A Magical Sturgeon
A Magical Sturgeon
As the magical sturgeon swims along the shores of Squa’lets, two young Kwantlen girls, sisters, are told by their mother that they are to go to the river and take one sturgeon for their supper. Their mother also says that they are to leave something for the river. She gives them two big pieces of bread and two big pieces of smoked fish and tells them to throw the bread and the fish to the river once they have taken a sturgeon. They are to throw the food as an offering of thanks to the river for providing the family with a meal.
A Magical Sturgeon, written and illustrated by two members of the Kwantlen First Nation, is a cautionary or teaching tale which, in this case, reflects the values of the members of this First Nation. In the above excerpt, the girls’ mother is quite specific in her instructions. The sisters are to catch one sturgeon for the family’s supper, a reminder that we should only take from nature what we need and no more. And it is not enough just to take, but we must acknowledge that gift from our environment by giving something back.
However, when the sisters are in their father’s dugout canoe, they forget the first of their mother’s instructions and decide that they will “try to spear the giant sturgeon so they may bring the fish back to their village and feed everyone for the long winter ahead.” As the hours go by, the girls become increasingly hungry, and, despite their recalling the intended purpose of the bread and fish provided by their mother, they eat it. When a sturgeon is finally caught in their spear, it drags their canoe downriver, and, though the elder sister is able to hoist the fish into the canoe, the younger sister falls into the water, becoming the answer to the river’s question, “Where is my food offering?”
The people of the village celebrate the girl’s achievement in catching “the largest sturgeon ever seen. They say it is the magical sturgeon.” Despite the happiness around her, the elder sister is filled with sadness as she tearfully recognizes that her actions in taking more than she needed to take and not offering the food to the river have resulted in her sister’s death. A shxwlá:m or healer gives her the magical sturgeon’s backbone and tells her to give it to the river as an offering. The girl paddles to the place where she last saw her little sister and tosses the backbone into the waters. After doing so, “the older sister can hear her little sister’s voice singing the song they always sang when they went fishing and when they went to the river to offer back the bones of the fish that they had been given by the river.” The story concludes on a happy note with elder sister seeing her younger sister on the river’s bank, walking home and singing a song of thanks. On the website for the Kwantlen First Nation (www.kwantlenfn.ca), you can read: “Since time immemorial, we [the Kwantlen First Nation] live by the seven traditional laws that guided our ancestors: health, happiness, generations, generosity, humbleness, forgiveness and understanding.” The contents of A Magical Sturgeon evidence that guiding value of forgiveness as well as revealing that it was the elder sister’s lack of humbleness that led her astray.
Each of Dandurand’s pages of text is accompanied by one of Atkins’ full-page watercolour illustrations. Before the girls’ story begins, Dandurand devotes four pages of text to the skwó:wech, the halq'eméylem word for “sturgeon”, and its history. Atkins’ artwork is a mixture of the fantastic and the realistic, with the former largely being utilized in the treatment of the magical sturgeon and the latter being employed where humans are central. People are illustrated wearing traditional clothing, using traditional tools and containers, and living in traditional homes. For readers not familiar with the original peoples of the West Coast, the book’s creators have lost an educative opportunity by not including end matter that would address the details in the human-focused illustrations and provide more information about the sturgeon, a truly ancient fish. Nonetheless, A Magical Sturgeon remains a worthy purchase.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.