Sunday, January 6, 2008

Human history lives on Monkey Beach

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 26, 2007


Eden Robinson was 10 when she first visited a spot on the British Columbia coast with which she will forever be associated.

“I remember the whole beach was covered in broken shells. They crunched as you went,” she said, chortling at the memory.

Ms. Robinson has a kindly laugh that rolls gently at the end of her sentences, like a soft wave lapping onto a beach.

“It's one of the prettiest beaches. Up north there's not a lot of sandy beaches. This was sandy.”

Her family had sailed down from Kitamaat Village to harvest shellfish.

“At first, cockle picking was fun. But on the second day, I said, ‘Don't we have enough yet?' ”

She giggled again.

She made a return visit with her father two summers ago for the first time in years, bouncing along in a 3.6-metre boat with a 30-horsepower engine.

“Took two hours,” she said. “It's a pretty bumpy ride. You really want to take off your lifejacket to sit on it after the first hour.”

The beach, of course smaller than she remembered from childhood, teemed with critters on the morning she arrived.

“There were weasels, wolves and otters. It was alive with animals. And flies. We forgot to bring any bug repellant.”

She did not encounter the creature for which the beach is best known.

The long tidal flats have long figured in Haisla cultural lore as a home of the Bekwis, which is pronounced bah-KWISS. Ms. Robinson has a better suggestion: “Just say ‘big wuss' really fast.” The Bekwis is a large, hairy creature known to some as “stick man” and to others as Sasquatch.

The creature gave this place its name of Monkey Beach. It was an informal designation not to be found on official maps. That is, until recently.

Monkey Beach is on the east side of Boxer Reach, a rare level spot on a mountainous peninsula set amid the archipelago that is so much a feature of the central British Columbia coast. Here, unnamed peaks drop precipitously to the sea.

Jay Powell has studied the peoples of this area for much of his adult life, visiting isolated seaside hamlets while cocking a learned ear to the nuances of the local tongue.

With his wife, Vickie Jensen, he has written dozens of schoolbooks in a variety of aboriginal languages. He is also responsible for many of the alphabets in use, in which ancient sounds are rendered in an English peppered by apostrophes, underscores and uncommon consonant combinations. If these can seem indecipherable to untrained eyes, imagine the difficulty in learning to speak languages in which some words begin with glotteral stops.

The Haisla prize the shorelands for the rich selection of shellfish.

Halibut, flounder and spring salmon are also plentiful. Since the resources have always been so bountiful, other tribes are welcome to share in the bounty with implied Haisla consent.

The Haisla maintained a seasonal campsite at the north end of the beach, a site known as Q'wak'waksiyas. It was from here that the Bekwis were sometimes spotted.

This is a bittersweet time for Prof. Powell, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His hearing has begun to fail and he can no longer differentiate the 12 different pronunciations of K used in the aboriginal languages of the northwest.

With each passing day, the opportunity to record myths and legends and even place names slips away, just as his own hearing fades with time.

“A lot of these things are alive only in the memories of old people,” he said. “We're catching dodo birds. Catching them by the toenails while they fly off to extinction.”

This year the B.C. Geographical Names Office adopted the designation Monkey Beach as an established local name. The professor's submission provided the proper background.

Then, in April, the provincial government announced 2,699 hectares of land would be protected as the Bishop Bay-Monkey Beach Conservancy.

Back in Kitamaat Village, on a night when snow fell and the lights flickered, Ms. Robinson was surprised to learn the beach's name had been officially acknowledged.

It is, in some ways, an honour in which she shares credit.

She was at the university in Vancouver working on a novel that would be her master's thesis. The first draft was titled The Shamanic Verses. A classmate, whose sharp ear earned her the nickname “the Title Queen,” was asked what she thought. Her response: “Blagh!”

Instead, Zsuzsi Gartner, an acclaimed writer herself, asked Ms. Robinson to describe the story. She got as far as the setting before being abruptly stopped. Monkey Beach won a B.C. Book Prize and was nominated for both a Giller Prize and a Governor-General's Award.

These days, Ms. Robinson works as an archival assistant at the Haisla Nation Treaty Office. She is learning her father's language, although she admits to being slow when it comes to Haisla. “I can say, ‘I am hungry' and ‘I am full.' Baby stuff.”

She says she has been told why the Haisla don't encounter the Bekwis as much as lore says they once did.

“My dad's theory is that they built malls and they're too busy shopping to see us any more.”

Or perhaps they’re looking at the provincial gazetteer, where, at Longitude 53 degrees, 27 minutes, 31 seconds and Latitude 128 degrees, 56 minutes, 24 seconds, in a glorious seaside setting, an ancient home is officially on the map.

2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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