Author Tags: First Nations, Kidlit & Young Adult
Born and raised in Victoria, Sylvia Olsen returned to school at age 35 and gained a Master's degree in history, specializing in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations. She has worked as a community development consultant with Saanich teenagers and as a community manager with a focus on Reserve housing. Three of her children are part Coast Salish; a fourth, a late addition, is a black Portuguese Brazilian who joined the family at age thirteen. Her first book was a teen novel about five children at the Kuper residential school, No Time to Say Goodbye, followed by another teen novel, The Girl with a Baby, about a strong and promising 14-year-old who makes the best of her pregnancy and motherhood. Olsen's follow-up novel White Girl concerns another 14-year-old girl, Josie, whose light skin and good grades are assets until her mother meets ‘a real ponytail Indian’ named Martin and they move onto the Reserve. Josie must learn to adjust to her new life with a new stepfather, a new stepbrother, and a new nickname: Blondie.
According to Olsen, who married into the Tsartlip First Nation at age 17 and subsequently lived on the Tsartlip reserve lands, raising her four children there, Aboriginals are four-and-a-half times more likely to become teenage mothers than girls from the general population, and more than half of all First Nations families are now started by teen parents. In March of 1997 her own fourteen-year-old daughter, Heather, tearfully announced she was pregnant, subsequently giving birth to Olsen's granddaughter. At the time, Olsen was head of the family because her Coast Salish husband had left a few years earlier. Based largely on interviews with 13 Tsartlip women who became teenage mothers like herself, Olsen's non-fiction study Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis, 2005) examines teenage sexuality, birth control, abortion, violence, cultural attitudes and efforts to stem a seemingly intractable cycle of poverty that arises with teenage motherhood. "The dreary truth for most of the young women was that, in spite of their freedom to experience sexual satisfaction, it seemed to have eluded them," she writes. "Sexual liberty did not mean they had control over their bodies, or control over the kind of sex they engaged in. The act of sexual intercourse seemed far more like a risky habit or mating ritual gone wrong than an expression of love or experience of pleasure. It appeared overall to be neither safe, meaningful, nor satisfying."
Written for younger readers, Catching Spring describes a boy named Bobby who lives on the Tsartlip First Nation in 1957. He has a weekend job at the nearby marina, gives half his earnings to his mother and yearns to enter an upcoming fishing derby--but he doesn't have a boat. The story was inspired by Olsen's husband who had a similar experience when he was growing up. Which Way Should I Go (Sono Nis 2007) is about a Nuu-chah-nulth boy named Joey who overcomes the loss of his beloved grandmother by learning to cherish the song and the dance that she left to him.
Yellow Line concerns racial prejudice among teenagers in a smalltown literally divided into two camps. A white boy named Vince is angry when his friend Sherry becomes romantically involved with an Aboriginal boy, but Vince must re-examine his own prejudices when he becomes infatuated with Raedawn, a girl from the reserve. After they have become a couple, the characters of Raedawn and Vince reappear in Olsen's Middle Row, another teen novel concerned with racism.
In the Orca Young Readers Series, Sylvia Olsen's Murphy and the Mousetrap is followed by A Different Game, about the evolving friendships of players on the Long Inlet Tribal School soccer teams.
When she wasn’t busy successfully challenging the Hudson Bay Company’s ripoff of Cowichan Indian sweater designs leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Sylvia Olsen was promoting her historical novel for teens, Counting on Hope (Sono Nis $14.95), about a pre-colonial friendship between young people of different racial origins on the B.C. coast. “I knew as soon as I read historical records of the confrontation between the British navy and the Lamalcha on Kuper Island in 1863,” Olsen says, “that it was the perfect setting for just such a story.” In 2008, the Victoria Book Prize Society partnered with Bolen Books to establish the Bolen Books Children’s Book Prize to recognize children’s and youth literary works. In October of 2010, Samantha Holmes co-owner and general manager of Bolen Books, presented Sylvia Olsen with a $5,000 cheque for Counting on Hope, the third book to receive the prize.
