Maps of Experience: The Anchoring of Land to Story in Secwepemc Discourse
November 4, 2013
Review By David Dinwoodie
Presented as a discourse-centred approach to understanding landstory relations in Secwepemc experience, Maps of Experience provides candid and powerful insights into contemporary First Nations experiences. The book establishes a place for itself in the remarkable ethnographic tradition that runs from James Teit through to Elizabeth Furniss (via Hugh Brody, Robin Ridington, Antonia Mills, and Julie Cruikshank). The book includes a preface, seven chapters, and an appendix including select transcriptions. Among the chapters are an introduction outlining the relevant theoretical literatures and a chapter sketching out the historical background. The historical chapter marshalls primary sources in its effort to address responses to colonialism. Photos (18), maps (7), and figures (2) are distributed effectively throughout.
The original ethnographic-discursive material is in Chapters 4 through 6. “While travelling past specific places on hunting and gathering expeditions, travellers from Alkali Lake often comment on the features of the land, and relate what is remembered about those places” (88). Such commentary is presented in Chapter 4, “Maps,” by way of reference to eight key cultural sites along a historic and heavily used Fraser Canyon route through Secwepemc territory – Dog Creek Road. Passing one such site while riding in the author’s car, for example, Angela George observes, “This is a place, too, they call it Nuklawt [stress over a]. That’s where we get wild rhubarb in the springtime” (106). George then elaborates on the use of rhubarb. Palmer documented enough material in her travels to prepare several commentaries for each place. Many are brief and to the point; some are lengthy.
In Chapter 5, “Story,” Palmer addresses the shifting circumstances in which the residents of Alkali Lake summon cultural narratives. The decline of narrative traditions was an issue in even the earliest major ethnographic study, which was conducted in 1909. And, as Palmer notes, much of contemporary life seems devoid of Secwepemc cultural narrative. Still, she finds that, in the presence of children as in the shadow of death, the tradition reasserts itself vigorously. David Johnson and Angela George relate cultural narratives in such circumstances; Palmer’s transcriptions are meticulous and her interpretations are modest, careful, and insightful.
In Chapter 6, “Memories,” Palmer discusses two distinct narrative styles employed in the telling of life histories, “one [of which] is a stylistic adaptation of a non-Indigenous form and involves the careful retelling of a life story in a chronologically linear style with minimal audience participation”:
Liquor was open for four years for the Indians before I started drinking and four years because everybody drinks [eight lines deleted] it was over and over my life But now that I stayed sober for ten years and I see lots of things Lots a nice things that I seen lots of good friends … when I hear that drumming my heart goes dancing first before my feet goes dancing. (146-47)
Angela George calls the other “‘telling my life.’ In it the listener is invited into the interaction and is engaged in many discrete segments, each strongly linked to place” (136). Passing Joe’s Lake, where she and her husband once encountered bears, George observed:
Angela: One time me and Jimmy was going around in there hunting we was on foot and the one bear had three little ones there playing on them trees them. He had two black ones and one white one I would like to get the white one
Angela: But Jimmy wouldn’t want to kill him. Oh, he say, “He must have like his kids just like you.” [laughter] I wanted the white one they were nice and small yet. He say, “That bear loves his little ones just like you.” 
On another occasion, a week later and apparently on another route, this time with two of George’s grandchildren in the back seat, she returned to the theme of shooting bears:
Angela: My mom musta shoot some bear in there. Round there there were two bears and he kill them. My stepfather wasn’t supposed to kill it and my mom kill it herself. She shoot it with a big rifle.
AP: How come he wasn’t supposed to shoot it?
Angela: Just like in olden days. Jimmy didn’t believe it you’re not supposed to kill a bear and he did kill a bear and our boy died. It’s supposed to be like that. (153)
Palmer makes no attempt to ascertain precisely what events underlie this narrative chiastic couple, one of the more powerful if indeterminate ver bal gestures to appear in the recent ethnographic record. Quite apart from any theoretical or methodological orientation, it is her ability to listen, her commitment to hearing the people of Alkali Lake, that brings these reflections to light.
With its careful transcription of speech-in-context (primarily Secwepemc English), and with its delineation of location as a communicative factor, the Maps of Experience certainly contributes to discourse-centred ethnography and to the burgeoning ethnographic literature on space and place. Beyond these immediate emphases, the work shows the influence of the new ethnography, as the approach is described in Harold Conklin’s entry, “Ethnography,” in the 1968 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Palmer uses the basic principles of the new ethnography lightly and effectively to highlight patterns of talk and many remarkable departures therefrom. She does this without ever succumbing to the idea that human behaviour is meaningful only insofar as it follows rules. As a result, in some stretches of remarkable observation and writing, the reader shares privileged glimpses of living experience.