#84 Don Sawyer
January 26th, 2016
LOCATION: Lytton (aka Kumsheen or The Forks). Confluence of Fraser and Thompson Rivers. 50°13’28″N 121°34’39″W.
Known as The Forks during the 1858 gold rush, the town of Lytton, on the east side of the Fraser River, where it joins the Thompson River, has been inhabited by the Nlaka’pamux people for over 10,000 years. Its confluence is evoked as the setting for Don Sawyer’s superb, young adult novel, Where the Rivers Meet (Pemmican, 1988), closely based on Sawyer’s observations as a teacher in the Fraser Canyon. “I chose the setting because it’s dramatic,” says Sawyer, “because of the rivers and the train bridge, but my main informant has been Mary Thomas, a Shuswap elder originally from Salmon Arm.” Don Sawyer taught in Lytton for two years, 1973-75.
Don Sawyer is an educator and writer in Salmon Arm, B.C. He has retired from Okanagan College, where he taught adult education, served as the college’s ABE Department Chair and as Director of the International Development Centre. He coordinated and managed five CIDA-funded development projects in West Africa, including the West African Rural Development Centre (WARD) project, shortlisted for the 2005 Canadian development project of the year.
Don Sawyer is the author of the award-winning young adult novel Where the Rivers Meet (Pemmican); a non-fiction account of his first teaching experiences in rural Newfoundland (Tomorrow Is School, Bendall Books); several children’s books, including The Meanest Teacher in the World and Miss Flint Meets the Great Kweskin (Chestnut Publishing); a series of novels for beginning adult readers, and numerous curriculum guides and manuals. His essays have appeared in most of Canada’s major newspapers.
Don Sawyer’s sensitive portrayal of Nancy Antoine, a grade 12 “Shuswap Indian” in Where the Rivers Meet (Pemmican, 1988), is set in a fictional community alongside the confluence of two different-coloured rivers (ie. the Thompson and Fraser Rivers). Frustrated with her largely irrelevant schooling and angered by the preventable deaths of her people on an unsafe bridge, she turns to her people’s traditional culture for sustenance. After undergoing a puberty rite called ssqualmach, Nancy returns to her school and successfully agitates for changes in its curriculum.
Some of the proceeds of his book were donated to the Lytton and Mt. Currie Stein Preservation Fund and the Stein and Cultural Heritage Rediscovery Society. Sawyer’s Where the Rivers Meet became one of the most enduring titles in the Pemmican Publications catalogue. The young adult novel was reissued for a ninth edition in 2010 with a new introduction from B.C. performer/writer, Art Napoleon, as well as a study guide written by Sawyer.
“I had become fed up with a publisher back east,” recalls Sawyer, “who had originally said they wanted the book. Then I was told to rewrite the story and advised, ‘If you took out all the analysis, this would go a long way to making the story work better.’ I was also told the characters ‘talk in too adult a manner and the insights are too well articulated’ and ‘the plot is a real problem…it has two centres.’
For an educator who had worked in high schools for more than ten years, Sawyer found the following comment particularly condescending: ‘There are many beginning writers setting their stories in school… It won’t do; he’ll have to dig deeper into his imagination and experience and find something stronger, more original.’
A related comment from yet another reader complained, ‘too much of what is wrong at school is put on Indian-ness when in fact, it’s a situation that affects both natives and whites alike.’
In the mid-1980s, there arose a good deal of nervousness and sensitivity about depicting First Nations characters, generating a narrow fastidiousness identified as “appropriation of voice.” (The two writers most targeted in B.C. were also two of the best: Anne Cameron and W.P. Kinsella.) Sawyer’s editor back east questioned the authenticity of the cultural material, even though he had done enormous ethnographic research and interviewed the late Neskonleth elder Mary Thomas for more than four hours to insure authentic voice.
[Ethnobotanist Mary Thomas was born in Salmon Arm in 1918. Much-recognized as a teacher for her knowledge of Shuswap history and customs, she was honoured in 2010 by the preservation of 490 hectares in the Wap Creek valley known for its spiritual and traditional use values.] Sawyer used some her comments verbatim in the text and Mary Thomas wrote a letter of endorsement of the story. The interview tapes between Sawyer and Mary Thomas are now owned by the Neskonleth First Nation and are highly regarded as one of the few extensive explorations of the Shuswap spirit quest.
In short, the incidents in Sawyer’s book were accurate portrayals of life in many native communities, revealing how social bigotry and injustice played out with particular clarity in our culturally-bound schools.
“But they didn’t get it,” said Sawyer.
In exasperation, having tried to accommodate his Ontario publisher for nearly two years, Sawyer sent the manuscript to Pemmican, who had published tough, authentic accounts of First Nations life such as In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton.