“Stitches are my second language.” In KNITTING STORIES: Personal Essays and Nine Coast Salish–inspired Knitting Patterns (Sono Nis $22.95) Olsen contemplates the language of knitting and ways it reflects on family and community, while creating narratives through the mediums of wool and word. The handcrafted designs of yarn and needle are as varied as the stories that we tell. To Olsen each expresses who we are, and what it means to be human.
[Sylvia Olsen’s blog can be found at Salishfusion.ca]
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater
No Time to Say Goodbye: Children's Stories of Kuper Island Residential School (Sono Nis, 2002).
The Girl with a Baby (Sono Nis, 2003). 1550391429
Catching Spring (Orca, 2004)
White Girl (Sono Nis, 2004) 1-55039-147-X
Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis, 2005, $22.95). 1-55039-152-6
Murphy and the Mouse Trap (Orca, 2005).
Yellow Line (Orca, 2005 $9.95). 1-55143-462-8
Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis, 2006)
Yetsa's Sweater (Sono Nis, 2006; 2014). Illustrated by Joan Larson.
Which Way Should I Go (Sono Nis, 2007; 2014). Co-authored with Ron Martin. Illustrated by Kasia Charko.
Middle Row (Orca, 2008).
Counting on Hope (Sono Nis, 2009).
A Different Game (Orca, 2010).
Working with Wool (Sono Nis, 2010; 2014). $38.95 1-55039-177-1
Molly's Promise (Orca 2013). $7.95 9781459802773
KNITTING STORIES: Personal Essays and Nine Coast Salish–inspired Knitting Patterns (Sono Nis 2014) $22.95 978-1-55039-232-6
Life Cycle of a Lie (Sono Nis 2014) $10.95 978-1-55039-233-3
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "Kidlit" "First Nations" "Indianology"
No Time To Say Goodbye: Stories of the Kuper Island Residential School (Sono Nis $8.95)
The practice of snatching First Nations children from their homes and sending them to residential schools where they suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse has been well documented.
No Time To Say Goodbye: Stories of the Kuper Island Residential School by Sylvia Olsen with Ann Sam and Rita Morris (Sono Nis $8.95) is significant because it is a collaborative effort.
Three women from the Tsartlip Reserve on the Saanich Peninsula have worked with six former students of the Kuper Island residential school to produce a work of fiction closely based on the students’ actual experiences.
Perhaps because it is aimed at young readers (or perhaps because the Kuper school was one of the more benign institutions of its kind) the harrowing instances of abuse are less severe than those recorded in the scholarly works and in the fiction of other ex-students of residential schools such as Tomson Highway.
Here, the sadistic punishments of bed-wetters, rebellious youngsters, and those who lapse into speaking their native language are toned down. The only sexual abuse described is heterosexual; the treatment of a girl selected by a priest as his sexual prey takes place behind closed doors.
The overall picture of brutality by the nuns and priests is mitigated by examples of kindness by one or two teachers, and by the camaraderie among the students themselves. Consequently, much of the book reads like a novel describing the adventures of a group of children in difficult circumstances at a very strict boarding school. They find friends, stand up to bullies, two of them make a daring escape, and one overcomes all odds to become a sports hero.
