In his latest book, Talking to the Story Keepers (Caitlin Press), writer and journalist Sage Birchwater gathers dozens of stories spanning decades from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities throughout the Cariboo Chilcotin. He offers an image of a changing landscape and reclamation of culture, identifying the quiet stories swept aside by colonization. Here, side characters and unidentified faces in old photos are brought to life.
“In school, the one subject I detested was history,” says Birchwater. “However, hearing stories around the kitchen tables of the Chilcotin brought history alive for me. Stories put a face on the landscape and a human touch on why things are the way they are.”
From the tale of the Old Emmanuel United Church’s Brass Band playing “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the pews as the church is dragged across the river to its new location on the south side of the Bella Coola river, to the Ulkatcho community search for missing local Tory Jack, which was successfully led to its conclusion by a clever horse, each story builds a portrait of time, place, and of the story keepers that protect these histories for the next generation.
Birchwater has been a resident of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region of Centreal British Columbia for nearly half a century. Originally from Victoria, B.C., he arrived in Williams Lake in 1973. Two years later he bought a trapline in the Chilcotin with a friend and began living in the area. He began his literary career as a freelance journalist for the Williams Lake Tribune covering events and happenings across the region, from Horsefly to Bella Coola. In 1990 he was commissioned by the Ulkatcho First Nation to write a series of books documenting the culture and history of the Ulkatcho people to preserve the stories and memories of the elders for the unborn generations. In 1995 he published Chiwid (New Star Books), an oral history of Tsilhqot’in recluse Lilly Skinner, also known as Chiwid. The book has remained a regional bestseller for over 25 years.
Birchwater is also the author of Williams Lake: Gateway to the Cariboo Chilcotin, Chilcotin Chronicles and the editor of Gumption & Grit: Extraordinary Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin. He was a full-time staff writer for the Williams Lake Tribune for 10 years from 1999 until 2009 and still has a close connection with the paper.
In Talking to the Story Keepers, he continues to honour the stories of important people such as Skinner. The stories he shares help us to reflect on our common humanity while questioning the dominant perspectives from which history is often told. The story keepers are held up as those who protect history for the next generation. Full of insight, these tales offer unique perspectives on our shared past and help to prepare us for an unknown future.
Birchwater will launch his books with a reading and talk at the Station House Gallery in Williams Lake on Thursday, May 19 starting at 5:30 p.m.
Sage still lives in Williams Lake and continues to write about the Chilcotin.