This article first appeared in print in the December 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
Laura Stovel et.al. Swift River: Stories of the First People and First Travellers on the Columbia River around Revelstoke. Oregon Grape Press, 2019.
Author Laura Stovel’s new book, Swift River, opens with a declaration that shows much of the work’s intent: “This book has been a labour of love: love for this land that nurtures and inspires; love for the First People and Peoples, who thrived on, and cared for this land for millennia; love for my Sinixt friends, who astound me with their generosity when we (settlers) have been so ungenerous; and love for friends up and down the Columbia Valley who have supported this work. Above all, it is an ode to the River that connects us.”
Stovel’s dedication to her subject and her connection to nature is conveyed in the heartfelt preface and acknowledgements. “The house I grew up in was surrounded by a cedar and poplar forest at the base of Mount Revelstoke. My earliest memories involve connecting with the plants, insects and other living creatures that surrounded me. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the prickle of dry grass on my neck as I lay in our field on a spring day. The buzz of June bugs and the smell of the earth surround me. I can taste the wild strawberries nearby. In those days, I didn’t separate myself from nature; I was part of it and it was part of me.”
Her connection to nature is essential to this book and is a relatable feeling for us mountain dwellers who stroll among these trees. So, who then has the right to the land around us? Who can lay claim and say this is theirs? Who has the authority to reap the land’s resources, and who gets to decide which people belong here and which don’t? These questions of identity and heritage are as critical today as they have been for recent centuries, and will remain that way in the years to come.
Stovel has an extensive academic background and a history of working with the research fields of war, justice and mass violence. Her initial plan was to write a literature review to serve as a resource for students of the topic, but the more she researched, the more stories she came across from ordinary, regular people with gripping tales of injustice and hardship. She found her thoughts regarding our river valley shifted, and the form shifted to a less scientific, more personal creation. So rather than being a scholarly textbook, Swift River is an homage to the people who lived here, those who still do and those who feel like they belong along the banks of the Columbia River.
As readers of Swift River, we are taken on a journey through the land, learning how people lived off the Columbia River and its bounty. Stovel explores history by intertwining memories of the past with contemporary observations.
The book includes a comprehensive list of source material and end-notes, detailed and illuminative photography, maps and drawings, thorough explanations and a useful dictionary for Sinixt names, places, and words used in the book. It tracks the history of the Sinixt people and their traditional ways of life. While rooted in the Revelstoke area, the narrative branches out and follows other streams and places of importance, allowing diverse voices to be heard. Relying on both written and oral narratives, the novel provides a comprehensive overlook of the history and culture of the Sinixt people. The book acts as both a collection of personal stories and an informative book of reference, where it shines – it does not get too scientific for the everyday reader, but it allows those with interest in deeper knowledge of the subject to dive in. It’s may not be the kind of book you pick up on a quiet night in front of the fireplace – it’s angled towards an audience with some knowledge and enthusiasm for regional history – it is essential local reading. Stovel seeks out to change people’s mindsets and challenge the way we think about settlers, immigration, Indigenous people, and rights to the land around us. The topic is current and substantial, raising awareness and questions about the treatment of and attitudes towards Indigenous people today. It comes recommended for readers who wish to broaden their mind, brush up on local history, expand their knowledge of Indigenous people, and gain a deeper connection with the river, the forest, and our valley home.
Swift River highlights our brief moment on this earth, and how our ancestry and heritage was formed long before us – an important reminder for us all.
Stovel writes: “This is a story that begins before you and me, before railways and mines and dams and this town, before strangers arrived from oceans and continents far away, and before a people and its culture were changed utterly. This is the story of our home in a valley, cut deep and rugged by the power of a once-mighty river.”
Swift River is available in Revelstoke at Grizzly Book & Serendipity Shop, the Revelstoke Museum & Archives, and the author will be selling copies at local farmers markets. The newly released book will soon be available in regional bookstores.