With illustrations by Connie Paul No Time To Say Goodbye will entertain young readers and inform them about a shameful chapter of Canadian history. It could also be a teaching tool leading students to seek out further information on the subject. 1-55039-121-6
[Joan Givner / BCBW2001]
The Girl with a Baby (Sono Nis $9.95)
“I often find myself writing about the in-between place where First Nations and non-First Nations come together,” says Sylvia Olsen, who married into the Tsartlip Nation 31 years ago. Olsen, who counsels teen parents from the Saanich First Nations, has tracked that middle ground between cultures in her young adult novel The Girl with a Baby (Sono Nis $9.95). Jane Williams lives with her Native family on a predominantly white cul-de-sac, where she’s never felt welcome. To make matters worse, at age 14 she’s pregnant. At first she tried to conceal her pregnancy. “I wore big sweatshirts and no one would suspect anything of me. I’m the good Williams. I’m the only good Williams. I get good grades, I volunteer at the animal shelter, I’m in the drama club at school.” Sylvia Olsen’s first book, No Time to Say Goodbye was adopted by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and has been nominated for a Saskatchewan Young Readers’ Snow Willow Award. She lives near Victoria, B.C., having raised four children on the Tsartlip Reserve. 1-55039-142-9
[BCBW Summer 2004]
White Girl (Sono Nis, 2004)
Fourteen-year-old Josie’s white skin and good grades are the perfect camouflage. Until she turns fourteen, and her mother meets ‘a real ponytail Indian’ named Martin. In Sylvia Olsen’s fourth teen novel White Girl (Sono Nis $9.95), Josie finds herself living on a reserve outside town. She has a new stepfather, a new stepbrother, and a new name: blondie. 1-55039-147-X
Sylvia Olsen confronts motherhood issues
Sylvia Olsen steps off the construction site looking like a million bucks. At 51, the mother of four is the construction manager for the Tsartlip First Nation on southern Vancouver Island, but she’s has also constructive as a writer, working between four and seven in the mornings, for the past ten years, producing a series of impressive books drawn from her First Nations milieu. Her first book, No Time to Say Good-bye, recalls the experiences of First Nations children who were sent to Kuper Island residential school. Girl With A Baby was inspired by her daughter’s experience of becoming a mother at 14. Catching Spring and Yellow Line are juvenile novels about Aboriginal youths learning to cope with maturation and racial tensions. White Girl is based on Olsen’s own experience as a non-Aboriginal who moved to live on the Tsartlip reserve at age 17. “When I got married and started living on reserve,” she says, “all my friends were traveling to the exotic places of the world to get cultural experiences. I walked across the road and over the ditch and then stayed for 33 years and got an immersion in cross-cultural life.” Upon learning that up to 70% of new families in some Coast Salish communities are being started by teen parents, Sylvia Olsen obtained support from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to learn more. With First Nations youth worker Lola James, she organized thirteen young Coast Salish mothers for sociable events, such as picnics and birthday parties, as well as conversations, giving rise to Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis $22.95). Just Ask Us shares their thoughts and experiences of teenage mothers facing a wide range of issues that include sex, relationships, birth control, abortion, pornography, self-image, and parenting. Each chapter begins with a fictionalized vignette, based on real stories, braced by direct quotes from the young mothers. Currently building social housing for low income families, Sylvia Olsen was interviewed by Sara Cassidy.
BCBW: Are you Coast Salish by marriage?
OLSEN: I’m a status Indian by marriage. That’s what the official thing is, but I’m from down the street, across the road, whatever it is.
BSBW: Is it a tension that confronts you daily, your cross-cultural existence?
OLSEN: Yes and no. I’m intellectually attached to it, not just experientially. I went to university and got a Masters degree in the West Coast history of native-white relations. So now the burning questions in my mind are around that.
BCBW: In my experience, the separation between First Nations and non-First Nations is stark. It creates not just ignorance but allows for forgetfulness.
OLSEN: Yes, ignorance in the sense in that we just don’t know each other. That’s the core of the problem. In Canada, we have set up two separate worlds, Them and Us. It serves political purposes for everyone, but in the big picture, as far as I’m concerned, it has not served either side well.
There are many, many mixed-blood children in this country. There are many more people with a mixed experience than this Us and Them separation would have us believe. I’m just a voice that says, if you want to talk stark separation—which some people on both sides want to talk—well, that’s certainly part of the overall conversation. I, however, want to have the conversation that’s happening in the middle and it’s a valid conversation. It’s important in our country to have a look at where the coming-together happens.
BCBW: And you feel support for that viewpoint? Emphasizing exchange?
