabled him to take time off to research and finish the manuscript. After the book was published, it tied for both the Saskatchewan Book Award's Book of the Year, and Regina Book Award. It also won the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize. In addition, River was shortlisted for one of the most prestigious book prizes in Canada: the Governor General's Award for Non-fiction. River was also nominated for the CBA Libris Award for First-Time Author of the Year and the CBA Libris Award for Non-Fiction Book of the Year. Out of print almost immediately, the second run has been on the shelf for only four months and it too is almost gone.
River in a Dry Land has been described as a man's search for meaning, a poetic rant, an elegy, a classic, a meditation, a miracle of a book, and a testament to the power of the prairie landscape. In fact it is all of those things and more. As a reader who is of Plains Cree ancestry, I found Herriot's book to be something akin to nourishment for me. Perhaps I could say why by situating it amongst some other books with the same distinctive sensibility.
River reminded me of two other books that are hard to forget: Dancing With a Ghost by Rupert Ross a former circuit court judge whose book revealed his respectful insight into the gap that persists between First Nation and European cultures. Herriot, like Ross, also understands this gap and he explains it in River, with the same clarity.
River also reminded me of Wisdom Sits In Places, by Keith Basso. The title describes a way of thinking about the land which, as River reveals, is Herriot's way of thinking too. Our relationship with the land, observed Basso, is informed by stories and stories impart wisdom; those stories, says Herriot, connect us to the places we know.
Non-Native authors who have looked deeply into First Nation or MTtis culture, listened, understood, and then related what they learned to their readers in a way that rings true for the subject culture, are extremely rare. Those researchers, linguists, historians and writers who actually sit down and drink tea with the people, laugh with them, and defer to them when appropriate are rarer still. Trevor Herriot did all of these things while he was writing his book and River is enriched because of it.
He understands the circle in the way that the Cree and other tribes do. He also understands mystery and he discerns the wisdom in the myths that were and are the living literature of the First Nation tribes of this land. He has earnestly grappled with and grasped what contributed to the enormous gap between First Nation and MTtis culture, and European cultures, and he has come to terms with all of it.
River in a Dry Land is a history of the Qu'Appelle River Valley in south-eastern Saskatchewan where Herriot grew up. At the same time, it is a history told through many voices: the Cree, Sioux, and MTtis, from that region, as well as those of the farmers and settlers who settled there.There is much to be learned in this book and much to be outraged by: the racism and arrogance of government officials and their lack of respect for the First Nation and MTtis peoples whose lands they moved into and took over. There is also much to celebrate: reminders about the soundness of the aboriginal relationship to the land, its richness and beauty, and all that it offers, and the sheer tenacity of the First Nation peoples.
It opens with a description of a recurring dream. Trevor Herriot is a little boy holding his father's hand at a country fair near the village of Tantallon where he grew up. This dream has etched itself into Herriot's early memory which prompted my question about the origins of his experience and how it might one day become a book:
Heather Hodgson: How young do you think you were when this book started to percolate in your imagination? I ask because it reads like a series of stories that have grown up with you, that you've been storing in your memory all your life, with the intention of writing them down one day.
Trevor Herriot: If writing begins with listening¨both to stories and to the present drama of life¨then I guess I can trace the origins of River to my childhood. I try to give the reader a sense of that in the early pages of the prologue, where I describe a recurring dream from my childhood in that time when rural life in the Eastern Qu'Appelle was still thriving and distinctive.
HH: I recall that dream you describe and how it took you back to that day in your childhood. The picture is so vivid that we as readers can almost smell the fresh bread and pies and imagine the women's hands arranging jars of jam and every colour of vegetable. You were a very observant lad. Do you recall the thoughts you had as a youngster¨why you were so engaged by the landscape and its people, by the stories they yield?
TH: I was the kid who would sit near enough to the adults to listen to their talk, watching quietly and never missing the bits that packed an emotional charge. Kids will always at least catch the sense of adventure or tragedy or poetry in an adult's story. I remember being particularly fascinated by talk of wrongdoing and dishonesty¨the characters who swindled or sinned in one way or another and lost the trust of their family and community. I used to tell my mother that I was going to write this stuff down some day.
HH: It's clear in the book that even as a young boy you sensed some conflict between versions of the generally-accepted stories about the history of the Qu'Appelle or of Canada¨the colonial stories that often seemed to completely disregard other versions of stories about, for example, earlier settlement by others in the Qu'Appelle, the First Nation and MTtis peoples there. Most kids don't question things as you did. As you know, I am of Plains Cree ancestry so the acknowledgement in your book of the Cree and other tribes in that region really startled me. Very few non-First Nation writers make the effort to understand First Nation history or culture in the way you have. I guess I'm curious about how you came to realize there was another story about this great region and this land¨an indigenous perspective ¨would you comment on that?
