It was an act of discrimination by a fellow Oak Bay High School student in the 1960s that in part led Roy Henry Vickers on a path of self-discovery to become one of the country’s most-celebrated First Nations artists and storytellers.
“When I found out the reasons for not being liked [in school], because I was an Indian and the person thought we were all lazy, that we all lived on welfare and that we were all alcoholics, I laughed,” said Vickers, 70, from his home in Hazelton. “Because I grew up in a village where no one could be lazy. You had to fish and hunt to eat. Welfare didn’t exist in those days, and the village had banned alcohol.”
The incident still disturbed Vickers. He felt like an outsider in the white and wealthy community. He struggled with school and started to question his identity as the child of an aboriginal father and a mother with British heritage.
“It was that experience that set me on the road to who I was and who my ancestors were,” Vickers said. With the help of his art and social studies teachers and a guidance counsellor determined to get him through school, Vickers sought out the history of his father’s people and region.
He came across a magazine article called Paddlewheels on the Frontier about Hazelton and the Skeena River that led him to audio recordings of oral histories gathered by radio producer Imbert Orchard across the region.
“I used to travel around and listen over and over … it was those tapes that helped me understand the uniqueness of where I grew up and the value of the art and culture of my father’s people,” said Vickers, whose father was from the Tsimshian, Haida and Heiltsuk peoples.
He dreamed of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “so I could roam the world riding horses,” Vickers said. But he was rejected due to being partially colour blind.
His parents wanted him to attend university, so he studied sociology and anthropology for a while. His high school art teacher told him to avoid academic arts and find his own way and style. And that’s what he did.
He explored his mixed heritage through art, studying B.C. First Nations art and history and developing a distinct and recognizable visual style. Vickers is most known for his original silkscreen prints that often layer traditional and contemporary images and motifs in bold colours.
At one of his first art shows in Victoria, Vickers’ former art teacher said he had found his authentic style.
“He said: ‘Eventually as you develop, people will say: ‘I was out the other day fishing and I saw your water or I saw your sunset or your clouds.’ You will know your creativity is so identifiable it’s actually making impressions on how others view the world around them,’ ” said Vickers, who hears this from fans all the time.
His work is now found in galleries and public spaces across Canada and around the world. His art has been given by the province to at least 50 heads of state, including Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and the Queen. Vickers has received hereditary chieftainship and names from several Northwest Coast First Nations. He is a recipient of the Order of B.C. and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee metal.
He built the Eagle Aerie Gallery in Tofino in the 1980s, where he found his voice as a storyteller.
In 1992, Vickers had just returned to Tofino from an addictions treatment centre in Arizona. He was in his boat on his way to be a celebrity guest on a local cable show when he spotted an eagle overhead.
“When it flew, I whistled the eagle call to it and it circled. And as it circled it dropped a feather. The feather landed on my chest,” said Vickers. As a spiritual person, this had a deep meaning for him and his future. “So when this feather landed on my chest I knew there was a reason. It took a few days, but this reason came to me. A feather is used in talking circles and, ‘Roy, it is time for you to use your voice.’”
Before that day, Vickers said anyone who asked what he had to say would be told to go and look at his art work.
“But from that day onward … I said if I am asked to speak, I will,” he said. He has spoken to thousands of people since, and “realized that I am gifted as a storyteller as well. And I think most of us are.”
Yet, alongside his success as an artist and storyteller, Vickers continued to struggle through addictions and three failed marriages. It was during a period of recovery about five years ago that he decided to go back again into his history and heritage. He remembered the Orchard tapes.
“That’s how I found Lucky,” Vickers said.
Lucky is the nickname of Victoria archivist and biographer Robert (Lucky) Budd. In the early 2000s, he spent four years working for CBC and the Royal B.C. Museum on the restoration and preservation of the Orchard tape collection. The collection included 2,700 hours of recorded interviews with 998 people from 1959 to 1966.
“It’s absolutely incredible the largest oral collection in the world is right here … and basically no one knew about it,” Budd said. “It’s the story of our province in people’s own words.”
The collection became a passion for Budd. It led him to pursue a master’s degree in history at the University of Victoria. He used it as the foundation for his 2010 book Voices of British Columbia and the 2015 followup Echoes of British Columbia.
Orchard also inspired Budd to become a chronicler in his own time, with the founding of his small business Memories to Memoirs — a service to record oral stories in audio and print.
When Vickers went looking for the Orchard tapes, he was told Budd was the guy to call.
“I knew exactly what it was he was looking for,” Budd said. Vickers hoped to find stories about Hazelton and Skeena River, including some from a First Nations elder named Martin Starret, “one of the best storytellers in the collection,” he said.
Budd knew of Vickers and his work. The two immediately hit it off over a shared love of storytelling and American folk music, Bob Dylan in particular.
“Everything Roy creates is a story,” said Budd, who is working on a biography with the artist. He described taking his family to Tofino to hear and record one of Vickers’ storytelling sessions. Vickers shared a creation story passed down from coast First Nations for thousands of years, told to him by elder Chester Bolton in his village of Kitkatla in 1975.
“That day was magic. There was something about the gallery, about the way Roy told the story, anyone there will not forget it.” Budd told Vickers he saw a book in the story and wanted to collaborate on it.
“He was reticent at first. He said: ‘These are meant to be told,’ ” Budd said. But the artistic seed was planted and Vickers began working on images for the pair’s first collaboration, the best-selling Raven Brings the Light (Harbour Publishing) in 2012.
Since then, they have collaborated on three more books in the Northwest Coast Legends series and toured the province together sharing them.
Cloudwalker tells the story of the region’s rivers and lakes, built from the story Vickers first heard on the Orchard tapes. Orca Chief, first told to Vickers by an elder relative, tells the story of orca warriors teaching sustainable harvesting. The final book in the series, Peace Dancer, comes from a story Vickers was told in his Tsimshian village about anti-violence at the peace dance performed at potlatches to remind each generation of respect for the land and creatures.
Vickers and Budd will be in Victoria on June 8 to launch their West Coast tour of Peace Dancer at Munro’s Books on Government Street at 7 p.m. The event is also a celebration of Vickers’ 70th birthday, which was on Saturday.