OLSEN: Oh, yeah. How do we learn about ourselves? By seeing ourselves in reference to others. That’s the enrichment in life. As opposed to isolating ourselves and looking only from our own perspective. Some may disagree and I think disagreement is great! Let’s just have a rich discussion instead of one that is afraid and making it up because we’re not really being honest about ourselves.
BCBW: What do you mean “making it up”?
OLSEN: Well, we don’t know how to talk to each other, so we make up how we think we should talk, rather than speaking from our centre. We’re constantly thinking, what should I say? Rather than, what do I feel? Let’s just be honest! That doesn’t mean a whole lot of useless, vile junk, either, Let’s also be mature and tolerant. If we are tolerant and mature, we can afford to be honest.
BCBW: In my generation, there’s some awareness of colonialism, but there’s also a reluctance to ask, to run the risk of re-violating. In a way, the title of your book, Just Ask Us, reflects that.
OLSEN: Yes. The young mothers said, just ask us: if we want to know about each other, just ask us.
BCBW: Why did you want Just Ask Us to be a community-based study and not scientific research?
OLSEN: Scientific method uses a lot of statistics and statistics are harsh. They haven’t served us very well in this community. That is not the kind of discussion you want to have with young moms. When you read statistics to young people around here, it’s a very, very hard thing to hear. But another reason is because I really believe conversations are the best way for us to get to know ourselves and others. It’s better than statistical analysis.
BCBW: But you do point out the context for their parenthood—poverty, experiences of abuse, high rates of drug and alcohol addiction, families deeply ruptured by residential schools.
OLSEN: For our community, we have all these plans and aspirations and yet re-building community is a very difficult chore when you have so many teenagers taken up with raising babies in a really difficult situation. The communities need the mothers so badly, because we’re re-building broken-up communities.
BCBW: You quote Kim Anderson who notes that “when a people are under siege it is imperative to re-produce.” But you also write of “a lag time” between the modern First Nations young mother and the cultural structure.
OLSEN: Yes. Like many of the Aboriginal women here, I didn’t graduate from high school. I had my children, then went back to university. I am now working, like many of my peers, building community. Most of the strong women my age are out, they’re doing health care, they’re building houses, they’re the community workers. And our children are having babies, and we aren’t there, we’re not there supporting. We’re just not there. There are some empty spaces in our homes now. It’s a difficult equation.
I would say, living in a First Nation community, there is more activity, more consciousness of making community, than there is anywhere else. There is huge thinking going into it, in every field. First Nations are working to capacity, they’re maxing out. So young girls with their babies it’s out of season somehow. But there is a really, really strong feeling that we want every kid and we have ambitions and plans for every child. That’s really strong
BCBW: How do you feel these days when you hear another teenager in your neighbourhood is pregnant?
OLSEN: Because I’ve been here a long time, I don’t throw my hands up. I just know that that child can be fine if there is the support. It really is about the support the child and her mother gets. But I do worry, because I know immediately that that girl is going to be in distress right away. And I want that child to have the same opportunities as other children.
When my daughter had her baby, I could see there were more things that could happen to set her back. In our family, the baby was able to be cared for very well, but a beautiful fourteen-year old girl who is now a mother, who has to negotiate her way through the stigma and the stereotypes well, the baby is going to depend so much on that mother, so it is important that the mother is supported and that she is on her feet. That baby’s success depends on it. So we have to make sure the mother matures, that she doesn’t get her maturation truncated.
BCBW: Are you generally a committed person by nature or does the community ask you to get involved?
OLSEN: It’s the nature of me to attach to the burning social issues of where I am. I figured that out after a while. So when a person like me lives in a community that is so needy and where there are so many questions, there’s no getting up and leaving. Because these are the burning questions of our country. These are Canada’s questions. They aren’t First Nations questions, they are questions that need to be addressed no matter who you are.
BCBW: Is there anything you’d like to add?
