Chief Earl Maquinna George, Living on the Edge

Here at Book Addiction HQ, most of our fiction reading is of the arty variety, unless it's for the book club, and a lot of our nonfiction reading is similarly self-conscious and, to a worryingly large degree, fancy-pants. I'm not sure how this is the road I've found myself on, but if those sorts of books make your eyes roll, today might be your day.

One of the most valuable books I've read in a long time isn't the least bit annoyingly literary, and that's Chief Earl Maquinna George's chronicle Living on the Edge: Nuu-Chah-Nulth History from an Ahousaht Chief's Perspective. Let me be clear, because I don't mean that this book hasn't been constructed with close attention to the structure of story or the aesthetics of how a writer connects with audience: it's just that when you read this book (and you really should read this book), you won't need to remember any lessons from English class, from New York Times book reviewers, or from book bloggers vastly cleverer than I am. You need to open up to the book, give it enough time that you can hear some stories, and let the stories work.

Canada likes to think of itself as a First World country, a developed nation, with the history and cultural complexity that those descriptors seem to imply as following naturally from its current economic status. As Chief George notes, though, the fishing industry that transformed coastal BC and coastal First Nations communities didn't get seriously rolling until the 1930s, at which time it was still common for First Nations to travel in dugout canoes (p.109). Thousands of years of occupancy and history have been buried in a too-late treaty process, with the year 1846 getting a semi-mystical status at some treaty tables to represent a fixed date for the precise outline of Aboriginal rights and title, with some large structural changes not beginning until the last years before World War Two.

In essence, Living on the Edge represents Chief Earl Maquinna George's personal corrective to decades of outsider anthropological and ethnographic study: "Documentation by outsiders is an artifact of the order and the orderliness of western cultures; it is not a part of our way of knowledge" (p.39). Though a personal response first, it is also an authoritative declaration of cultural difference.

And I'm not going to tell you this book's stories. I don't own them, although I've now been told them.

The simple fact is that if you don't read Living on the Edge, you're not going to understand what it means to live on the BC coast. You don't need to agree, or to respond: you need to listen. Chief Earl Maquinna George is talking here. Join the audience.


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