Cariboo author draws from oral history

Sage Birchwater’s Chilcotin Chronicles tells of colourful characters

Sage Birchwater’s new book Chilcotin Chronicles draws on oral history to tell the history of the people of the Chilcotin.

Sage Birchwater’s new book Chilcotin Chronicles draws on oral history to tell the history of the people of the Chilcotin.

By Tara  Sprickerhoff

Sit around the kitchen table of someone who’s been in the area a long time, and it won’t be long until you start hearing tales about the colourful characters and somewhat unbelievable events that have happened in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast’s long and storied past.

Cariboo author Sage Birchwater’s new book Chilcotin Chronicles draws from a long oral tradition to create a history of the region based on the people that call this area home.

“It’s history told with First Nations people sitting at the table,” says Birchwater, who lived in the Chilcotin for 23 years before writing the book. “I am trying to be cogniscant of how they are feeling and remembering they have a different perspective of colonization and settlement.”

Birchwater makes an effort to include the voices of the indigenous people of the area in the book which starts at first contact with the Europeans and continues to the recent Supreme Court ruling in favour of the Xeni Gwet’in court case, which awarded 1,900 km of land to the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

It also includes an account of the Chilcotin War, telling how the Tsilhqot’in were tricked into coming to a peace conference, whereby they were arrested and later sentenced to death by Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie.

The highlights of Birchwater’s book, however, come from the personal stories and retellings that each character shares with the author.

Indeed, Birchwater says the book started at the kitchen table of one of characters in the book itself, Annie Nicholson.

“We worked for her one summer, and she’s the one who started telling us about these characters all over the country,” he says. “She was one of our inspirations.”

During the research for Birchwater’s first book, Chiwid, the story of a Tsilhqot’in woman who lived with few possessions outdoors for more than 50 winters, he collected over 100 recordings from people who lived in the Chilcotin.

“I had all this huge backlog of unpublished material, these interviews, so I started playing the tapes back and dragging the stories out,” he says.

The stories jump back and forth from the First Nations who knew the land intimately, to the settlers who eventually called the area home, often members of the same families.

“My stories talk about the melding of the cultures, the relationships,” says Birchwater.

The book features people like R.C. Cotton, a British aristocrat who paid a rancher at Riske Creek to take him on as an apprentice and who eventually bought the ranch, establishing polo games and a British high culture in the area. It also highlights characters like George Turner, a suspected, although never proven, bank robber who fled to Canada before the law could catch up to him and his wife Louisa One-Eye, a Tsilhqot’in woman who only had the use of one arm but who, it was said, “could track through the bush on a saddle horse better than anyone in the country, including her husband.”

The telling also includes the story of Eagle Lake Henry, an aboriginal man who gave up his indigenous status and “didn’t allow himself to be pushed around by the government.”

Many of the people, including Eagle Lake Henry, have interesting encounters with a character, who was known by a rather unsavory nickname. His legal name, Harvey Valleau, was known only by the census-taker and the postmaster, but the man had a reputation for having an unstable temper. Encounters with him could go very well, or very, very poorly, or both.

“It just got a little Western,” says Birchwater.

While researching, Birchwater says the mixing of the different cultures and how they integrated always surprised him.

“You write down one story, and you interview people about one story, and it links to another one,” says Birchwater.

The characters and stories in the book are mixed with a collection of photographs Birchwater has gleaned from private collections or museums throughout the country.

The photos display a history in another way, showing the homes, the wrinkles and smile lines of the men and women who lived throughout the Chilcotin.

“You get to see people as human beings rather than stereotypes,” he says.

“Moving to the Chilcotin, you meet these really fascinating people where oral tradition is the way things were told. You sit around a kitchen table and shoot the breeze and all these great stories come out.”

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