Harry Robinson, Nature Power

Like so many well-meaning settlers, I'm always finding myself caught between my personal history (40 of my 43 years in British Columbia, the others in Alberta) and my cultural history: mutt Anglo, with undistinguished forebears participating in the generalized over-running of non-Anglo places for a few centuries now, without much power themselves but with a higher rank than those whose place it was before we mutt Anglos showed up.

Some say there's no sense in which apology or redemption can be meaningful, or indeed adequate to the circumstances of settler colonialism.

Some say that there's no point beating yourself up about anything past, as long as you genuinely want to see a better world tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, progressively, with justice for all that's not especially retrospective.

Is there a way to talk sensibly or plainly about white folks and Indians, in any particular North American place?

Of course not. Absurd even to try: actually, not so much absurd as destructive of whatever fragile detente we've managed to erect simply by not talking about there being a need for a detente.

Until, that is, you read one of the beautiful collaborations between Harry Robinson and Wendy Wickwire, so justly respected for their clarity, their approach, and their openness.

This fall, I'm teaching their book Nature Power: In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller in my class English 456 (BC Literature), though it'd be more accurate to say that I'm including it in the class. Harry Robinson was one of the great storytellers of the Okanagan people, and hence a teacher himself, so my role is really to stay out of his way while my students read his words.

People more often read Robinson and Wickwire's first collaboration, Write It on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller, but I really like the focus in Nature Power on a single topic, the source of power (such a complicated term!) among the Okanagan people as well as among some affiliated groups near their region. The idea of "power," as Robinson explains it, might seem to overlap with conceptions of spiritual magic, but his point is that this form of power comes from a material basis and has material effects. Usually a person learns his or her power while still a child, purposefully left alone by one's elders when they judge that it's exactly the right time, but there's nothing consistent about the events in these stories, except the likelihood of variation.

What's consistent, though, is Harry Robinson's pattern of storytelling, and I'm hoping our class will spend some time talking about narrative and audience, not just about the content of the stories. In general, Robinson opens either by introducing the main character, the person with the power, or by emphasizing that he's telling a story. These are the opening lines, for example, of "Throw Me in the River":
Did I ever tell you?
What I was going to say?
Oh, I think I did tell you,
    or maybe not-- (p.85)
Different stories take different approaches, and they're also collaborations with Wendy Wickwire, with Wickwire responsible for putting the stories on the page, but this time through the book, I found myself really captivated by the moments where Robinson reaches outside the narrative like this. Even more than these openings, though, I appreciated those moments where he repeats himself, often with slight variation, saying very nearly the same thing over the course of maybe a dozen lines.

It'll be a touchstone for how we approach English 456 this year: but even if you're not in the class, it's a wonderful, classic set of stories. Every BC'er should know something about the stories that were here first, even if settlers need to remember that they don't get to call other people's stories their own.


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