“They embraced the book immediately,” he recalls, and the publisher at the time, Virginia Maracle, phoned within a few weeks to express their enthusiasm. I then worked with editors Stan Manoakeesik and Beatrice Culleton, who had succeeded Virginia as the manager of Pemmican.
“When the book came out, it got great reviews. That was back in 1988 when papers actually reviewed books. Most gratifying were the sales, the vast majority of which were to predominantly First Nations schools across Canada.”
According to Sawyer, the first six printings, from 1988 to 1998, sold 15,847 copies, hence it’s safe to say more than 20,000 copies are in print.
“This book has meant a lot to us,” says Randal McIlroy, Managing Editor of Pemmican Publications in 2016, “and not only in terms of units shifted. In addition to its own supple merits, Where the Rivers Meet exemplifies modern writing that embraces indigenous culture without condescending, and shows how the meetings of cultures can lead to positive results. It chimes, too, with our hopes to publish modern and especially urban stories, the better to entice readers generally and, specifically, those who came to us through our books for children.”
In 2010, Sawyer added a teacher’s guide to accompany the ninth printing. In the introduction to that guide, dedicated to Mary Thomas, he wrote the following:
“One of the great joys of writing is to hear from one’s readers. I have been fortunate to have had phone conversations with classes reading Where the Rivers Meet in Manitoba, corresponded by e-mail with readers in Alberta, visited and read in classrooms throughout B.C., and received letters from students from Ontario to Vancouver Island.
“Perhaps no letter an author receives matches those that open with a line like this (received from a Native adult student in Merritt, BC): ‘I would like to acknowledge how much I really enjoyed your novel Where the Rivers Meet. This novel was the only book I’ve ever read and actually finished.’ I have been privileged to hear variations on that statement many times. What a thrill.
“But often these letters go beyond letting me know the reader enjoyed the book, or even that it was the first one he or she had ever read. Often they reflect the whole person behind the letters, sharing fears and hopes.”
Here are five samples of readers’ comments on WTRM.
— Doing an essay on Barry’s suicide was OK. I’ve thought about doing it at times myself. I dream about it still. Now I’m looking for the answer of why I dream about suicide, but I’m not dwelling on it.
— The rape scene brought back memories in my past. I have learned from [the book] that I wasn’t the only one in that position. The scared feelings were there again. But help was there. We worked on this part in class and the whole class was involved.
— The first part of the book that I liked is in the chapter with Grebs and his racism against natives. It’s not that I like racism. It shows that racism still pops up here and there. I still have to look at this one every day and try to treat everyone equal.
— A lot [of the book] reminded me of when I was going to school, the racism. But the only thing different from me and Nancy is that she did something and I quit. But now I’m back to school and this time I’m going to do it.
— The part about Barry committing suicide was hard on me because our class did a lot of research on why people commit suicide and how to prevent people from doing it. The reason it was hard on me is because I tried but never succeeded like Barry did. Your book was great, so have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Books from large publishing companies tend to get recognized with publicity. Where the Rivers Meet is from a low-profile, First Nations-owned imprint. Few people have heard of Don Sawyer. But aboriginal students throughout Canada have found truth, inspiration, affirmation and their own voice in Don Sawyer’s story for almost thirty years.
Born in 1947, Don Sawyer emigrated from Michigan in 1969 to take Chinese Studies at UBC. He worked as a educator of aboriginal peoples for 15 years prior to writing Where the Rivers Meet. He has also co-written three handbooks for aboriginal and multicultural classrooms coauthored with Howard Green, Art Napoleon and Wayne Lundeberg), compiled a bibliography of Native Studies with with Howard Green, and authored Tomorrow is School, an account of his introduction to teaching in a Newfoundland outport named Hoberly Cove. His YA novel, Running (Midway, 2011), is the story of three misfits, an aboriginal and white boy and a troubled girl, who find redemption and love through the common bond of cross-country running.
Donna Meets Coyote is his contribution to Secwepemc Cultural Education Society’s educational series. Director of Native Adult Education in Salmon Arm, Sawyer expressed outrage at the systematic oppression of aboriginals in British Columbia. “We did some amazing things to these people. The Residential schools only closed in the 1960s. We’ve underminded the most fundamental aspects of people’s ability to control their own lives.” Don Sawyer and Howard Green also co-edited The NESA Bibliography Annotated for Native Studies (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, The Tillacum Library, 1983.)
His children’s book The Lunch Bag Chronicles (Playfort Publishing, 2009) grew out of his parenting days. “For years I drew pictures attached to jokes on my daughters’ lunch bags. They liked them so much, they brought them home, and eventually I had collected over 1,000 bags. We have incorporated 80 or so, along with a light narrative, into the finished ms.”