OLSEN: Yes. The answers to these problems are really, really simple,. They’re about communicating. Right from the start, if we communicate with our daughters and our sons and each other cross-culturally if we have decent, mature, honest, tolerant conversations about the real subjects, rather than the extraneous junk, than we will either not have as many [babies born] or when we do we will cope with them. So, my big thing is, let’s talk about things and talk about the stuff we don’t like talking about [laughter] I think that’s my theory for everything!
--by Sara Cassidy, a freelance writer and interviewer based in Victoria.
[BCBW 2006] "Kidlit"
Yetsa’s Sweater (Sono Nis $19.95)
Having married a Coast Salish man at age 17 and moved onto the Tsartlip Reserve, Sylvia Olsen learned how to make Cowichan “Indian” sweaters and operated a Cowichan sweater shop on the reserve for 16 years. Upon her return to university, she completed her Master’s thesis on Coast Salish knitters and participated in the National Film Board documentary, The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters.
Olsen’s picture book Yetsa’s Sweater (Sono Nis $19.95) introduces the sensual art of making the sweaters to younger readers.
Yetsa, who helps prepare wool for her grandmother, is a depiction of Olsen’s own granddaughter, a sixth-generation knitter. Already proficient at making Coast Salish blankets, indigenous women on Vancouver Island were first encouraged to make woollen sweaters by 19th century Scottish settlers. With illustrations by Joan Larsen.
Which Way Should I Go?
Press Release (2009)
Which Way Should I Go? Honoured by First Nation Communities Read Program
The First Nation Communities Read program is delighted to announce that Which Way Should I Go? is the book the Ontario First Nation public library community has decided to honour as the 2009 First Nation Communities Read selection.
Which Way Should I Go?, written by Vancouver Island author Sylvia Olsen with Ron Martin, illustrated by Kasia Charko and published by Sono Nis Press is a story inspired by Ron Martin's memory of a song and dance he and his siblings learned from their grandparents. Together, Olsen, Martin, and Charko draw readers into the loving relationship young Joey has with his grandmother. Singing and dancing, Grandma teaches Joey about choices, attitude, and decision-making. With Grandma, Joey joyfully embraces the choices he faces each day. However, when Grandma becomes ill and dies, Joey feels alone and betrayed – until he realizes how well Grandma has prepared him. He can be sad and angry or he can honour Grandma by practicing her teachings. There is a choice and he is responsible for making it!
A six-member jury of First Nation librarians, supported by Southern Ontario Library Service, made the 2009 First Nation Communities Read selection from 31 titles submitted by 16 publishers. Jury members commended Which Way Should I Go? for its intergenerational appeal, the power of the lesson within its story, and illustrations that convey the look and spirit of life in a contemporary First Nation community.
The First Nation Communities Read program, launched in 2003 is the Ontario First Nations public library community's contribution to the popular community reading movement. Through its featured titles, First Nation Communities Read encourages family literacy and intergenerational storytelling, and promotes the publication, sharing, and understanding of aboriginal voices and experiences.
-- Sono Nis Press
Nominated for Counting on Hope
BC Book Prizes (2010)
from BC Book Prizes catalogue
Set against the backdrop of the confusing events surrounding the English colonization of British Columbia, and an 1863 naval assault on Kuper Island, Counting on Hope tells the story of two girls whose lives are profoundly changed when their two cultures collide. Alternating between free verse and prose, Sylvia Olsen follows the girl’s individual storylines before, during and after their meeting. She captures the wonder and joy with which Hope and Letia develop their friendship and describes the tragic events, suspicion, fear and confusion that characterize so many early encounters between Europeans and the First Peoples. This sensitively drawn depiction of innocence lost and wisdom hard won follows Hope and Letia out of childhood, off their island paradise and into the complex realities of an adult world. Married into the Tsartlip First Nation at seventeen, Sylvia Olsen is a historian specializing in Native/White relations in Canada, and the author of twelve books. She lives in Victoria.
