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One River, Two Cultures: A History of the Bella Coola Valley

By Paula Wild

Review By Patricia Roy

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 146 Summer 2005  | p. 123-4

One River, Two Cultures effectively summarizes the structure and themes of Paula Wild’s study of the Bella Coola Valley. The Bella Coola River dominates the story. Traditional Nuxalkmc (or Nuxalk – Wild uses these terms interchangeably) tales, which have been adapted from Franz Boas and from T.F. McIlwarith’s ethnography of the Bella Coola (written in the early 1920s) head each chapter. 

The juxtaposition of Nuxalkmc stories and modern work usually works well. Wild links creation myths with research by geologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists to argue that no scientific theory has “the drama of the origin stories of the Bella Coola First Nations – or seriously consider[s] that these oral histories may be based on prehistoric fact”(20). A Nuxalkmc story of the orphan boy, who was rescued by fish after trying to commit suicide by jumping into the ice-clogged river, opens a chapter describing the commercial fishery, which began in the 1890s. Similarly, a story of how the cedar trees were planted introduces a chapter showing how different residents responded to their environment. The Nuxalkmc people used cedar for canoes, ceremonial regalia, clothing, housing, furniture, and even babies’ diapers, whereas the early Norwegian settlers, although they admitted that the forest was useful for lumber and firewood, saw trees as a nuisance that had to be cleared and burned before one could get on with farming. Eventually, the settlers found a market for lumber and logs and made forestry a major industry, though recent changes have caused severe economic depression. 

The First Nations people, whom Wild reports refer to themselves as “Indians,” appear throughout the book both as mythical figures and as interviewees. Wild asserts that European attempts to assimilate the First Nations had “devastating” effects, and she quotes informants regarding their experiences in residential schools and the loss of their language. Despite living in close proximity, there was limited contact between the “Indians” and what they call the “white guys/girls” (243). Indeed, Wild argues that, despite isolation, “there is still a strong and very separate sense of Nuxalkmc, Norwegians and ‘outsiders’” (272). 

Yet, all the residents had to contend with the fact that, as one long-time resident observed, “The river goes where it wants to” (165). Early European explorers, including Alexander Mackenzie and Henry Spencer Palmer of the Royal Engineers, and settlers depended on First Nations people and their skill with canoes to enable them to travel on the Bella Coola River. Frequent floods washed out later roads and bridges, and the river’s shifting course forced settlers to move to its opposite side. 

Although the First Nations peoples had carved out “grease trails” – so called because they were used to transport ooligan (the preferred local spelling) oil inland – travel inland was only for the adventuresome. Despite some surveying for a road to the Cariboo gold fields and, later, for railways, little was done to improve the old grease trails until the mid-twentieth century. Coastal steamers provided the only real access to the Bella Coola Valley from the outside world. After years of unsuccessfully lobbying the government to build a road, settlers took matters into their own hands. With the help of a small government grant, donations of cash and kind, and volunteer labour, they pushed through what they called the “Freedom Road” in 1955; however, driving on this narrow road, with its steep hills and many switchbacks, remained an adventure. 

An extensive bibliography complements One River, Two Cultures, and indicates the breadth and depth of Wild’s research. It includes memoirs, contemporary local newspapers, archival interviews, and Wild’s own encounters with residents in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Unfortunately, she missed some potentially rewarding sources, such as Douglas Cole’s Franz Boas: The Early Years, 1858-1906 (1999) and the collection of McIlwraith’s letters, At Home with the Bella Coola Indians (2003), edited by John Barker. For example, she says that Boas decided to go to Bella Coola as a means of getting to North America, where his fiancée lived, whereas Cole implies a less romantic motive, namely, scientific curiosity. Nevertheless, through her own interviews and observations, Wild has become somewhat of an ethnographer, though the absence of footnotes or other citations impairs the book’s value for scholars or as a historical document in its own right. However, One River, Two Cultures is eminently readable. Well-chosen and -placed photographs add to its interest and informative value. It is a fine introduction to an isolated bc community with a very long history.