“It was a blazing hot August afternoon when I first met Harry Robinson. It was the summer of 1977 and two friends had invited me2 to accompany them on a trip with Harry to the annual Omak rodeo in Washington State. He was very happy to see us when we arrived at his small house beside the highway near Hedley. As I was to discover was his custom, he invited us all to sit with him around the arborite table which stood prominently in the centre of his clean and ordered living room. While we were chatting during dinner, some element in the conversation suddenly prompted Harry to launch into a story. The story continued for several hours until well past midnight.”3
This was Wendy Wickwire’s first experience with a true traditional storyteller and it drew her back to Robinson year after year.
“Harry was born on October 8th, 1900 at Oyama, in the Okanagan Valley near Kelowna. Along with many other seasonal workers, his mother, Arcell Newhmkin, and her parents had stopped there temporarily to earn some money digging and packing potatoes. When the work was done, they moved on with their new baby to their home near Chopaka, in the Similkameen Valley near Keremeos. …
Members of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Harry’s mother and her family were of full Okanagan ancestry. The Okanagan Indian reserves cover a huge territory, from the upper end of Okanagan Lake in the north, to Brewster, Washington in the south. Their language belongs to the Interior division of the Salishan language family. In south central British Columbia, this division also includes the Shuswap, Lillooet, and Thompson languages.”4
“Write it on your Heart is a celebration of Harry Robinson, one of the great storytellers of the Interior Salish people of North America. Collected by Wendy Wickwire over a ten-year period, Harry’s stories selected for this volume tell about the origin of the world, the time of the animal people, the time before the coming of the white man, stories of power, the prophet cult and its predictions of profound cultural and economical change, and the post-contact world from a native point of view.”5
In her introduction to this book Write it on your Heart, Wickwire describes the making of a storyteller and the making of a collection of stories, as she describes the journey of Harry Robinson to the prestigious status of storyteller.
Harry Robinson died in 1990 shortly after the publication of Write it on your Heart, but Wickwire had collected enough stories to compile two additional story collections: Nature Power. In the Spirit of the Okanagan Storyteller, and Living by Stories. A Journey by Landscape and Memory. Harry Robinson has been recognized as “one of the most powerful storytelling voices in North America”.6
1 Robinson, Harry. Compiled and Edited by Wendy Wickwire. Write it on your Heart. The Epic World of the Okanagan Storyteller. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks/Theytus, 1989. p. 243
2 Wendy Wickwire is an ethnographer who has worked with the native people of British Columbia’s interior for more than thirty-five years.
3 Robinson, p. 11.
4 Robinson, p. 11.
5 Robinson, back cover.
6 Thomas King. King (born April 24, 1943) is a writer and broadcast presenter who writes about North America’s First Nations. King has United States-Canadian dual citizenship and is an advocate for First Nations causes. His most notable books are A Coyote Columbus Story (1992) and The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious account of Native People in North America (2012). Wikipedia.