Running (Midway Press, 2011)
Saving Farley’s Bog (Highgate Press, 2010 )
Hurricane on Grimm’s Island (Highgate Press, 2010)
The Lunch Bag Chronicles (Playfort Publishing, 2010)
Where the Rivers Meet Teacher’s Guide (Pemmican Publications, 2010)
Miss Flint Meets the Great Kweskin (Chestnut Publications, 2007)
Grampa and the Four Brothers (Pemmican Publications, 1998), Illustrations by Bob Muirhead
Novels for Adult Readers Series: Crocodiles and Rivers; Frozen Tears; The Buckle (BC Ministry of Education, 1997)
The NESA Activities Handbook for Native and Multicultural Classrooms, vol. 3 (Arsenal Pulp, The Tillacum Library, 1993), Co-authored by Wayne Lundeberg
Adventures with Miss Flint (Thistledown, 1993)
The NESA Activities Handbook for Native and Multicultural Classrooms, vol. 2. (Arsenal Pulp, The Tillacum Library, 1991), Co-authored by Art Napoleon
Donna Meets Coyote (Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, 1988), Illustrations by Jeff Burgess
Where the Rivers Meet, (Pemmican, 1988) 10th edition in 2016
The NESA Activities Handbook for Native and Multicultural Classrooms, vol. 1. ?(Arsenal Pulp, The Tillacum Library, 1984) Co-authored by Howard Green
Tomorrow is School and I Am Sick to the Heart Thinking About It (D&M, 1979; Bendall Books, 1998)
Kids Today: Essay by Don Sawyer
More than 40 years ago, Canadian media guru and philosopher Marshall McLuhan told us that we can only look at society through a rear view mirror. Like water to a fish, the forces shaping us – and their effects – are largely invisible.
McLuhan, who coined the term “global village,” saw, with astonishing prescience, how the move from print to electronic media was having, and would continue to have, a profound impact on every aspect of our lives. The introduction of new communication technologies, McLuhan said, is not a moral issue, good or bad, but one that carries great dangers because of our inability to understand them: “There can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies.”
To say that we are living in a rapidly changing world may be the biggest understatement in human history. The internet has only been generally accessible to the public for about ten years. In 2004, 71% of Canadian households owned a computer, nearly twice as many as in 1998. In 2009, more people reported accessing news via the internet than a newspaper. Last year, only 45.7 percent of Americans read literature — defined as novels, short stories, or poetry. This is a 10 percent decline since 1982, a loss of 20 million readers
While the full social effects of this breathtakingly rapid move to electronic media may not be fully recognizable, it is reasonable to expect to see the outcomes first, and most dramatically, in those most immersed in these new technologies, our children. And while the jury is still out, the results are unsettling.
• For the first time in a century, children’s IQ scores are dropping. A 2008 British study indicates that for those in the upper half of the intelligence scale, average IQ scores were six points lower than 28 years ago.
• A study commissioned by Lloyds of London showed that the average attention span had fallen to just 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes 10 years ago, with youth showing the most dramatic declines.
• There are indications that increasing use of computer games may result in neurological changes resulting from constant “downshifting” to primitive fight or flight responses built into most games. These could habituate the brain to a need for “extreme” experience or even “chronically affect blood pressure” and anxiety.
• The overuse of computers during children’s early development may also cause the prefrontal cortex (which regulates emotion, complex thought, and problem solving) to become idle resulting in a lazy or underdeveloped capacity for critical thinking and emotional empathy.
• Some studies indicate that the vocabulary of the typical American teen of today is less than half the size of the vocabulary of a teenager in the 1950s, representing “not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think.”
• In an American survey, teenagers were able to recognize over 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants and animals native to their locality.
• Less than one-third of 13 year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17 year olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20 year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.
• On average, Americans aged 15-24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading.
So what’s going on? And what does it all mean? The first question is easier to answer. Dr Richard House, a British researcher on the effects television has on children, puts it succinctly: “Taking these findings [on reduced attention spans] at face value, it appears that there is something happening to teenagers. Computer games and computer culture has led to a decrease in reading books.”
New Zealand intelligence expert James Flynn concurs: “The demands made on teenagers’ brainpower by today’s youth culture may be stagnating. Leisure time is increasingly taken up with playing computer games and watching TV instead of reading and holding conversations.”
American educator and researcher Jane Healy writes, “The way children use computers may have powerful long-term effects on their minds. The main reason, of course, is that using any medium affects the underlying neural circuitry that is being established during childhood and adolescence. Before parents and educators become too excited about children using computers, the long-lasting neurological impacts must be taken into account.”