Working With Wool (Sono Nis $38.95)
For much of the 20th century, handmade Cowichan Indian sweaters—bulky, distinctively patterned, woolen sweaters that were cozy and repelled the rain—were handed down from generation to generation, preferably unwashed, worn for work and play, never for fashion.
We felt proud to own one because the Cowichan Indian sweater was as British Columbian as we could get. Our province gave them as gifts to Harry Truman, Bing Crosby, Pope John Paul II and Charles and Diana. And they didn’t get ’em from The Bay or ebay.
We all knew the product was from the Coast Salish people. That’s why the Hudson Bay Company stumbled into a public relations fiasco in October of 2009 when they unveiled the official 2010 Olympics clothing line and everyone—including Macleans magazine—noted the bulky, 2010 Olympic sweaters were derivative of the Coast Salish garments.
The retail giant admitted their design was “inspired by a great fashion icon that is recognized as a knit sweater all across the country” but no Coast Salish artists had been invited to serve on the design team. Global consumers would not be informed of the sweaters’ historical and stylistic origins. Compensation for the indigenous industry would be nil.
The main voice to confront The Bay, and speak on behalf of the Coast Salish knitters to the media, belonged to Sylvia Olsen, who entered the fray with reluctance. Although she had lived on the Tsartlip Reserve for 34 years, she was clearly white in terms of her own racial origins.
The settlement with The Bay was paltry: The Cowichan were accorded the right to sell their (relatively few) handmade sweaters alongside the mass produced garments. The controversy, like the overall costs of the Olympics, disappeared from the media spotlight as soon as the events began. But now Sylvia Olsen is getting the last word.
Her Working With Wool (Sono Nis $38.95) blends ancient coastal history; the stories of women who have made the sweaters, the memories of the people who marketed the sweaters, the families that wore them and some brief recollections of The Bay confrontation—from someone who can walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
At age seventeen, in 1972, Sylvia Olsen married Carl Olsen, a Coast Salish. As a young mother, she learned how to knit Cowichan sweaters from her mother-in-law, Laura Olsen.
In those days, knitters were paid $55 for a sweater which they would later see on the dealer’s rack with a tag for $270. Since the wool, itself, cost $45, for all their labour the knitters only made $10.
Olsen says every Coast Salish family on southern Vancouver Island has at least one story of selling a Cowichan sweater to a non-First Nations customer so they could buy food for supper or shoes for the kids.
“In 1978 we started buying Indian sweaters from our family and a few neighbours,” she recalls. “We nailed a sign on a tree at the end of our driveway—Indian Sweaters for Sale—and placed a five-dollar advertisement in the newspaper. Soon a steady trail of customers found their way to our place.”
In 1981, Carl built a log “sweater shop” behind their house. His father, Ernie Olsen, named it Mount Newton Indian Sweaters after the sacred mountain that they could see from the backyard.
Sales flourished. The Olsens were able to pay 15 percent more to the knitters than they could get in Victoria. Everyone was happy until the cost of wool increased and the price of sweaters did not.
“By the 1980s the market was being driven by skyrocketing wholesale exports to Japan and Europe, which drove the price to the knitters down rather than up. They had to mass-produce thousands of sweaters for foreign markets, while the local demand all but disappeared.”
By the early 1990s, knock-off imitation sweaters were flooding the market. Having closed her business, Olsen went to university and at age 35 gained a Master’s degree in history, specializing in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations.
Her 1996 thesis on Coast Salish knitters served as the basis for the National Film Board documentary, The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters, made by Christine Welsh.
Sylvia Olsen’s picture book Yetsa’s Sweater (Sono Nis 2006) introduced the art of making the sweaters to younger readers.
The provincial government has presented sweaters to Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau (who wore a Cowichan sweater for one of his Christmas cards) but the characters who drew Olsen to tell the story of the Cowichan sweater in Working with Wool were the knitters such as Cecelia, Ethel, Sarah, May, Yvonne, Elizabeth, Madeleine and Laura.
