When Violet Gellenbeck showed a copy of Ways of Our Ancestors to her children and grandchildren in Vancouver last week, the book hardly left their hands.
“They just couldn’t get enough,” she says, laughing.
Her granddaughter Cindy Pete quickly skipped to photos showing Jenny Naziel, her other grandmother, making baskets of spruce root and birch bark.
And she flipped past the dozens of stories by Wet’suwet’en elders that pop up every few pages in the 371-page book, eager to read what her own grandparents said.
“I’ve heard nothing but good comments,” says Gellenbeck. “That it’s about time this type of book was written and they can start taking a good look at what their roots are.”
Seven years in the making, Ways of Our Ancestors is the first comprehensive history of the Wet’suwet’en people. More than 100 people are listed in its thank-you’s.
At left, the late Peter Jim teaches the next generation to prepare lelhtan—salmon cooked over an open fire.
“We started small,” says Birdy Markert, aboriginal education principal at the Bulkley Valley School District, which published the book.
“We didn’t realize how big this project was going to be, initially.”
As a teacher, Markert said she often invited elders to visit classes and share stories.
But as several elders passed on, other teachers began asking for a small book on Wet’suwet’en history.
That was a real stretch at first, said Markert.
Today, and for thousands of years, Wet’suwet’en history lives as oral tradition.
“When we go out and pick berries with our elders, they sit and tell us stories while we have our tea,” Markert said. “It’s not something we just pull out of a closet and do on one day—it’s part of everything we do.”
So Markert got a bit of a surprise, she said, when elders told her they really wanted a book to capture those stories for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students.
As it turns out, it was a good time to start.
Mélanie Morin, an anthropologist Market calls a “brilliant woman,” was ready to write the main text.
And in gathering evidence for Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa—the 1997 land claims case that finally put written and oral history on equal footing under Canadian law—more than 60 Wet’suwet’en gave oral testimonies about cultural history for the book to drawn on.
First to testify was Johnny David, said to be born in 1890. In the younger days of his long life, David was known to walk two days over the Babine Mountains to carry messages between Moricetown and Lake Babine.
Along with several elders born in the early 1900s, David’s testimony included stories told to him by parents and grandparents who lived here before the first Euro-Canadians arrived.
Other elders’ stories in Ways of Our Ancestors draw on more recent interviews, all verified by volunteers with the Witsuwit’en Language Authority.
Several come from Lucy Bazil-Verigin, who is now 92 years old.
Gellenbeck, her daughter, has been writing her stories down for years.
“I loved those times,” Bazil-Verigin says.
“I remember every bit of it.”
Born in Houston in 1920, Bazil-Verigin said her family was poor, but had a good life.
Her father had a trapline along Buck Flats. “The white people that were coming from Europe—they were nice people too,” she said.
At age 10, Bazil-Verigin wanted to join the one-room school in Houston. It had just five students, all white children who were friends of hers.
But the school principal told her father it wasn’t allowed because the government wouldn’t let Indians mix with whites—she would have to go to the Lejac residential school at Fraser Lake.
“I was wondering what he was talking about,” Bazil-Verigin says.
“’I can’t mix with white kids? I mixed with them all my life!’”
When she finally arrived at Lejac, two years later, Bazil-Verigin said it felt like going to jail.
“All of it was awful,” she says. The food was poor, the girls did more sewing than studying, and nuns at the school strapped students regularly.
In Bazil-Verigin’s second year, her cousin died after a playground accident. Her family refused to send her back again.
While Ways of Our Ancestors is intended for Grade 7 to 12 students, Gellenbeck and Markert say it will be read by many others, including local adult residents, Wet’suwet’en who live outside the traditional territory, and university students.
Copies are available at Moricetown Gas Bar, Interior Stationary and the Houston library.