Indeed. But can we? McLuhan would seem to suggest that we can’t. He tells us that we may be doomed to blunder deeper into the computer age oblivious to the social consequences. At best, perhaps, we can only wonder, as Samuel Morse did in the first telegraph message he sent in 1844, “What hath God wrought?” Presumably, time will answer this question for us. But be careful. Those objects in your rear view mirror? They’re closer than they appear.
Cutting Arts Funding Hurts Us All: From North of 50
Did you catch this item back in October? “B.C.’s beleaguered literary organizations are forming the Coalition for the Defence of Writing and Publishing in British Columbia one day after the Arts & Culture branch of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture & the Arts simultaneously removed all funding from the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia ($45,000), BC BookWorld newspaper ($31,000) and B.C. Association of Magazine Publishers ($20,000).”
No? That’s probably because there was little outrage expressed by the press – and even less fanfare by the government. And this little announcement was just the tip of the iceberg: Provincial funding for the BC Arts Council is dropping by 82%, from $19.5 Million (2008/09) to $3.5 Million (2009/10 and 2010/11). What do they do? Well, everything from supporting professional arts and cultural organizations throughout the province to funding amateur theatre, music, dance, visual, media and literary arts organizations, to maintaining programs that support community arts groups, festivals, museums, training and service agencies. As William Gibson, author of Neuromancer put it, “As a futurist, someone with some experience in long-range scenario-based corporate and municipal planning, I’ve seen my share of jaw-droppingly shortsighted proposals.
But these proposed cuts to support for the arts in BC (almost 90% by 2011) really take the cake. This is governance guaranteed to rot the fabric of our province’s future.”
So what? I can hear you asking. I’m no artist. Perhaps not, but you do live in a province enriched, culturally and financially, by the thousands that work in the cultural industry. And make no mistake, it is an industry. According to Stats Canada, Cultural industries contributed $40 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2002 alone. During that same year, Mining and Oil and Gas extraction contributed only $35.4 billion. The Agriculture and Forestry industry contributed $21 billion to Canada’s GDP, approximately half that of the Cultural sector.
It’s also an industry that employs a whole lot of people, and the numbers are growing. Whereas Agriculture and Forestry combined with the Mining, Oil and Gas industry, employed 602,200 Canadians, Cultural industries in Canada were responsible for directly employing 597,000 Canadians in 2002 or 3.8% of Canada’s workforce. Between the years of 1996 and 2001, employment in the cultural sector grew at an annual rate of 3.4%, significantly faster than the overall Canadian employment growth rate.
It’s ironic that the announcement came while my wife and I were in Europe, attracted by the museums and public art that enrich so many European cities. There, the importance of artists to a nation and a culture has been understood—and supported—for hundreds of years, resulting in societies that are more literate, more aware, and more engaged. And also more cognizant, apparently, of the significant economic benefits generated by the arts.
Let’s use the example of $96,000 of cuts cited above. When you attack the writing and publishing sector, you force BC printers out of business. Those publishers who can afford to, take their printing out of the province. When publishers themselves are forced to shut down, their staffs are put out of work. The books that would normally be produced and sold locally go elsewhere, reducing provincial sales and income taxes. Fewer BC writers are published, at a significant economic and cultural cost. When you slash support for BC BookWorld, you are jeopardizing the most effective book advertising medium in the province, leading to reduced sales. Reduced sales means more bookstores close, especially the smaller independent bookstores that are so central to the social and cultural life of smaller communities. When local magazines close, not only do we lose unique BC voices, we lose advertising revenues, national and international profile, skilled employees, markets for local writers, and wages.
Something is seriously wrong with the Government’s financial priorities. Salmon Arm’s local Arts Council was informed a few months ago that the $24,000 they had received annually to organize arts activities in the community and maintain the Art Gallery (the gallery—which hosts weekly jazz concerts, regular exhibits of local art, poetry readings, concerts by local and visiting musicians, exhibits of art from regional school children, weddings, community group fundraisers and many other activities—is a true community centre) was being eliminated. On that same day, the SA City Council was informed, without any request on their part, that $30,000 was being made available to them to host the Olympic torch run through our city.
These latest moves by the government send a chilling message: Art-related industries and activities critical to local communities and to the maintenance of a literate, aware and engaged society are neither valued nor respected. Clearly, massive subsidies to the Olympics and corporations and the construction of highways and bridges (though all the arts cuts combined wouldn’t pay for a mile of the Highway 97 expansion) take precedence over the work and contributions of thousands of artists, writers, musicians, actors, publishers and crafts people across BC.
[Don Sawyer is a writer, educator and former director of Okanagan College’s International Development Centre. He lives with his wife in Salmon Arm. You can contact Don Sawyer by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at Don Sawyer c/o North of 50, Box 100, Armstrong, BC V0E 1B0. For more information on Don’s writing and development work, visit his website at www.northerned.com]