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‘Call Me Hank’: A Sto:lo Man’s Reflections on Logging, Living, and Growing Old

By Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan

Review By Richard Rajala

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 155 Autumn 2007  | p. 150-2

Old loggers love to tell stories, but few find their way onto paper. We are fortunate indeed, then, that in 1969 linguist Wyn Roberts visited Henry Pennier at his home near Mission and asked the sixty-five-year-old to take part in a study of the Halq’emeylem language. Pennier agreed, but Roberts soon discovered that he “was not going to get old Indian stories from Hank Pennier” (xlii). Instead, Hank penned a selection of memories, along with a few traditional Stó:lo stories, that came into print in 1972 under the title Chiefly Indian: The Warm and Witty Story of a British Columbia Half Breed Logger. 

Now, thanks to editors Keith Thor Carlson and Kristina Fagan, we have a second chance to consider the significance of Pennier’s life as “what the white man calls a half breed” in British Columbia during the twentieth century (3). There’s plenty of warmth and wit here, but this is also a story of struggle in a “complicated world,” travelled as one “not white and not Indian but we look Indian and everybody except Indians takes us for Indian” (4). As the editors put it in their introduction, Hank brought his own unique perspective as coastal logger and member of the Stó:lo community to “issues of race, culture, identity, masculinity, politics, labour, technology, and aging” in a provocative series of reflections (xv). My task in reviewing the book is complicated by the editors’ fine introduction, which left me little to add in the way of scholarly analysis. Most readers of BC Studies will have read neither edition, however, and my solution is to explain why they should by emphasizing the themes that command attention from labour and environmental historians.

Hank’s account of his youth introduces the theme of labour early on. In 1919, at age fifteen, his “growing up kid days” came to an end. Without access to federal support “there was only one thing to do, keep moving and find some work” (19-20). The 1920s saw Pennier gain experience logging in the Harrison Lake region. Married in 1924, he offers only scattered insights into domestic life, but wife Margaret contributed to the family economy by picking hops during summers.

Working six days a week as a choker man, Pennier made good money during the latter 1920s despite winter shutdowns. “But boy oh boy logging was a tough and rough game,” he asserts. “You had to work or else. If you were a little slow getting to those chokers the hooker would holler at you, don’t run, fly” (36).

With “big logs flying around” and “log hungry” foremen pushing men and machinery hard, casualties were inevitable: “Nothing mattered just so long as they got the logs out” (36). That pressure helps explain high transiency among loggers, but, while not one of the “camp inspectors” who frequently left for periods of relaxation in Vancouver, Pennier understood well the industry’s power relations. Quitting was an assertion of independence, “but you had to be a good worker to get away with this” (36). By 1930 Hank had developed just such a reputation, and this was a decisive factor in his ability to withstand the Great Depression. Always managing to find work (a challenge that took him to camps on Ramsay Arm and Vancouver Island), hunting deer to cut food costs, and “watching every penny for the next winter,” he takes considerable pride in avoiding relief through rugged selfreliance (51). Earning “a fair day’s wages for a good day’s work” throughout the decade, Hank reflects on woods unionization with some misgivings. Perhaps, he muses, in criticizing the soft life of union bureaucrats and the acquisitiveness of modern workers, “they all should a been born half-breeds then they would know how to work hard to make their way and stay ahead and be better than another guy” (54-5).

Healthy markets and tenure policies geared to satisfy the fibre demands of large, integrated firms provided coastal loggers with greater stability during the postwar boom. Pennier, however, suffered a series of injuries that forced an early retirement in 1959. Despite his disabilities Hank had no regrets over a life in the woods that forged a masculinity founded upon the dignity of hard, outdoor labour. “The work is never the same like say in a factory,” he explains, “it’s a man’s work and is risky” (58). Moreover, hard-earned physical and conceptual skill could override attitudes and policies that placed “half breeds” at a disadvantage relative to both non-Natives and status Indians. “An Indian can feel as good as the next guy,” Hank reflects, but better yet, “with me as a half breed which is neither one nor the other,” logging provided opportunity to anyone willing to “put in an extra effort” (58).

Pennier’s thoughts on the relationship between men, machines, and the forest are well worth considering. Contrasting sophisticated, modern equipment to the simpler steam technology of his era, he regrets the passing of a more intimate connection to nature. “Where’s the chance for a guy to get in there into the jungle with just his muscle and his brains and slug it out with a tough opponent?” he asks (59). As a Stó: lo logger, Hank believed that trees represented more than commodities; their spirit demanded respect in putting nature to human use. Modern technology had disrupted a relationship of honourable competition: “I can’t see how a logger can have much respect anymore,” Hank observes (60).

As his injuries took their toll, Pennier’s frustration at the indignity of being forced to accept less demanding work culminated in a final, short stint filling potholes, an intolerable blow to the pride of a man who had risen to the top of logging’s occupational hierarchy. “What the hell was I Hank Pennier doing shovelling a shovel for God’s sake!” (73). But he lost neither his dignity nor his sense of humour. His was a life well lived, and we are lucky to have a fresh opportunity to explore its meanings. Well-chosen images, explanatory notes, a glossary of logging terms, and a list of relevant sources enhance the text. Also included are a transcript of a 1972 interview with Hank and a biographical sketch of his grandfather, George John Perrier. “Way back in the big trees doing a man’s work, I wasn’t a half breed, I was just good old Hank,” the author reflects, but readers will finish this book with many complex issues to ponder (86).