Voices from the Skeena: An Illustrated Oral History
February 5, 2020
Review By Ted Binnema
Many familiar with Imbert Orchard’s CBC radio interviews from the 1960s will welcome this publication of transcriptions of oral interviews relating to the history of the Skeena River together with forty illustrations executed by the indigenous artist, Roy Henry Vickers, in his distinctive vibrant style. Published in a coffee-table format (11 x 7), this book will appeal to a broad audience of people interested in the Skeena River. Most of the words in this book are transcriptions of six oral interviews conducted in 1961, 1962, or 1963, and a radio documentary aired in 1963. They feature eleven different people, including Indigenous people and very early settlers. The stories relate to life along the Skeena River at the end of the nineteenth and the very early twentieth centuries. The book also provides the URL to the high-quality original audio recordings and a few additional oral resources (easily downloadable).
This is not a scholarly work, but it should appeal to the full range of readership of BC Studies. Professional and amateur scholars will appreciate that these primary sources, housed at the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, are now readily available in both print and digital formats. Those interested in nothing more than enjoying stories about the history of the Skeena River will enjoy the evocative and poignant accounts. Even pre-literate children will enjoy the lively and colourful illustrations. The fact that this book appeared on the Vancouver Sun’s bestseller list for several weeks in 2019 speaks to its attractiveness to a popular audience. Many people probably have seen it, or will see it gift-wrapped.
In coming years, researchers will also likely appreciate having these accounts readily available to them, both in written and audio formats. Imbert Orchard, of course, was not a scholar, and the gathering of these accounts may not conform to today’s standards of oral historiography, but those interested in the history of the lower Skeena River basin, especially between Metlakatla and Hazelton, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century should turn to this publication of primary source material. The stories, shared by Indigenous people, including Chief Jeffrey H. Johnson (Gitxsan) and Captain Joseph Alphonsus Gardner, and early settlers, including Sarah Glassey (the first woman to pre-empt land in British Columbia), shed light on the memories of the informants of early missionaries, paddle wheelers, and legendary figures such as Cataline (Jean Caux) and Glassey. Much of what is contained in the accounts cannot be found in the written documents of the period.
In sum, a diverse range of readers, from the curious public to the academic community, should welcome this publication.
Voices from the Skeena: An Illustrated Oral History. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2019. 120 pp. Illus. $29.95 cloth.