The ancestral knowledge and traditions of the Indigenous peoples in this part of the world are as rich and diverse as the landscape itself. Thanks to the imagination and generosity of writers and artists working in these communities, kids from all cultural backgrounds can discover this fact for themselves, even in their very first try at reading. Below is a selection of locally published books from Harbour Publishing, Douglas & McIntyre, and Nightwood Editions that will open the minds of children to Indigenous insights into the preciousness of the natural world surrounding them every day.
SWIMMING IN TRADITION
The bright new hardcover Oolichan Moon, by author Samantha Beynon and illustrator Lucy Trimble, passes down generations of knowledge about the foods sacred to the Nisga’a people. Central to this gift from Elders to the two sisters at the heart of the book are traditions about the oolichan fish, a creature filled with meaning. Light-hearted language and vibrant imagery invite young readers to learn not only about Nisga’a cultural history and vocabulary, but about the power of oral tradition itself.
A FRIEND FROM THE SEA
With Ben the Sea Lion’s fifteen original illustrations and playful tale, award-winning Tsimshian artist and storyteller Roy Henry Vickers conjures North-Coast village life as a backdrop to this story from his own childhood, about two boys who care for an orphaned sea lion pup. The adventures grow alongside Ben himself, leading to the touching moment when he returns to the waters that are his home.
THE LANGUAGE OF NATURE
The Ojibwe language comes to life for young readers with It’s a Mitig!, a guided tour of the forest in which author-illustrator Bridget George points out the names (and English equivalents) of all kinds of life there, from gaag to amik. Friendly artwork and a simple glossary, backed by tips on pronunciation and a helpful set of online recordings, make for a fun-filled educational game that can ignite a passion for words.
SPIRITS OF FOREST AND RIVER
Celebrated poet Joseph Dandurand, of the Kwantlen First Nation near Vancouver, is the mind behind a pair of recent children’s stories about great spirits who live in the local landscape. With buoyant images by Kwakwaka’wakw illustrator Simon Daniel James, The Sasquatch, the Fire and the Cedar Baskets follows the famously tall and hairy forest dweller as he finds love, raises a daughter and, with the crucial help of his mate, stops a forest fire in its tracks.
Dandurand brings the same storytelling charm to this book’s follow-up, A Magical Sturgeon, illustrated by Kwantlen artist Elinor Atkins. Here, two sisters meet the ancient river spirit in a tale drawn from Kwantlen tradition, opening up timeless origin stories and new lessons about the familial connection between all beings.
Grouped under the title Northwest Coast Legends, the best-selling series of beautifully illustrated hardcovers by artist Roy Henry Vickers, in collaboration with author Robert Budd, has won acclaim for its retelling of essential stories rooted in the lands of the Haida, Gitxsan and Tsimshian peoples.
Raven Brings the Light, which launched the series in 2013, uses Vickers’s luminous imagery to recount the three-thousand-year-old legend of Weget, a quick-witted boy with shape-shifting powers who transforms himself from human to bird and then to pine needle in his attempt to trick the Chief of the Heavens and bring daylight to the Earth below.
Another great journey to the sky takes place in Cloudwalker, the next volume in the series. Here, a young hunter named Astace is plucked from the ground by swans he’d been tracking and is stranded in the clouds, where he wanders and stumbles, spilling water from the cedar box he carries with him. His struggles are redeemed when he returns home to find they have created new lakes and rivers that form the Sacred Headwaters of the Northwest Coast.
Despite these gifts from above, humans are still prone to disrespect the life around them, as is shown in the third installment of the series, Orca Chief. Set thousands of years ago in Kitkatla (where Vickers himself once lived), the tale follows four hunters who carelessly scar their traditional fishing grounds and find themselves confronted by the displeased but compassionate Orca Chief, offering wisdom about protecting the ocean that sustains them.
This theme of gratitude and respect is underlined by the widely praised Peace Dancer, in which the Chief of the Heavens brings a world-altering flood down on Kitkatla after children from the village callously mistreat a crow. In a unique version of the flood stories that appear in cultures around the globe, the people of Kitkatla vow never to forget this lesson in reverence for life in all its forms.
WORDS FOR NEW READERS
With First West Coast Books—a series of colourful board books for babies and toddlers—even the youngest readers can enjoy the magic woven by Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd. A Is for Anemone sets out the alphabet with embossed, touch-friendly depictions of West Coast scenes, which include everything from the title creature to bears and rainfall. The gentle rhymes and tradition-infused pictures of Hello Humpback! introduce basic words and reverberate with local wildlife.
One Eagle Soaring welcomes young children to the world of numbers and counting, as groups of whales, frogs and owls pass by on its pages. Trees creak, waves crash and fires crackle in Raven Squawk, Orca Squeak, which echoes with natural sounds meant to help with early language development. Finally, the radiant Sockeye Silver, Saltchuck Blue illuminates the spectrum of seasonal West Coast colours as they turn from the calm grey of winter rain to the bright red of summer berries. Each of these enchanting titles is sure to create a lasting link between literacy and the natural world just outside the door.
Courtesy of Harbour Publishing