Yucho Chow re-discovered

“Author and curator, Catherine Clement (left) has won B.C.’s top award for historical writing for her book about an early Vancouver photographer whose work was almost forgotten.” FULL STORY

Interview / Anne Cameron #3

April 07th, 2008

BCBW: As a British Columbian, ambulance what do you think we aspire to in this place? What’s your definition of who we are?

AC: I think our main aspiration is to be left alone. I think that is what most of us out here want. We’ve got this belief, a belief that is probably illogical, that we are not the ones who raped the forest. And now they’re doing it to the ocean with their fish farms. They are doing it. And they are companies from somewhere else. And we want them to go away, to take their goddamn money with them, and to leave us alone with our beaches the way they used to be… We’ve learned bugger-nothing. The Indians had a lousy immigration policy.

BCBW: What are the origins for Daughters of Copper Woman?

AC: Daughters of Copper Woman is a gift that was passed to us from some wonderful, gentle, tough and enduring old women. It has been classed as ‘fiction’ by some but for me it is as true as the Bible is true. These stories were told to me a few at a time, in no particular order, over several years. I didn’t even tell them. The native storytelling tradition holds that a story belongs to the one who tells it, not to the one who hears it, and so I listened, and I retained and I made no move to tell what had been shared with me. Later on the women who had shared stories with me told me to put them in some kind of order, get them published, put them out to the world at large. So I did. I had no idea what a shit-storm THAT would create!

BCBW: The appropriation of voice debate.

AC: Yes. But AT NO TIME did any elder speak out against the stories, or the publication of Daughters of Copper Woman, or my part in any of it. Annie Yorke, one of the all-time treasures of native oral history, gave the book her blessing. George Clutesi, who wrote Son of Raven Son of Deer, used it as a teaching tool in his work with young men. The Traditional Council of Elders approves of it. But I listened. I let the people with their political agenda have their say. For more than a dozen years I ‘stepped aside.’ I made a point of not including any ‘native content’ in my work. I waited for any of the noisemakers to start doing what they claimed I had been keeping them from doing. Well, I’m still waiting.

BCBW: Are you changing your stance?

AC: Yes. I am not going to deliberately avoid Native content in my stories anymore. For this new edition, permission was given to me to include some stories that were not available at the time of the first publication. My reality includes a Native reality. Five of my grandchildren are ‘registered status’ Natives. It is my obligation to speak for them until they are big enough and old enough to speak for themselves. I would betray them if I neglected their First Nations background. I have other grandchildren who are not registered status as defined by the laws of this fair land, and to them, too, I have an obligation. And that obligation includes melding and merging Native and non-Native reality as it is lived on this coast. And anyone who doesn’t like it can get in line to kiss my arse.

BCBW: How did Copper Woman first get published?

AC: I took it to the Press Gang Collective. We did not have a written contract; we had an understanding. I retained ‘control’ in that no translations, no foreign publications, etc., could be done without my permission. For years I did not allow translations because I had no way of checking how well the work was done, and part of the job I had, as writer, was to try hard to retain the oral storytelling flavour.

BCBW: What are some of the causes you’ve underwritten from selling 200,000 copies?

AC: The royalties have gone towards funding the defense of Meares Island and Lyell Island. And for four years they kept the Stein Rediscovery Program running. It bought a big roto-tiller so Native women in Washington State could prepare ground and transfer healing plants that would have otherwise been destroyed by bulldozers that were clearing what ought to have been their sacred land for a subdivision. It has kept money going into transition houses and shelters for women and kids. The list goes on. Along the way I hope it has encouraged, in some small measure, a re-examination of non-Native ‘pre-history,’ the stories which we have been denied. Because it has been read by so many people, it’s safe to say Daughters of Copper Woman has helped the Ainu people of Japan, the Sami people, the Maori. And see if I apologize for any of that. The line forms for those who wish to kiss my arse.

BCBW: Do you ever scratch your head and say, ‘Jeez, if only I’d kept all those royalties for myself…’

AC: Not really. Daughters of Copper Woman has been like a ‘gift which goes on giving,’ It has prompted people to tell me stories from their ‘lost’ backgrounds, their lost cultures. When I went to England on a reading thing sponsored by, I think, the Canadian government, I swapped Celtic stories with some of the Travelling People, and from that came The Tales of the Cairds. They’re similar but in a different tone, more mocking, more irreverent. I think we heal ourselves with our stories. Little kids are bombarded on all sides by TV, by video games, by CD ranting, and yet let one person start to tell a story and the noise is ignored, the kids are there, wide-eyed and breathless.

BCBW: Is that why you’ve done about 10 kids books?

AC: Sure. Right now I’m working on a story called ‘Freedom Ride’ with Ms. Lynn Aspden’s grade 3-4 class at James Thomson Elementary. It is such fun! I go down the road there, to the school, every now and again, always unscheduled, and we review what we’ve put together. It’s about a polar bear cub born in a zoo and how she decides to find ‘north.’ They let their ideas pour forth. They seem to really want the polar bear to go to Hawaii. I tell them it’s too hot. They say, “She could go swimming all the time.” I say she doesn’t have any money, all she has is a rickety old bicycle, how would she get there? One wonderful kid wants the polar bear to find an abandoned rowboat, set the bike over the back, put shingles on the rear wheel, then pedal to Hawaii by using the shingles as paddles.

I have this theory about kids and their imaginations. When you stop and think about it, every kid gets eased into automobile ownership in some pretty wonderful ways, practically seduced into it. Baby, go, bye-bye. Baby, go to Dairy Queen for soft ice cream. Baby, get taken to the municipal pool to swim. Baby, see Grandma. If that kid had to be able to take apart, fix, and put back together the engine of the car before she ever got a chance to ride in the car, I betcha she’d never bother buying one. So just look at the way we teach our kids to write. We ask kids where is the noun? Where is the verb? What’s the subject? The theme? And so, by the time we get around to telling kids to INVENT something, to IMAGINE, they’ve been pretty much turned off.

BCBW: So you’re busy being a revolutionary inside the school system?

AC: [laughter] Well, it gets me lots of hugs.

Essay Date: 2002

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