Discover the treasures of Hul’q’umi’num narrative literature in Two Houses Half-Buried In Sand

By Beryl Mildred Cryer. Talonbooks, 352 pp, $24.95, softcover

Back in 1927, Beryl Mildred Cryer, a young writer from the well-established English settler community at Chemainus, on Vancouver Island, set out to introduce the world to the grand storytelling traditions of the local Hul’q’umi’num people.

Cryer found many accomplices among the aboriginal people of the Cowichan Valley and the adjacent coast. Between 1929 and 1935, she produced more than 60 articles for the Victoria Daily Colonist’s Sunday magazine.

The result was a treasure trove of Hul’q’umi’num narrative literature, told mainly in the voices of women—a rare thing in Coast Salish ethnography—and told also in an everyday language, the kind that anthropologists so rarely use.

It was also mainly an unlikely collaboration between Cryer, a down-at-heels high-society type, and Mary Rice, a high-born Penelakut woman from a long line of chiefs and warriors. Rice had lost her “Indian status” by marrying an Irish-Squinomish man, and Cryer was scraping up freelance work in the depths of the Depression. When they met, Rice was a widow, the town washerwoman, living in a shack on the beach near the Chemainus wharf.

All Cryer ever managed to get published in book form was a slim, 41-page volume of children’s stories. She died in 1980, and her brimming portfolio was largely forgotten. But a few years ago, Salt Spring Island writer, wood-carver, and heritage consultant Chris Arnett heard about the trove and retrieved it from the B.C. Archives.

Arnett compiled and edited its contents, and wrote up a bit of a portrait of Cryer’s life and times, and the result is this engrossing and delightful book. Arnett takes up perhaps a little too much space with theoretical contextualizing and anthropological hand holding, but never mind that.

This is no reliquary of dead folklore. It was part of a living literature even in Cryer’s time, when the Hul’q’umi’num people were already mostly millworkers, longshoremen, migrant farm laborers, weavers, and commercial fishermen. And their grand storytelling tradition lives on to this day.

With this book, the rest of us are now offered a fine acquaintance with it.