by Grady Mitchell | “The human spirit yearns for pristine places,” says Roy Henry Vickers. Vickers is one of British Columbia’s most celebrated artists, known worldwide for his vibrant and serene natural landscapes. His paintings have been given as gifts to Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth. Around 400,000 visitors annually pass through his Tofino gallery, Eagle Aerie. He’s been named to the Order of BC and the Order of Canada, contributed to our successful Olympic bid, spoken around the world, and been a steadfast advocate for addiction recovery.
Now the beloved painter is celebrating the release of his latest book, Orca Chief, the third in a series of illustrated children’s stories he’s making with writer and historian Robert “Lucky” Budd. The book includes nineteen original illustrations by Vickers. The pair hopes the series will nurture a sense of responsibility in the next generation to stem and hopefully reverse the damage their forebears have caused the environment.
The project began when Vickers learned of a hereditary chief who’d signed a deal with an oil company to allow a pipeline to pass through his clan’s traditional lands. Vickers, who previously had abstained from using his fame as a political platform, felt compelled to speak up. “I was enraged,” he says. “I could not believe that someone whose ancestry came from the land, whose name came from the land, would sell their birthright.”
The first book in the series, Raven Brings The Light, tells the creation story of the sun. The second, Cloudwalker, explains the origins of BC’s three largest rivers, the Skeena, Nass and Stikine, when the titular character accidentally spilled water from the skies across the earth. Orca Chief follows four fishermen as they carelessly ignite the wrath of the legendary master of the ocean. A fourth book, The Flood, is slated for next year.
Each book is based on a tale Vickers was told as a child by elders in his home village of Kitkatla, a small Tsimshian village on the shore of the Skeena River, a few hours west of Prince Rupert. These legends had been passed down for millennia by his ancestors. Vickers revisited the stories as a young man struggling and feeling aimless in Victoria, when he would visit the Royal Museum and listen to recordings gathered by historian Imbert Orchard.
“As I developed as an artist those recordings became part of the way I thought,” he says. “All stories, all legends, the basic teaching is to respect the land, to respect our Mother Earth. We do not own the land. We cannot own our children. Our ancestors are part of the land and one day we will be. You must take care of the land.”
“We have become detached form the land,” he continues. “It’s like a child being separated from its mother.”
Although the main message of the books is environmental, they’re also packed with traditional wisdom across all aspects of life, Roy says. “The old story of peace is, if you work hard everyday of your life to make yourself a better person, you will know happiness,” he explains. “If you work hard everyday to help the old people and those who can’t help themselves in your community, you will know happiness. It all comes down to love.”