TH: The hymn to the glory of the pioneer is still so much a part of our mythology here¨you know, the hard-working, virtuous immigrant stock who came "when there was nothing but prairie," did the ploughing and hewing, built the towns and "made this land what it is today." Of course they were hard-working and some were even virtuous (we seldom hear about the pioneer who after arriving at his new homestead killed an entire MTtis family), but the immigrant story is only half of the cultural narrative that gives this region its feel and rhythm. The primary source of poetry, wisdom, and character is always the land itself and the First Peoples to accommodate themselves to its demands and gifts. We will always be people who are shaped by the conflation and conflict of aboriginal and non-aboriginal values.
HH: That gives rise to another question that readers of First Nation ancestry might ask. Many of us endured uncomfortable childhoods in various classrooms trying to divorce ourselves from the images of our people as they were portrayed in Social Studies texts and other books purporting to be The history of Canada. The focus of River, it seemed to me is on those peoples who more or less originated in the Qu'Appelle Valley region of the province. So your foray into that history might be described as a "frame narrative" which is your family's settlement story and the story about the settling of the land by others, including the farmers and surveyors, and those who came here from various places in Europe. I wondered what came first in the writing of the book: your interest in learning more and writing down your family's history and the history of the other "immigrants," or the First Nation and MTtis stories and histories that you encountered as you went along?A "Which came first" question¨
TH: You start from where you sit, I guess, and the world I grew up in was very white. I didn't meet anyone of aboriginal ancestry until I moved to Saskatoon at the age of 10. And it is only really as an adult that I have gotten to know people whose blood runs long in this land. So my perspective is that of the white guy who has come late to an inquiry into the original wisdom and mythologies of his home. But, at the same time, it was learning the history of what happened when we "extinguished Indian title," in the words of the treaty-bearers, that led me to reconsider my understanding of colonial culture. Add to that my interest in the ecological well-being of the Qu'Appelle country¨its living mysteries and creaturely heritage¨and you have the approach I took with this book. Without those two elements, River would be just another set of quaint settler stories.
HH: Misappropriation is still something of an issue in the telling of Native history and stories but you seem to have garnered good will among the people whose history you wrote about. This bodes well for the acceptance of your book by those you've written about in it. How did you navigate your way through these "potential" cultural roadblocks? Were you quite conscious of the debates about the appropriation or misappropriation of voice, as the case my be?
TH: This is a conflict that fascinates me. It is a dialogue we need to have and an essential part of building the bridges between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. I think we should celebrate that we are having this discussion right now¨remember, we wouldn't be talking about this at all if the community at large were not becoming more aware of the primacy of First Nations and their cultures. Where do I stand? A people are defined by the stories they tell, yes. But the one who tells the stories shapes the narrative with her own perspective.
HH: Do you think of stories as belonging to a culture-¨in an ownership kind of way?
TH : Stories ultimately belong to the land, but we cannot deny the facts of our history. The colonizing race who took everything and acted out of the deepest disrespect for that land has to earn the right to tell its stories. Tenancy does not include narrative rights. So it is to be expected that aboriginal people would resent irresponsible use of their stories and particularly of the oral tradition.
HH: It seems funny to me now that until very recently, the word story was used in a way that gave it a negative connotation. It was used to relegate the myths and oral histories that are our cultural heritage down to mere story rather than something as credible as history or as sophisticated as literature or poetry. Your use of the word restores story to the place it has in First Nation culture although I have noticed that this trend has been growing in the last two decades, albeit slowly.
TH: We make the mistake of thinking that stories are simply another kind of information. As though traditional narratives should be broadcast and made available to all comers, like health advice on the internet. But stories, especially in the oral tradition, are a powerful form of energy and must be treated with respect and care.
HH: I'd like to shift a bit and ask you what you think the writer's role is in acknowledging the past, with particular reference to First Nation peoples experience since colonization. Frankly, I am always grateful for the acknowledgement of the historic wrongs that were committed in the past, especially by writers outside the culture. I am thinking about John Milloy's recent book about residential schools: A National Crime.
TH: I think there is a need to make such acknowledgment in one of two ways, and there may be more, depending on the nature of the book. First, it must be done explicitly whenever the actual history of this region is being written. Anything less is a lie. Second, in the kind of writing I do, which is not strictly historical in that way, the writer must take care to give the reader an awareness of this sinful legacy at the base of the narrative, rather like a somber strain of music, playing in a minor key in the background, sometimes rising nearer the surface of the narrative, sometimes receding, but always there grounding the whole of the thing. In River, rather than recount the details of the harm colonization has done to Indigenous cultures, I refer in general ways here and there to the shameful record as though it is something the reader already knows something about. Apart from that, an early section of the book tells a story of desecration and ignorance that illustrates the paths we chose in "settling" the prairie.
