Friday, September 3, 2010

Sensational Historical Adventure!

A happy surprise for me earlier this summer was having a should-read turn out to be a considerable pleasure. I had put the heftily-titled In the Wake of the War Canoe: A Stirring Record of Forty Years' Successful Labour, Peril & Adventure Amongst the Savage Indian Tribes of the Pacific Coast, and the Piratical Head-Hunting Haidas of the Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C., written by The Venerable W.H. Collison and published in London, 1915, on my reading list as part of some research I'm doing on British Columbia (BC) Literature. While I knew it would be interesting enough for what it yielded about our coastal history, I didn't think it could compete with some of the fiction I wanted to get to.

But the sensationalizing title should have alerted me that the subject matter, at least, if not the prose, would be lively. And, indeed, there are adventures galore here to marvel at. Having travelled by ferry numerous times, during the seven years we lived up the coast in Prince Rupert, through the waters that Collison describes, I am in awe of the bravery and/or foolhardiness required as part of his missionary work.

The title -- with its emphasis on "savages" both "piratical" and "head-hunting" -- instead rather put me off at first, warning of an exoticizing colonizer's perspective of the First Nations whom Collison wanted to convert to Christianity. But while he is never able or willing to put down the Christian missionary lens through which he views them, understandably enough given the time, Collison is often very sensitive to the difficulties colonization imposes on them as well as to some of their strengths. I was quite impressed with the competence he quickly acquires in the languages of his prospective parishioners, and with his astute realization of how language reflects their world view and metaphysics. At one point, he compares "the Tsimshean term for sunbeam, 'Ashee Giamk,' [which] signifies the foot or limb of the sun [with] the Haida term for the same, 'juie hunglth dagwuts,' [which] is literally the eyelash of the sun." He elaborates that "the Tsimshean . . . idea is that the sun is as a great body, the limbs of which extend to the earth" in contrast to the Haida conception "that the sun is a great eye, of which the rays are the eyelashes."

Of course, Collison's history must be accepted with a large grain of salt and the recognition that not only was his position biased, not only could he not always understand what he saw, but much would have been withheld from him. He is not able to find much good at all in the native spirituality, a rather predictable stance for a Christian missionary of his day. Still, he forms close bonds with the people to whom he ministers, he raises children who speak the language even more fluently than he does, he provides helpful medical care whenever possible, and he advocates for his parishioners legally. If there's a certain self-aggrandisement in his descriptions of hunting and paddling adventures, perhaps he's earned our tolerance for that.

At any rate, while this isn't for all readers, if you're interested in BC history, or more generally in that period of colonization and the difficulties of contact between Europeans and indigenous peoples, or if, instead, you crave some vicarious wildnerness adventure, this might be a book for you to check out.

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