Two Houses Half-Buried in Sand: Oral Traditions of the Hul’q’umi’num Coast Salish of Kuper Island and Vancouver Island
November 4, 2013
Review By Sarah Morales
Huy tseep q’u, ah siem
In a period marred by unemployment and economic hardships, Beryl Mildred Cryer, a Chemainus housewife, mother, and part-time journalist, set out to introduce the world to the oral traditions of the local Hul’q’umi’num people on Vancouver Island. This book is a result of a unique project that she undertook during the Depression era. Between 1932 and 1935 she met with well-known Hul’q’umi’num individuals and recorded their histories and mythologies, and she published more than sixty stories in Victoria’s Daily Colonist Sunday Magazine.
Although, until a few years ago, Beryl Cryer had only managed to get a thin volume of children’s stories published, Chris Arnett, heritage consultant and author of Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849–1863 (1999), heard about her work and retrieved it from the BC Archives. He compiled and edited its contents, and wrote a brief introduction and biography of Cryer’s life. He also provides valuable annotations and translations of the Hul’q’umi’num’ names for people, places, and things that Cryer recorded. The result is a book that provides some of the best accounts of Coast Salish mythology and oral history available.
It could be argued that one of the greatest strengths of this book is Beryl Cryer’s interview and recording style. Although she often visited individuals when working to obtain a particular story, she never guided her interviews; instead, she listened carefully to the storyteller who related it and recorded the narratives just as they were told to her by Hul’q’umi’num’ elders. One can see the difference that this style made when one compares it to the works of other anthropologists who also recorded the oral traditions of the Coast Salish peoples. For example, whereas some of Boas’s accounts in Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America: A Translation of Franz Boas’ 1895 Edition of Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Kuste Amerikas (Bouchard and Kennedy 2002) are not complete narratives but, rather, brief notes, Cryer’s accounts not only include complete oral histories but also provide the reader with a background of the storyteller’s life and the interactions and conversations that took place between her and the narrator while the story was being told. For example, the story of Qäls as recounted by Boas in Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America (135–38) lacks the detail of Cryer’s recording of “Xeel’s – The Sun God” in Two Houses Half-Buried In Sand (175–77). Although Boas’s recording arguably includes more of the encounters of the great Transformer, Cryer’s recording of Mary Rice’s account gives a more in-depth explanation of the motivations behind Xeel’s judgements and transformations. As such, the reader is afforded some insight into the original legal traditions of the Hul’q’umi’num people of Vancouver Island and Kuper Island.
Another strength of this book is Cryer’s relationships with the Hul’q’umi’num elders and storytellers with whom she met. Although Aboriginal stereotypes are occasionally invoked in her writing (145), through the written accounts of her interactions with the elders, especially Mary Rice, one can see that Beryl Cryer was genuinely interested in the oral traditions of the Hul’q’umi’num people and saw the value in both publishing and preserving them. Many Hul’q’umi’num’ people actively sought her (182), and because they trusted her, the were eager to have her document their history. This implies that the Hul’q’umi’num’ people were keenly aware of the impact of contact on their culture and that they recognized the importance of documenting their oral traditions, relating both to precontact and to contact times.
In addition to this book being a significant contribution to the ethnography of Vancouver Island, Salt Spring Island, and Kuper Island, it could also be of great benefit to the Hul’q’umi’num peoples themselves. As previously mentioned, the oral stories recorded in it could help to strengthen Hul’q’umi’num’ legal traditions. Furthermore, these histories could be used to help strengthen the land claims in which many Hul’q’umi’num’ communities are currently engaged. With its verbatim accounts of family stories, historical conflicts, and photographs, this book could facilitate Hul’q’umi’num’ peoples attempts to reappropriate elements of their culture from the academic sphere. As a Coast Salish scholar, I see great value in these oral traditions that were gifted to Beryl Cryer and which she, in return, has gifted to us all.
Arnett, Chris. 1999. Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849–1863. Vancouver: Talonbooks.
Bouchard, Randy and Dorothy Kennedy, editors. 2002. Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America: A Translation of Franz Boas’ 1895 Edition of Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Kuste Amerikas. Vancouver: Talonbooks.