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Tilly & her sisters

Monique Gray Smith joins a distinguished literary sorority

January 17th, 2014

Monique Gray Smith, whose memoir Tilly recounts overcoming adversity. Photo by Laura Sawchuk.

Has anyone noticed? We’ve had a flurry of books only about the lives of individual First Nations women of BC.

We’ve had four in the same year—including Monique Gray-Smith’s under-publicized Tilly (Sono Nis $19.95).

It wasn’t always thus. Here are ten predecessors from the past thirty years.


1. Cariboo resident Jean Speare broke new ground when she interviewed her Shuswap neighbour, Mary Augusta Tappage, born in Soda Creek in 1888, and produced The Days of Augusta, in 1973, but there were only a few follow-ups.

Lee Maracle

Lee Maracle

2. Raised in North Vancouver, Lee Maracle, of Salish and Cree ancestry, is a member of the Stó:lo First Nation who produced a synthesis of autobiography and fiction, Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel, in 1975, followed by I Am Woman, in 1988, which recounts Maracle’s struggle to “climb the mountain of racism.”

3. Born in Masset on September 15, 1896, Florence Edenshaw Davidson was the daughter of renowned artist Charles Edenshaw and the grandmother of artists Reg Davidson and Robert Davidson. She was profiled by Margaret Blackman in During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman, in 1982.

4. Pauline Johnson (“Tekahionwake”) only resided in Vancouver for four years. Betty Keller’s biography Pauline, first appeared in 1982. An edited version for young adults was issued in 1999.

5. Social worker Bridget Moran published Stoney Creek Woman, about the life and times of Carrier elder Mary John, in 1988, and for many years it was the bestselling title ever published by Arsenal Pulp Press.

6. With Chiwid in 1995, Cariboo journalist Sage Birchwater profiled the remarkable Tsilhqot’in woman who lived outdoors for most of her adult life, having escaped from a violently abusive husband, Alex Jack. Widely known as a crack shot, Chiwid (or “Chickadee”) moved her solitary campsite according to the seasons, protected only by a tarp. Chiwid was born as Lily Skinner, daughter of deaf and mute Luzep, a Tsilhqot’in from Redstone, and Charley Skinner, a white settler in the Tatlayoko–Eagle Lake area.

7. Published more than 50 years after her death, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography (1990), documents the ground-breaking literary achievements of American-born Okanagan aboriginal Mourning Dove, who lived briefly in Oliver, B.C. She was possibly the first female First Nations novelist in North America.

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

8. Having grown up hearing stories about her mother’s great aunt, Mourning Dove, Jeannette Armstrong spearheaded the En’owkin Centre in Penticton for First Nations writers. Her second novel, Her Whispering in Shadows, in 2000, can be read as a companion novel to her first, Slash (1983). It follows the life and times of Penny, an Okanagan artist and single mother who has contracted cancer after her exposure to pesticides while working as a fruit picker in the Okanagan Valley.

9. Shirley Sterling retold her experiences in the Kamloops Residential School for an Egoff Prize-winning children’s book, My Name is Seepeetza, in 1992.

10. The first autobiographical portrayal of a Kwakwaka’wakw matriarch, Paddling to Where I Stand, recalled the life and times of storyteller Agnes Alfred, in 2004


In Spring 2013, BCBW columnist Joan Givner contributed a lengthy review of Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom (UBC Press, 2012), co-written with the Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan and shortlisted for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize. Jane Cook gave birth to 16 children and assumed the role of caregiver for Alert Bay and the surrounding area, delivering babies, nursing the sick and tending to the dying.

In Autumn 2013, Givner provided a lengthy review of Chief Bev Sellars’ autobiography, They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talonbooks 2013), the first story to recount life inside the notorious St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake. It soon topped the B.C. Bestsellers list.

In Spring 2014, B.C. BookLook, the daily news service, featured coverage of a life story by and about the mother of former Lieutenant Governor of B.C. Steven Point. Co-authored by Richard Daly, Xwelíqwiya The Life of a Stó:lo Matriarch (Athabasca University Press / UBC 2013) is the autobiography of Rena Point Bolton, a Stó:lo matriarch, artist and craftswoman.

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Monique Gray Smith

Monique Gray Smith

Overshadowed by that recent trio, Monique Gray Smith, a mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota and Scottish ancestry, has released Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience (Sono Nis Press 2013). Like Sellars’ autobiography, it’s an account of overcoming adversity.

Like her protagonist named Tilly, Gray Smith grew up knowing she was part Lakota on her Dad’s side—but she didn’t know her mother was Cree. After she learns the truth from a bizarre encounter in the street, Tilly becomes unglued and turns to alcohol in her teens, first introduced to booze by a seventh-grade schoolmate, Abby.

Like the author’s mother, Tilly’s mother was a Cree who was taken from her parents as a baby. The death of Tilly’s beloved grandmother, her mentor, who has passed along traditional teachings to her, is like the loss of lifejacket in the water. Tilly drowns in despair and partying. She can only summon the courage to swim to safety, to revive her self-esteem, when a stranger says to her, “Never question who you are or who your people are. It’s in your eyes. I know it’s in your heart.”

Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience is not only an inspirational and sometimes humorous account of attaining sobriety; Gray Smith also offers a matter-of-fact panorama of social hurdles faced by Canada’s First Nations in the 20th-century—from forced displacement and residen­tial schools, to tuberculosis hospitals and the so-called Sixties Scoop during which well-intentioned adoption programs irrevocably splintered aboriginal families.

Now a proud mom of young twins, Monique Gray Smith lives “on Coast Salish territory” in Victoria, B.C. where she operates Little Drum Consulting. Sober for more than twenty years, she is an articulate spokesperson and writer who was invited to contribute to the proceedings of the recent Reconciliation conference at UBC.

Tilly 9781550392098

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