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Foreword by Stephen Hume

Canada's First Nations are about to be released from the soul box of history. It has been a dark confinement in a place where time was suspended and justice seemed far away. The walls of this prison of grief and sorrow were fashioned from the annihilating forces turned loose by the collision of North American, European and Asian cultures. But now, coming again into their own country, the doorway in which they stand poised opens upon a grand vista of heady possibilities. Before them lies a political landscape in which genuine self-government is not only achievable, but imminent. And with self-government will come the final prerogatives of cultural self-determination which all societies require to define themselves.

Fifty years ago, when Clayton Mack was entering his prime of life, this prospect seemed beyond the dreams of all but prophets and visionaries. Today a settlement of land claims is already in negotiation. At this bonfire of hope, aboriginal communities may refresh their faith in finding redress from centuries of being driven to the arid economic margins by the dominant society. And we in the majority may also find a new kind of hope for us, one that takes its strength from redemptive qualities of justice delivered, however belatedly.

Social conditions in impoverished aboriginal communities generally lag behind those in the broader culture, yet we already see an astonishing assortment of innovative responses.

We now discover that it is in the cold ashes left by colonial domination that the fiercest coals of renewal glow. It is from the values and mechanisms of traditional native culture that the most exciting initiatives arise. The talking circle finds currency in mighty public corporations. Native spiritual leaders minister to prison inmates. Tribal police enforce the law and tribal judges administer tribal justice. Aboriginal leaders propose to address alcoholism - and the price it exacts in human neglect - in their own communities. They propose to confront the domestic violence and abuse that spark from brutalized self-esteem in families. They will take charge of their own destiny.

The wisest among these leaders understand that as the world moves faster, our need to set anchors in a spiritual past grows stronger. They also see that as the world shrinks, our need for cosmopolitan values expands. Tomorrow's children will grow up in a Bella Coola that becomes, like it or not, an intellectual suburb of Berlin or Boston on the Internet. The rise of satellite communications already begins to make all cultures, even the most insular, transparent to the world. If the homogenizing force of global television brings new threats to the survival of custom and tradition, it also brings new opportunities for distance learning, for specialized language production and ability to bring great libraries and universities into the smallest village. What seems to diminish the value of the past may also come to enhance its value in the future.

Many aboriginal communities now seek to take the electronically enhanced world view of the generations that will succeed this one and ground it in a greater understanding of the intrinsic value of their own traditions and the durability and power of their own spiritual heritage.

Of all these efforts at cultural renewal and rebirth, perhaps the least appreciated and most seldom encouraged by the political establishment of First Nations is the struggle of individuals to find an unfettered voice.

Not the loud voice of politicians, although an articulate political voice is necessary. Not the collective murmur of the elders, although this wisdom is essential in preserving the truths upon which cultural survival always rests.

The voice that most struggles to be heard is that of the common human condition which may only speak through the uncommon experiences of individuals. This is the true bridge that brings us together as human beings. It connects us across time and geography. It spans culture and class, race and history.

And ultimately this is the key by which every culture achieves its full maturity, discovering the confidence and strength to permit a fragile, uncertain and often unappreciative world to step into its heart, examine what it finds, learn from it and grow stronger. What defines us in the world is not what we take from it, but what we give.

When I first ventured into the stories of Clayton Mack, I felt I had accidentally fallen through such an unlocked door. The best narrative always has the force to alter a reader's perception of time. You go in and discover you are somewhere you never expected. Then you emerge, blinking at the hard light, not quite certain how long you've been away, but certain that you've been changed somehow. That is how I felt after my sojourn with Clayton in the wild BC bush of so long ago. He brought that vanished world to vivid life.

Simple yet eloquent, plain yet profound, earthy yet poignant, these stories ache with the loss yet ring with truth and laughter. Comfortable as the grain in a well-used axe handle, they welcome you and make you, for a while, another Bella Coola man or woman. You lean up against the weathered timbers of Josephine Robson's shed to hear stories about myth and magic, about the abandoned Nuxalk villages and the smallpox that empties them, about Crooked Jaw the Indian agent, Thor Heyerdahl, Old Chief Squinas and Old Man Capoose.

This is the fierce and funny tapestry of a life that comes richly embroidered with characters great and small. The book does wonderful service to otherwise forgotten people who deserve the full measure of love and anger, joy and sorrow. It is no small thing to call the shades back into life, to splash the fading landscape of the past with colour and vitality, and then to give this marvel to us, a final gift from beyond the grave.

I savoured my accidental sojourn in Clayton Mack's Bella Coola and I came back both humbled and inspired by the greatness of the gift.