The indomitable Mary John, Sr. of the Stoney Creek Reserve was one of the founders of the Yinka Dene Language Institute and held the position of Permanent Honorary Chair. Tireless in her devotion to language preservation, she made by far the largest contribution to the Saik'uz Dictionary which now includes more than 8,000 entries. In 1980 she also co-founded the Stoney Creek Elders Society. A dignified survivor of racism and innumerable tragedies, she became Vanderhoof's Citizen of the Year in 1979, the first Aboriginal to receive the honour.

Her memoir Stoney Creek Woman: The Story of Mary John (1989), co-written with Bridget Moran, chronicles the Carrier tribe from the arrival of missionaries and settlers in the Bulkley Valley to the present. Often reprinted, it received the Lieutenant Governor's Medal for Historical Writing from the B.C. Historical Federation in 1990. For many years it was the bestselling title ever produced by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Born in Lheidli (Prince George) in 1913, Mary John was raised in Saik'uz. At the age of nine, she went to school in Fort Saint James, and then she moved to Lejac Residential School the next year when it was created. She left school when she was 14 and married Lazare John when she was 16. "Over the years, between 1930, when I was 17, and 1949, when I was 36, I had 12 children, six girls and six boys. Some were born in the village, some on the trapline or at our hunting grounds. Not one of my children was born in a hospital. My mother acted as a midwife for me; when I lost her, my aunts or other relatives were with me. Some of the midwives practiced the old ways of Native medicine. We call it the laying on of hands. We believe that some Native women have a gift of healing in their hands.... And oh, that cup of tea that was brought to me after each child was born tasted so good!"

Mary John's story was recorded by social worker Bridget Moran who first visited Stoney Creek Indian Reservation in 1954. Born in 1923 in Northern Ireland, Moran made headlines in 1972 when she was evicted from the visitors' gallery in the Victoria legislature for staging an anti-poverty protest. Moran and Mary John met in 1976 at the time of an inquest into the death of another Stoney Creek woman, Coreen Thomas.

"I have vivid memories of Mary at that inquest," Moran recalled. "I remember watching her gather some of the young people together, speaking softly to them, advising them to tell the truth.... Time after time, as we talked together, I have heard her reconcile the irreconcilables, and laugh at the doing of it. I attended the Roman Catholic Church in Stoney Creek village with her, for example, and I heard that wonderful voice of hers soar over all the other parishioners as she sang, 'How Great Thou Art'."

Mary John acknowledged the hardheartedness of the nuns and priests who controlled residential schools, and she believed the Canadian government and the church destroyed her people's language and culture, but she remained a devout Catholic until her death on September 30, 2004. She was known as Mary John, "Senior" to distinguish her from her daughter-in-law, Mary John, Jr.

[In 1932, anthropologist Diamond Jenness published The Indians of Canada in which he examined the Carrier tribe in central British Columbia and wrote, "...the Carrier do not understand the complex civilization that has broken like a cataract over their heads, and they can neither ride the current nor escape it. The white settlers around them treat them with contempt and begrudge them even the narrow lands the government has set aside for them. So they will share the fate of all, or nearly all, the tribes of British Columbia and disappear unnoticed within three or four generations." But Diamond Jenness was wrong. By 1989, there were approximately 540 Stoney Creek Indians, compared to 166 in 1929.]


John, Mary & Bridget Moran. Stoney Creek Woman: The Story of Mary John (Tillicum / Pulp 1989).

[BCBW 2005] "Classic"