HH: I think you're referring to the section of the book in which you describe what happened to the buffalo stone¨ its fate. In fact, this is a section that reminded me of another book about First Nation history, namely Loyal Till Death, co-authored by Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser. There's no finger pointing by the authors in that book when there are many opportunities to do so; there's no guile. What Stonechild and Waiser did was much like what you did: they dug out the government memos and let the authors of them speak for themselves: the method was one of thinking with official documents against official documents. I had to snicker when I saw you chose to use those government documents in your book to describe what happened to the buffalo stone¨a sacred monument to the southern tribes.
TH: That is, of course, the story I meant. It's a real head-shaker, that one. You marvel at the sheer hubris and arrogance that allow people to destroy sacred places. It is a recent enough event¨within my lifetime¨that it is hard to not feel some rage. Rage that later becomes regret and grief at the thought of missed opportunities. Your first impulse is to blame someone and prosecute mercilessly, until you realize there are too many to blame and then all you are left with is the lesson¨we can't let this happen again. And now it is threatening to happen again. Just two weeks ago the Alberta government announced it is doing a feasibility study into the possibility of building another massive hydroelectric dam on the south Saskatchewan River¨at the provincial border where it would flood 150 kilometres of river valley, the best of the remaining badland riparian ecology on the Northern Great Plains.
HH: I take it you're familiar with this part of the Saskatchewan River as well?
TH: I've paddled that part of the river a couple of times¨seen rattlesnakes swimming from one bank to the other and heard mule deer splashing in the shallows at dawn. If it isn't a sacred place, then we are living in a world where nothing is thought to be sacred.
HH: At the risk of sounding didactic, I join the chorus in hoping your book will educate people about some of the early history of these parts. I'm pretty sure that anyone who reads it will be changed¨for the better¨and may join in whatever efforts are organized to halt the constant and often pointless alteration of the landscape¨even though there is some difference between a sacred object like the buffalo stone, and the general sanctity of the land. There is a lot to be learned from your book as it's a much fuller telling of the history of the Qu'Appelle River Valley. And the book, while it's full of information that could break your heart, your writing never seemed to reveal any of the anger that you must have felt. Perhaps the telling of the story, as fully as you did, evolved into some sort of gesture on your part as a writer, to people¨all the people¨from the Qu'Appelle River Valley and even to the land, for which you have great affection and responsibility. In light of this, where do we go from here?
TH:"Where do we go from here" is more or less the question I am pondering as I begin writing this next book. At the end of River and here and there throughout I talk about forgiveness and hope, suggesting that it may be time to move on from our narratives of grief and regret. Recognizing that these stages are important but that we may have gone as far as we can with nostalgia and grieving for all that we have given up in this landscape.
HH: So, then perhaps River was also somewhat cathartic? And I understand you have a grant which will enable you to continue your research in the area of the Qu'Appelle?
TH: I hesitate to say anything specific about the book I am working on but so far it seems to be more grounded in the present and less inclined to tell stories from the past. For now, I am thinking of it as an extended afterword to River. So this summer I am using a Saskatchewan Arts Board Grant to do some traipsing around the Qu'Appelle country again. As I go I will be thinking about these things, talking to people and pondering, dreaming. When the summer is over I should have a better sense of where this is taking me.
HH: Thank you Trevor.
Trevor Herriot is a Saskatchewan naturalist, writer and illustrator. He has published articles in Canadian Geographic, Border Crossings and Nature Canada, and he has also been a guest on CBC Radio's Ideas. Once a month he answers questions about birds and natural history for CBC Radio's Noon Edition. Herriot and his wife Karen, live in Regina with their four children but they spend as much time as they can at a cabin on the rim of the Qu'Appelle Valley.
River in a Dry Land is framed with a prologue and epilogue which is Herriot's family's entrance into the history of the place, and it contains thirty-eight chapters grouped into four parts: The Dirt Hills, Lost Headwaters, West to East and Laird of the Little Cutarm. The extensive footnotes and Selected Bibliography will be especially pleasing to students. There is a long list of acknowledgements to those who helped Herriot with the book in some way and the comprehensive subject index also contains place names, and people. The maps and text illustrations are by Herriot himself. ˛
Heather Hodgson teaches at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and works as an editor for Coteau Books and the Canadian Plains Research Center at the University of Regina.