12 March 2016
When I was about ten years old, my godmother, an ex-pat Kiwi living on Vancouver Island, sent me a book by Christie Harris, Raven’s Cry. A history of the Haida Gwaii from contact to the time of writing, it became one of my all-time favourite books. I snap up any of her books that come into the shop now, even though most of what I get are ex-library. I’ll replace them as I find better copies. In addition to reading any Harris I can find, I’ve put a trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands on my bucket list.
I can find no indication that she had First Nations blood herself; Christy Harris was born in the US in 1907 and came to Canada as a child. She became a teacher and raised her own brood of five in southern BC, where she also began her writing career. Although she wrote other novels and collections for young readers, my favourite Harris books are still the ones that deal with the First Nations stories of the Canadian Pacific Coast.
I hope she hasn’t fallen under that banner of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ so many like to flutter around. Her work has brought alive the history and lore of Haida Gwaii like no other work has, to an audience that needs to learn about other cultures and accept them if we are to overcome racism in future generations.
Yet her books are out of print and not so easy to find although at least one was reissued after her death in 2002.
Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses focusses on a series of legends with the common themes of missing chieftains’ daughters and the role of the smallest of the narnauks (supernatural beings), Mouse Woman, in coming to their aid and rescue. Couldn’t we use a Mouse Woman now!
I love the way this author tells the stories. She maintains the strong voice of the people she is representing. There is a rhythm to the tale, created in part by the repetition of key phrases and ideas typical of teaching stories. They are full of humour, which helps to make them easy to remember.
Human nature brings the First Nations characters into trouble. The narnauks discipline them in a way that provides them with a little fun as well as a little revenge. Narnauks are not free from flaws and vice themselves, so frequently their plans backfire – thanks, often, to Mouse Woman’s efforts to find loopholes in the rules. Mouse Woman has a tender spot in her heart for young people, perhaps because she is so small that she isn’t taken all that seriously by her people. She shares a common bond in that with her youthful protegees.
Harris wrote down these stories at a time when the First Nations people of our country were in a very dark place. Fortunately, the worm is turning. At the time Harris wrote, though, there was a very real fear that, if these stories were not somehow preserved, they would be lost forever to future generations. She worked closely with the Edenshaws and with the famous Haida carver, Bill Reid, to preserve the culture. But not only to preserve it. She also used these stories to build bridges between two peoples that were in a deep struggle full of anger, hatred, disrespect, misunderstanding and all the other horrible attributes of racism. I believe she left a legacy that is still deeply valid and useful today, and I really hope her collections return to the shelves again soon.