Talking to the Story Keepers: Tales from the Chilcotin Plateau
Review By Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles
January 14, 2024
In what represents more than 50 years of living on British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcoltin region, Sage Birchwater outlines the stories, histories, genealogies and experiences of the people who have called, and continue to call, this region home in his book Talking To The Story Keepers: Tales From The Chilcoltin Plateau. Bringing together both Indigenous and non-Indigenous experiences alike, Birchwater weaves in the stories of individuals with his own experiences, not only with these people, but with his own connections to space and place.
The stories range from more straightforward family histories to deep dives into the fascinating events and stories that the subjects were involved in, in a way that I found to be quite inviting, and resonant. For those of us who have found ourselves sitting at gatherings, listening to people tell stories about themselves and their experiences, there is an almost comforting, soothing mundane-ness to the stories that brings us in and carries us along in a meandering sort of way. I found myself slipping quite easily into that state of mind once again while reading Birchwater’s work.
One way that Birchwater facilitates this is through the way the book is structured—it is not chronological, nor is it divided up into Indigenous and non-Indigenous sections, as books that seek to bring both perspectives together tend to do. The stories seem to just flow onto the page, similar to how an older relative might seamlessly move between different topics—I especially appreciated the sidebars with anecdotes or explanations to the stories being told, which reminded me of the tangents that I, and many of my friends and colleagues find ourselves going on. I found myself reminded, in fact, of a group of people sitting around a fire, telling stories.
Another way is through the aforementioned mundane-ness, which I will admit can be a bit deceptive. Birchwater recalls stories of births, of deaths, of birthday celebrations, of work crews, of worship, of ceremony, of marriage, of squabbles over the use of a plane, even. These are the events of everyday life for the people of the Chilcoltin. Again, I found myself reminded of stories told to me by my grandparents and older relatives about their lives. Birchwater does tell stories of how people came to the Chilcoltin from faraway places, but these stories are familiar and down-to-earth, rather than sensationalized.
However, it is here where I want to return to the more deceptive nature of how the stories appear. They may look mundane and ordinary, but when I finished the book, I found myself realizing that this was not just a story about individual stories—each story spoke to the ways in which each story teller connected to the Chilcoltin—it wasn’t just them living their lives, but the ways in which their everyday geographies and spaces informed the lives that they lived. In this way, I argue that this is not just ‘Tales From The Chilcoltin Plateau’ as a simple geographic descriptor of Birchwater’s book, but in a way, it is the Chilcoltin telling its own story, as a place that is both transformative, yet ordinary for its inhabitants.
This book is obviously one that I find to be of interest for anyone connected to the Cariboo Chilcoltin, but I also highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the deep relationships between story telling, place, and the generative/iterative directions that these relationships can bring us in.
Birchwater, Sage. Talking to the Story Keepers: Tales From The Chilcotin Plateau. Qualicum Beach, BC: Caitlin Press, 2022. 240 pp. $26.00, paper.