Monday, August 4, 2014

Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson

Indigenous tales well-told
I recently made my first trip to the city of Vancouver, and in preparation for the journey I wanted to read some literature on the area. I heard that Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson was the quintessential Vancouver book and one widely read among the locals. Published in 1911, this book is a collection of 15 short stories based on legends of the Native American tribes (or as they say in Canada, First Nations) of the British Columbian coast.

Johnson was born in Ontario, of mixed European and Mohawk Indian ancestry. She is not only the author but also the first-person narrator of these stories, in which she describes herself as an Iroquois. In a typical story, Johnson travels around the Vancouver area meeting various chiefs or tillicums (tribal members) of the Squamish, Haida, or other indigenous peoples of the area. These Indian acquaintances then grace her with one of the traditional legends of their people, usually related to a specific mountain, rock, or lake in the vicinity and how it came to be. As far as Indian legends go, there are no epics here. These are very brief and simplistic tales, almost like a Native American variation on Aesop’s Fables. Each relates a tale of love, loyalty, bravery, or revenge, often concluding with God turning someone into a rock. Thus are explained the origins of such landmarks as Siwash Rock, Point Grey, Deadman’s Island, the two mountains known as “the Lions,” and more. The final story has nothing to do with Vancouver at all, but rather gives an account of Prince Arthur of England’s visit to the Iroquois tribes of Ontario.

The Indian tales that serve as Johnson’s raw material are underwhelming at times, but they are elevated considerably in quality and effect by the storytelling skills of the author. Johnson’s writing bears a striking resemblance to the Indian stories of Jack London in their campfire atmosphere, but without all the machismo, the racism, and the gratuitous violence. Her descriptions of the natural environment are strikingly painted, and she displays a great deal of reverence for the local landscape. She also spins a good yarn, giving the reader a vivid glimpse into what life may have been like in Vancouver before the “Palefaces” arrived. There’s never a surprise ending, but though the plots may be predictable the stories are often uplifting and inspirational in their honest and forthright illustrations of human nature. Johnson’s opening remarks about Coastal Indian culture are frequently more fascinating than the stories themselves. She describes how these Indians value kindness above all qualities—even over strength, intelligence, and bravery; how they appreciate the value of a good mother more than the power of a great hunter or warrior; how they venerate the trees for all the gifts they provide; and how they have a strange fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte.

I can see how residents of Vancouver would be quite taken by these stories, for they deal in the lore of places and sites that they see every day. For outsiders, however, this is not an essential read by any means. Don’t expect to gain any insight into the modern city or its history, or you’ll be disappointed. Those who are predisposed to literature of the West, however—like the stories of London, Bret Harte, or Frank Norris—will appreciate Johnson’s naturalistic storytelling and enjoy this picturesque look back at the early days of the Pacific Northwest.

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