“Washing wool outside and knitting all night was Cecelia’s favourite thing to do,” says Olsen. “In the early days, before the 1950s, before hydro wires were strung through the reserve, she had a coal oil lamp for light. If she was out of oil she used candles.
“Late at night it was quiet—no radio, no TV, no kids, just the clicking of her knitting needles. The repetitive movement of her hands uncluttered her mind and gave her time to reflect.
“Most nights she stayed up until three or four in the morning, and sometimes later if she needed to finish her sweater. She’d sleep for a few hours and then get up and wash and block the sweater for sale later in the day. That way the kids would have something for supper.
“When she was finished telling me her story, she looked up to the ceiling and crinkled her brow. After a few moments of silence she turned back to me with a thoughtful look on her face and said, ‘We Indians are sure hard workers.’”
It was that statement, accompanied by a chuckle, that convinced Olsen she must one day write a book on the subject of Cowichan sweaters. Olsen and Cecelia agreed that few people knew much about how First Nations people lived, and stereotypes of First Nations people did not reflect that they were hard workers.
Olsen takes pains to depict the knitters of Cowichan sweaters as artists. Each knitter brings unique traits to their designs and spinning techniques.
When she was once called to act as a witness in a break and enter case, Olsen was able to identify who had knit a particular sweater for the court. From the stitch, tension and size, and the rounded collar with strips of black and white, and a raised join at the shoulders, she knew the sweater could have only been made by Cecelia.
May’s sweaters were bulky and heavy. Yvonne’s sweaters were dense and tightly knit on small needles. Elizabeth’s sweaters were rough, as each stitch did not exactly line up with the previous stitch. Laura was an artist. Each sweater was a new creation. She tried different collars, sleeve insets, buttons, ties, belts, hoods, pouches, or slash pockets. If she saw a knitted garment on the street, she came home and tried to match its design.
Many B.C. families, aboriginal or otherwise, have passed a particularly treasured Cowichan sweater down from one generation to the next, For some families, writes Olsen, “a Cowichan sweater might be so fiercely coveted that the recipient must be named in the owner’s will.”
Olsen claims that Coast Salish women were making sweaters from goat’s fleece prior to the advent of European settlers. Others have suggested the garments can be traced to the introduction of knitting techniques by early British settlers. Either way, the debate continues over appropriation and what constitutes cultural property that should be protected.
Is it the designs, the style, the wool or a particular configuration of all of the elements that make up a Cowichan? Or is it the feeling you get when you wear one? Fewer and fewer British Columbians are going to know. These days, only May and Yvonne still knit. So Sylvia Olsen has recorded the story of handmade Cowichan sweaters in the knit of time. Just as Olsen’s mother-in-law had taught her sons and daughters to knit, Syliva Olsen has taught the knitting skills to her daughters, Joni and Heather.
Laura Olsen died, age 91, hoping her grandchildren would not have to subsist on knitting income as she did, but wanting the skills to be preserved.
On writing and knitting
from Sylvia Olsen
I often get my words mixed up when I’m talking to people about what I do. It’s not unusual to hear me say, “I knit stories” or “I write sweaters.” There’s some truth to my mix-ups.
I do write about knitting. I wrote a children’s book about making a Cowichan sweater called Yetsa’s Sweater. Later I wrote a history of Coast Salish knitting called Working With Wool. Writing is a lot like knitting in many ways—it’s a series of one word after the other, or patterns of words stitched together as it were. It’s hard not to sound corny when you write about knitting. Cliché has it that we weave stories and tell yarns, there are often threads through our stories and it’s important in both endeavors to get your tension right.
Come to think about it, my knitting is also a lot like the stories I tell. By that I mean that everything I knit has a story or…is a story. For instance, the felted hat I am designing; it was inspired by a hat I bought at a Christmas art fair and wore in Lake Louise. Alberta when it was -28 degrees. When I posted a picture of myself on Facebook I realized the cute curled-cuffed hat would be a perfect canvas for geometric designs and carved buttons (courtesy of my ex).
