IN THE WAKE OF THE WAR CANOE
William Henry Collison.
Volume 11 Number 1.
Throughout Lillard's new edition of William Henry Collison's memoir of his life setting up missions on the B.C. coast, I found myself frustrated by the single, inadequate map. More annoying is the lack of a chart showing Rose Spit and other marine hazards off the coast. The book could also have included the geographic locations of the various tribes. In his missionary work, Reverend Collison made regular trips up all the inlets that wend their zigzag way into the interior or lead to the mouths of the big rivers. Even the title, In the Wake of the War Canoe, seems to cry out for illustrations of a Haida canoe; instead, we must be content with the stylized book jacket, which shows a canoe bow on, with sails spread butterfly-like. One wonders how the masts were supported and whether there were stays. Ribbing repairs were common to help stiffen these seagoing trading and fighting craft. It would have been interesting to see a general arrangement, drawn to scale. Frustration at these limitations is sparked by the feats of Collison the missionary-adventurer, who deserves honour, though he sought none.
Collison introduced the natives of the Queen Charlotte Islands to civilizing influences, and his life appears a testimonial to many virtues: fortitude, devotion to duty, honesty, fairness, and indomitability. Mrs. Collison, too, must have been admired by the many people she nursed and helped. At times there is a sermonistic, almost smug note (especially when heathen Indians reject old evil practices to die as voluble Christians). Lillard realized this, and he rightly says that this tone was common in serious works of the Victorian era writers. The book deserves a careful reading by all who are fascinated by Northwest coast history. Whether he is writing about the hunting of sea otters, trading voyages with his Haida friends, struggles against the "demon alcohol" or smallpox, or the factional disputes between tribes, one is again and again surprised at the versatility of the man. Realizing that he must instruct the tribesmen in their own language, he quickly became a fluent linguist, often mediating in tribal disputes. Shamans and necromancers tried to scoff at his message, but his white man's medicine was strong, his converts increased, and his own sterling character acted like a magnet to lead many natives toward Christian rites.
The chapters dealing with the complexities of the crest system, the potlatch ceremony, and the symbolism of swans-down, will fascinate anyone who appreciates the art and traditions of the Pacific coast original peoples. If only there had been more illustrations!
Adele Case, Britannia SS, Vancouver, BC.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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