5: Legends of Vancouver

Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

Legends of Vancouver

Pauline Johnson was from Six Nations in Ontario (her father was a Mohawk chief). After a career performing her poetry on stage, she ended up in Vancouver. The legends (with one exception) are Squamish and were told to Johnson by Chief Joe Capilano (also with a few exceptions). Most of the stories consist of a present-day (her time, of course; about 100 years ago now) framework where Johnson sets herself up as a listener, followed by the legend. At the end of legend, she brings the reader back to the present with a closing thought.

Johnson was clearly a gifted storyteller, and I think a good part of the reason people continue to find the stories so compelling is the way she tells them. However, I think the way the stories came about and are credited brings up some interesting questions/issues with respect to written vs. oral storytelling, as well as the weight we place on the importance of the book. None of the oral storytellers are given co-author credit, and while Joe Capilano is at least mentioned by name, some of the stories are told to Johnson by a woman (or women? it’s unclear whether it’s the same woman or different ones) who isn’t identified. Of note:

  • The legends included in the book are actually just a few of the ones Johnson wrote up; many more were published in newspapers/magazines. One early version of the book includes three additional legends.
  • In some cases, the person who Johnson attributes the story to changes from the original periodical version to the one published in the book.
  • The book was compiled by a group of Vancouverites in order to raise money to provide for Johnson when she was dying. It’s unclear who chose the stories or what order they would appear in.

Johnson is always respectful of the oral storytellers, and, of course, legends are meant to be shaped and adapted with each re-telling, but it does make you think about what responsibilities a person has when they put someone else’s story into print. Print solidifies things, especially when it’s in book form. We like books in part because they’re finite and it’s possible to get a grasp on the whole thing. Thus, book versions end up being thought of as definitive, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be a good thing.

(I think this can be related to the blog to book trend. It’s hard/impossible to to feel like you’ve finished reading a blog in its entirety; even if you’re an avid long-term reader, it’s unlikely you read every comment or follow every link.  Hence, the book. The book cuts out all the tangents and turns the blog into a comfortable narrative that allows the reader the satisfaction of reaching the last page and closing the book.)