It sounds like an old riddle: how do you tell a storyteller’s story? I Was Born Under a Spruce Tree, a compilation of JJ Van Bibber’s stories, tries the obvious answer: you let him tell it. And that is what Niall Fink, an anthropology grad from the University of Alberta did—with help from the Van Bibber family and many others.
Many of you will already be familiar with JJ’s story. If you aren’t, then you’ll have to look elsewhere because his tale is not mine to tell. The reason is best summed up by Fink
“I was extremely sensitive to the ethics of a situation like this: an outsider coming in and appropriating the stories of an Elder for his own benefit.”
This from the man who spent six months getting to know Van Bibber and his family.
And here I sit, who had no idea who JJ Van Bibber was when I took this assignment. I only spoke briefly to Shannon Van Bibber, Laurel Parry and Niall Fink, but what they said spoke volumes.
From Shannon Van Bibber there was a fierce determination that this article be about her grandfather, not her. Laurel Parry referred to him as “Grandpa” though she is not related by blood, and only met him in 2009.
Fink, in his introduction to the book, describes how JJ became “like a grandfather” to him. After he finished the manuscript, he handed it to the family for editing, gave Shannon the copyright, and will receive no royalties.
Certainly the book exists because JJ loved to tell stories. It also exists because he and his wife Clara loved to take pictures. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in have more than 1,200 pictures in their digital archives from JJ.
It also exists because his wife Clara died in 2004. “Sixty-one years living with the right woman,” is how he put it. Nearing his nineties (he was ninety-one when he died), JJ realized that when he went, his pictures and his stories might be lost.
“He wanted a book made,” says Fink. But adapting JJ’s spoken-word stories for the written page is not as easy as it sounds.
“JJ told stories all the time,” says Parry, “And to put things down in writing is so different.”
Although the Van Bibber family describes the arrival of Fink to the process as “a gift,” there was some tension when it came to deciding what to put in the final product. Since so many of JJ’s stories are about other people, especially the intensely private Clara, debate was inevitable.
“It was difficult in the first place because my grandma is very private,” says Shannon (she refers to both her grandma and her grandpa in the present tense). “The whole book, that’s a gift from Grandpa. Grandpa’s great-grandchildren are thankful and amazed by it. His grandchildren, we didn’t know, until after Grandma passed away that he had all these photos.”
Some of the JJ’s stories will not be found in any book. His desire was that this be a book that his grandchildren could read, and a ninety-one-year-old man with a sense of humour has a lot of stories in him that might not be suitable for the younger generation. And many stories that are only for them. Only for family.
“My favourite stories are the ones that went to the grave with JJ,” says Fink. “Some were not meant to be shared with the rest of the world, and I’ll cherish them.”
I Was Born Under a Spruce Tree is a storyteller’s story. It is, and is not, his own. Every person named and unnamed is part of it —part of JJ’s story and the owner of their own.
As JJ tells it in the book, when he lost Clara it was three years before he could talk about her without crying.
How do you tell a storyteller’s story? You get people to listen. It was the listeners, blood or no, who gave JJ what was needed.
In his own words: “They made my life worth living again.”