By Amy Reiswig, July/August 2014

Robert Budd and Roy Henry Vickers collaborate on a story about the people of the Skeena.

Some say humanity’s uniqueness is our capacity to create; others, that it’s our capacity to destroy. In fact, various terms have tried to identify our distinctiveness: homo sapiens for knowledge or wisdom, homo faber for creation, homo ludens for love of play. But a descriptor that captures one of the most elemental and uniting human drives is Yann Martel’s observation that “We are story animals.” 

Storytelling stretches back to the dawn of human art and language. Whether through images or words, people have told stories for millennia—for entertainment, to explore our understanding of the world and to share and preserve knowledge, ideas, information, cultural values and even identity. Stories, from the shortest legend to the longest epic, are each links in a grand chain connecting us to the past and the future. And while storytelling helps us understand who we are, it is also, I would argue, an integral part of what makes us who we are. 

One Victorian making a life in service of story is Robert (Lucky) Budd, a self-described professional historian who’s proving to be a key link in the local chain.

Budd hosts CBC Radio’s Voices of BC and has worked on many oral history projects, including for the Okanagan Indian Band, the Provincial Archives of BC and the Nisga’a First Nation. He also runs Memories to Memoirs, a company that produces recorded and printed personal histories for clients across Canada. This busy, married father of two has also recently found time to collaborate with internationally renowned visual artist Roy Henry Vickers on stunning books bringing traditional tales to new life.

Cloudwalker (Harbour, May 2014) is their second in a series of Northwest Coast legends. Gorgeously illustrated with 18 new prints by Vickers, it tells the origin story of the Sacred Headwaters, source of the Stikine, Nass and Skeena rivers. It begins in an ancient time before the rivers and recounts what happens when strong young hunter Astace (who becomes known as Cloudwalker) attempts to catch an entire group of trumpeter swans.

I won’t ruin the story, but from the title, you can guess that Astace ends up somewhere he did not expect. And it’s on his journey across the clouds, trying to find his way home, that he accidentally creates the three rivers. I’ll let you read about that part too. 

As is often the case, a seemingly simple story offers more than just an interesting plot. For instance, readers receive teachings about the values of generosity and respect, as when Astace “followed the custom of making sure that the elderly were always first to be fed.” We also learn language lessons, as when we’re told that “The people who live along one of these rivers call it Ksien. In the ancient language, Ksien means ‘the juice from the clouds.’ Sometimes it’s snow; sometimes it’s rain; sometimes it’s fog, mist or sleet, but it’s all the juice from the clouds…And we call people Git. So, the people along the Ksien are called Gitxsan—People of the Skeena.” 

As well, there’s a strong environmental message. Vickers and Budd expand the legend to include the interconnectedness of the land, animals and plants along the rivers as they write about the salmon, which in turn are food for bears who, in their turn, leave scraps eaten by ravens and other small creatures, with the bones eventually decomposing and feeding the soil which feeds the trees.

I say “they write” because it is, as Budd explained to me, very much a collaboration in terms of this version of the legend. And how they came to work on it together is quite a story in itself.

The story of Cloudwalker is very old, and in that sense, neither Vickers nor Budd are “authors” of it. 

Vickers first heard it as a teenager living in Victoria, when he came across a recording at the Royal BC Museum of an old man telling the tale. It was a recording made by CBC radio journalist Imbert Orchard, who recorded 998 interviews across BC to produce one of the largest oral histories in the world. 

Enter Lucky Budd. Budd moved to Victoria from Toronto in 1995, taking a BA in general humanities (heavy on Greek and Roman mythology) at UVic. He was also in a touring rock band and became known as “the guy who records things.” So when the provincial archive was looking for someone to digitize the Orchard collection, Budd got the call. “I literally held the phone away from my face and looked at it,” the ultra-high-energy Budd says of his total surprise.

With funding from the CBC, Budd spent 2700 hours preserving a collection of personal voices and stories that, he says, “blew my mind. I knew it was important.”

He then approached UVic saying: “You need to let me into your master’s history program.” They wisely did, and the result was the eventual publication of his thesis work on the Orchard collection as Voices of British Columbia: Stories from Our Frontier (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), which spent a year on the BC bestseller list and was a finalist for the Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. A second book, Echoes of British Columbia: Voice from the Frontier, is forthcoming with Harbour this fall.

Vickers heard of Budd’s work on the Orchard collection and got in touch to see if Budd could help him find that recording he’d heard as a teen. Of course, the answer was “Yes.” Budd then made a recording of Vickers telling the story (a link to that recording is included in the book) and says he had a vision right away that it could be a book. “Roy said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I don’t have time for that,’” Budd laughs, explaining how he went off and got the book deal and basically became the instigator for the series, likening his role to that of producer.

Budd’s link in the story chain might be outside the traditional definition of authorship, but it’s definitely working. His first book with Vickers, Raven Brings the Light (Harbour, April 2013), was a finalist for First Nation Communities Read and for the Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. It was also number one on the BC bestseller list—not just for kids’ books, Budd emphasizes, but for all books. And Cloudwalker made it to number one in its first week.

“Working with Roy is the pleasure of pleasures,” Budd says with a huge smile. “The work that we do together is born from joy.” And in this book, it’s also born from deep concern about how recent mining developments are endangering the watershed’s ecosystems and the traditional way of life of Tahltan and Gitxsan people. “With everything going on in that area now, we want to help people have an understanding that the value isn’t just economic,” Budd explains. “With story and image, you can have a deeper understanding. It all comes back to the primacy of the story and the story as a learning tool.”

So as you find yourself lying in the grass or the sand this summer seeing images in the clouds—story animal that you are—imagine Cloudwalker up above you and share in the chain. As Budd says, one of the beauties of storytelling is it’s never the end. “Make it your own and pass it on.”

Amy Reiswig is a writer and editor who plans to spend a lot of the summer with her feet in the water, head in the clouds, and nose in a book.