Stranger Wycott’s Place: Stories from the Cariboo-Chilcotin
November 4, 2013
Review By Sean Carleton
John Schreiber’s book reminds us that British Columbia’s landscape is defined and haunted by stories from the colonial past. As a self-proclaimed “ragamuffin out of the bush” (12), Schreiber’s narrative takes the unconventional form of a walking journey through the south-central region of British Columbia, along the way exploring a variety of historical myths and legends about “wildness,” conflict, colonialism, and a strange man named William Walter Wycott. Aiming to give the reader an environmental and historical awareness of the Cariboo-Chilcotin area, Schreiber argues that embracing a strong sense of place is important, as it is only “through learning where we are, [that] we may learn who we are” (11). Stranger Wycott’s Place succeeds in cultivating an appreciation for the power of space, place, and myth in the ongoing history of British Columbia.
Schreiber demonstrates a deep respect for the past and a firm understanding of the tensions between indigenous peoples and invading settlers in British Columbia. For example, he refers to McGowan’s War, the 1858 Fraser Canyon War, and the 1864 Chilcotin War. Although for the most part discussing these conflicts from the perspective of settlers, Schreiber is careful to highlight the agency of indigenous peoples, noting that “the natives of the canyon, no strangers to struggles over territory, and numerous, fought back with vigour; it was their home ground after all” (21). In contrast to the many works that blindly celebrate the lives and accomplishments of those newcomers who “settled” indigenous territories, Schreiber attempts to complicate our understanding of what it means to remember colonialism. Yet, despite this attempt, Schreiber’s “stories from the Cariboo-Chilcotin” are still couched in colonial understandings of the region’s past, present, and future – understandings that do not adequately address indigenous perspectives.
In addition to discussions of historical events and the awe-inspiring landscapes and wildlife of the Cariboo-Chilcotin area, Stranger Wycott’s Place examines a number of memorable characters. For example, there is Annie Zetko York, an intelligent woman of “mixed ancestry,” who was chosen by her indigenous Nlaka’pamux elders to be a “carrier of the old knowings” (22); and Lillie Skinner, or “Chiwid” – “Chickadee” – a wandering indigenous women who took to living in the woods by herself after a traumatic event. Yet, by far the most powerful and mysterious character is Stranger Wycott – nicknamed “Stranger” for his habit of calling people by that same name. Born in Ontario in 1836, Wycott, like so many others, came to British Columbia via California during the gold rush years. While little is known about this first-generation colonist, Schreiber pieces together fragmented stories from Wycott’s past, allowing the reader brief glimpses into the life of this intriguing historical actor. Perhaps most captivating about Stranger Wycott is his relationship with an indigenous woman, Matthilda “Maggie” Kwonsenak, and the confusing details of his domestic life in colonial British Columbia. Schreiber’s discussion of Stranger Wycott’s interracial family dynamics is the strongest and most fascinating part of the book and is a significant contribution to the larger discussion about the importance of such relationships to the making of British Columbia.
As part of New Star Book’s Transmontanus series, Stranger Wycott’s Place lives up to the series’ promise to publish works on the more unusual aspects of British Columbia. From stories of Wycott asking a high society woman if she “ever had the piles” (97), to tales of his wild steers barging into a saloon in Barkerville, and his sewing of nine $100 bills into his long underwear before he died, Stranger Wycott is definitely a mysterious character from our past. Yet Schreiber’s book could have done more to challenge the way in which stories about colonialism are told. In Stranger Wycott’s Place indigenous peoples are still located on the margins – graveyards on the side of the road, absent or nameless in mentions of colonial conflict. Even Maggie Kwonsenak is presented simply as Wycott’s silent, childbearing partner. Thus, while Stranger Wycott’s Place is an interesting contribution to BC historiography, it is also an important reminder that the mythical stories of colonialism are – despite our best intentions – still entwined with colonial ways of thinking about and representing the past.