As I play with shapes and shades in the design process I’m thinking about the places, people, and products that are coming together and will emerge into something unique and something I love. Then there’s the dress I designed, struggled with, finished with giant relief and excitement, and wore to my book launch. When I wear the dress now people often ask me about it and I tell them the story, the purpose and the role the dress played in my life.
Ask me about my cashmere, fingerless gloves and I’ll tell you the story about sending a similar pair made out of the same wool to Margaret Atwood and how she said she would wear them while she was writing (how cool is that!).
I think it’s the same for most of us who knit. We all design our projects…the wool, the needles, the colours, the adjustments. Then there’s that long contemplative time when we get to think about the texture and tension of wool, our hands, our fingers, our lives…
There are the life experiences that happen on the knitting journey—the crazy lady we met at the bus stop when we were knitting the sleeves—the man in the doctor’s office who told us a story about how his mother knit for him when he was a kid. By the time we wear it or give it away every knitted thing has its own meaning and its own story. I think that’s one of the reasons why knitting is becoming so amazingly popular.
Are you as tired as I am of what our material life has become? Logos have become a cheap substitute for something unique. A dozen T-shirts, one in every colour, have replaced the immensely satisfying variety of being one-of-a-kind. You are probably as ready as I am for the wonderful flourish and flair that comes with making ourselves…or making it ourselves…and living and telling the stories and meaning that comes along with the knitting process.
[Sylvia Olsen’s blog can be found at Salishfusion.ca]
KNITTING STORIES: Personal Essays and Nine Coast Salish–inspired Knitting Patterns (Sono Nis 2014)
from BCBW 2014
Unraveling a Knitted Mystery
Before writing Knitting Stories (Sono Nis, 2014), Sylvia Olsen wondered if she had anything more to say about the subject. Olsen’s award-winning book about Coast Salish knitters Working with Wool (Sono Nis $22.95) had been the subject of her MA thesis and a film, The History of Coast Salish Knitters. She also wrote a children’s book called Yetsa’s Sweater. Was another book warranted?
“The answer is yes, of course. Knitting stories are as varied as the garments we knit,” she writes in her introduction. “Like all good stories, they tell us things about ourselves and about what it means to be a human being. We will never grow tired of stories like that. Handwork has occupied people for millennia. What we’ve all learned since knitting became trendy a few years ago is that it is not something new. Knitting is arguably one of the oldest activities in the sense that it is a way of creating things with our hands to keep us warm and make us look beautiful. It sits at an interesting intersection between function and fashion, and I think that we have only started to unravel its intricacies.”
It was a visit with a young Coast Salish woman that inspired Olsen. “One day, during a conversation with the granddaughter of an old Coast Salish knitter I had worked with for years, I expressed my relief at finally being finished with writing about knitting. ‘But you’re so lucky to have spent so much time with all the old knitters,’ she said. ‘There must be many more stories to tell.’”
It got Olsen thinking and soon she was jotting down stories. Previously she had spent more than fifteen years buying and selling Cowichan sweaters from her home on the Tsartlip Indian Reserve near Victoria, British Columbia. Although the business closed its doors in 1991, almost every day since Olsen says she has been engaged in some way with Cowichan sweaters or with knitting.
And in 2012, Olsen started a new small business called Salish Fusion. Joining her were two of her children, Adam and Joni, who are of mixed ancestry: Coast Salish and Scottish/English. Rather than traditional Cowichan handspun wool, Adam and Joni used wool processed into Aran weight, giving them a broad range of design opportunities. They came up with beautiful new looks that referenced and honoured the old knitters as well as traditions from their British Isles roots. Nine of these new patterns are included in Knitting Stories.
“Whether making garments for others, or myself they have been a personal expression—the embodiment of my inner world,” writes Olsen. “Translating my designs into something other knitters could share, translating my designs into patterns that can be made with commercial yarn is a new adventure.”