They Write Their Dreams on the Rock Forever: Rock Writings in the Stein River Valley of British Columbia. Annie York Richard Daly and Chris Arnett. Talonbooks, Vancouver, 1993. xix + 300 pp, plates, maps, bibliography, index. $34.95 CAN (cloth). Reviewed by Brian Thom, University of British Columbia [this is published in Anthropos (1995) 90(4-6):656-657]
They Write their Dreams on the Rock Forever, is a reasonably priced, lavishly illustrated book which departs from the usual archaeological literature on prehistoric rock art. The Stein River Valley, located in the interior of British Columbia, is part of the traditional territory of the 'Nlaka'pamux people, and is an area with many sites containing prehistoric rock art. The narratives of Annie York, a thoughtful and experienced 'Nlaka'pamux Elder, give indigenous interpretations or "readings" of these rock writings. Anthropologist Richard Daly and art historian Chris Arnett, attempt to address broad anthropological questions of the meanings of rock writings, the origins of writing and the cross-cultural basis of experience in producing vision/dream-based art. This book's ethnographic narrative is exceedingly interesting, as Annie York's discussions of the rock are given as transcripts of her conversations with Daly and Arnett. The subsequent attempt to understand the ethnographic narrative which is presented is an interesting but disappointing foray into an epistemological conundrum.
The book begins with a self-reflexive preface discussing the history of how this work came to be, emphasizing the conscious effort to let York's explanations appear in an indigenous form - a oral dialogue - so that her interpretations would not be obscured by some kind of re-writing by the non-native scholars. This section is followed by Arnett's thorough discussion of the history of archaeological and anthropological research in the Stein River Valley area. In Arnett's discussion, the history of Native interpretations are constantly sought out, drawing heavily from the writings of James Tait, a non-native man who married into the 'Nlaka'pamux community of this area at the turn of the century. York's voice is never far from anywhere in this text. She explains how these rock writings were the records of people who recorded the results of their spirit quests, dreams and visions on the rock walls of the Stein Valley, and how they could be read and interpreted by any one who was properly trained to "read" them.
A detailed biography of Annie York's life follows, providing the reader with some of the context of her life. This kind of rich biographical study enables the reader to have a more contextual understanding of the texts which follow, as the narratives are clearly mediated by her own life experiences. York had lived in many different areas of British Columbia, although always rooted as a 'Nlaka'pamux woman from Spuzzum. The chapter, constructed from many interviews with York, documents her "betwixt and between life" (p.29), which was in many ways on the margins of several societies. This marginality came from her participation with several different cultures at different parts of her life, continually placing her outside the mainstream of both 'Nlaka'pamux and Euro-Canadian society. It is this marginality that gives York a unique perspective to talk about the rock art, as her knowledge comes from her unique experiences in both societies.
The main chapter of this book is the discussion of the rock art from 16 sites in the Stein Valley. Each site is prefaced by a description and introduction by Arnett. Transcripts of the discussions held between York, Daly and Arnett then go through the rock art found at these sites. In some instances these discussions take place at the rock art site, while in most instances drawings, paintings and photographs were brought to York's home for discussion. York then "reads" the rock writings by discussing each element contained in the picture and giving its significance and often a story connected with it. In a discussion of the rock art from one part of a site where a series of dots are seen at the bottom of the painting, York describes what the artist had recorded:
All those little dots down at the bottom. He was told [by the creator], "You're going to see this once in a while over the heads of the earth." That the stars. That's the stars when it's first formed on earth. Stars on the right show their formation. The ones on the left are the dense ones, like steam. They are called kusten, steam-like. They were shoved up there as stars. That's a legend too. (p.178)
Annie then goes on to discuss the other seven elements which make up the rock art, which often integrate into a larger story. The themes of these narratives provide a broad interpretive framework for understanding 'Nlaka'pamux culture from an indigenous view. York uses these narratives to provide explanations for the history and culture of her people.
The narratives which York gives as readings of the rock art are clearly embedded in the experiences and interests which she has had throughout her life. Many of the explanations are in Christian terms, but all fit within an indigenous framework of explanation. Although these stories may not be told in the same terms that the artisans who created them would have used, they do represent an intimate understanding of the culture and history of the 'Nlaka'pamux people. This makes York's narratives essential for anyone wishing to gain a uniquely detailed insider's understanding of this culture.
The narratives provided by York are followed by an analysis by Daly, which cover three major ideas. The first is that these "rock writings" can be best understood in terms of the oral traditions about them. This point is actually implicit throughout the book as York's narratives are given, with genuine respect for her knowledge, in her own words. Unfortunately, this understanding is not well incorporated into the final analysis and is obscured by the discussion which follows.
The second issue Daly deals with is a debate on the origins of writing in human societies. In this discussion, Daly departs from considering indigenous explanations and embarks on his own explanations to anthropological problems. Daly suggests that to not try to understand this kind of rock art in this manner "is to limit inquiry into the question of the origins of human writing" (p.223). Daly considers rock art to be "best regarded as a standard form of written communication occurring in many oral cultures over many millennia" (p.223), which can be effectively read, as York has in the narratives she gives for each picture. These symbols have standardized meanings which, to Daly, are clearly indicated by York's ability to give narrative accounts of them. Early writing is redefined as being "important to the formulation of ideas and concepts in oral cultures..and act[ing] as a prompt to human expression, both in the writer and the reader" (p.223). Although the Stein Valley rock art provides a set of symbols which acts a medium through which oral traditions may be told over generations - which could be argued is a form of "writing" - it is clear from York's own accounts, that these stories have contextual meanings. Presented with the same sets of rock art, the stories told by another knowledgable 'Nlaka'pamux person may have much different significance. The standardization of this kind of expression is certainly not well established here.
The third section of the analysis is Daly's exploration of the mystic and psychoanalytic elements of rock writing. This discussion moves from the local and contextual interpretations York provides, into a realm of cross-cultural comparisons and speculations. Daly attempts to appreciate the broad human experiences of dreaming and visions by looking at the process of creating rock art as an expression of the sub-conscious. In trying to understand these artistic expressions in such explicit Jungian terms, he makes a case for these kinds of representations being the product of altered states of consciousness, made up of the "entopic" building blocks of meaning that occur over all cultural, spatial and temporal boundaries. Comparisons of rock art and art produced by people on mind-altering drugs to support the cross-cultural nature of dream/vision experiences.
Daly's exploration into the mystic sub-conscious leads him far away from any of the social meanings that York was getting at in her narrative, and occupies highly speculative territory. One can appreciate Daly's mission for getting away from ethnocentric, positivistic interpretations of these features, but such generalizations misplaces the cultural relativism embodied in their providing York's unadulterated texts. The entire discussion is clouded with talk about using "both sides of [ones] brain" and travelling "along the obscure trails of the subconscious mind" (p.232). Such speculative discourse would have been best left out of this work, which is otherwise useful for understanding 'Nlaka'pamux society.
This book is valuable for anyone wishing to understand the connections between oral traditions, native artistic traditions, and place. The respect and sincerity York's narratives are treated with are laudable. The illustrations are excellent, making the book an attractive, visual read. As a serious discussion of the social and anthropological implications of rock art, this book leaves the reader sceptical and discontented.