From Part 1, Sept. 19, 2015: A visceral sense of place is very important to me when writing my novels, and after setting them in far-flung locales, I’m bringing this new novel-in-progress home to my back yard. Growing up fourth-generation in the far Northwest corner of the U.S., very close to Canada, I’m rooted in our green forests and inland waterways. I’ve always felt a tension between my love of my homeland and wanderlust, and in this new novel I’m exploring themes of displacement as ocean levels rise in the near future and coastal dwellers must move. Northwest native culture is so interwoven with the importance of ancestral homelands that I felt I needed a refresher visit to some coastal villages and wilderness just to the north in British Columbia. And research made a fine excuse to pack up the car for a ferry and road trip.
Sometime after 2 am, our little B.C. ferry chugged up to the landing at our destination of Bella Coola. I felt an absurd sense of relief at escaping the clutches of the spooky ghost town of Ocean Falls (see my Halloween blog Oct. 31 for details), though Thor was already talking about returning someday to explore the abandoned buildings. Because the ferry was so late arriving, the quaint motel room/cabin we’d reserved was locked and everything dark. Luckily, Thor discovered that someone had left a window ajar, so he climbed in to unlock the door. Our hostess, a member of the Nuxalt tribe that owns the motel (one of the few lodgings available in the small community), was gracious and apologetic the next morning.
We were just happy that we didn’t miss our appointment at the Nuxalt cultural center with Chris Nelson (his non-aboriginal name), our guide to the local petroglyphs. I’ve been fascinated most of my life with these mysterious rock carvings found worldwide, often with similar humanized faces or staring eyes, usually found overlooking water. (My novel Islands features an archeologist investigating petroglyphs in the Caribbean, where I taught scuba and hiked to glyph sites.) The Pacific Northwest carvings often feature stylized regional or spirit animals along with human figures.
The three-hour excursion with Chris was the highlight of our British Columbia trip, and we were lucky to have him all to ourselves that morning. He’s a natural storyteller in the traditional manner, very animated with fluid gestures, singing/chanting, and drumming on his handheld, wood-framed drum he had made and decorated. As he led us on a hike through the drizzling rainforest, along a mossy trail beside a steeply falling creek, he introduced several carvings and told creation and family stories as we went along.
Like other aboriginal people we met on our trip, Chris was amazingly open and gracious in discussing the efforts of tribal groups to recover their heritage of family stories, language, crafts, and subsistence skills that were scattered or lost with the arrival of colonial powers. There is a terrible sadness in the histories of families and their sacred songs completely wiped out by the new diseases, especially the smallpox epidemic of 1862, when the Canadian government chose to deny natives immunization. Further destruction of the culture ensued with the “residential schools” that took children from their families, denied them use of their native languages, and in many cases subjected them to physical and sexual abuse. Yet Chris did not express anger, only a hope that the efforts to reclaim the Nuxalt language and heritage might show others ways to heal and find a stronger relationship with the nurturing spirits of land, air, and sea. The importance of place to aboriginal people cannot be overstated, and many of the indigenous groups are gaining traction in environmental-protection and restoration efforts.
Soft-spoken in conversation with us, Chris seemed to grow larger with his powerfully resonant singing voice, in his native language, as he shared some of the traditional songs and stories, such as the familiar “Raven steals the sun” tale that had its own local twist.
After climbing past several carved boulders along the trail, we came upon a large formation of sandstone covered with hundreds of intertwined carvings.
Though their age and meaning can’t be known through scientific means, the Nuxalt interpret the images as illustrations of their beliefs and traditions. “What are facts?” Chris shrugged. “Stories are truth.”
Book View Cafe has recently released in ebook and print an updated edition of Sara’s first science fiction novel (originally published by Ace/Berkley), Wild Card Run. “Stamey puts feeling into this tale of the prodigal daughter.” (Publishers Weekly) The rest of the “Cybers Wild Card” series will be out soon.