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General · 16th June 2014
Joy Inglis
Hilary Majendie Stewart passed away on June 5th at the age of 89.
She was born on St. Lucia, West Indies in 1924. Hilary’s father was a plantation manager for sugar in St. Lucia and later for tea in India. At the age of nine, she and her siblings were brought back to England for education in boarding schools and living with her grandmother in Cheshire. Her memories of events in early childhood on St. Lucia, and of school in England, were of escapades and adventures which she often initiated and thoroughly enjoyed. As a child in school she slipped away to visit an encampment of Roma near her school, and was enamoured of a young boy there. While still at school, she was taken to hear “Grey Owl”, a charismatic Englishman (Archibald Blaney) who posed as an Ojibwa Indian from Canada, skilled in all manner of woodland lore and craft, and one of Canada’s first conservationists. It was a transforming experience.

Boarding school was followed by four years in The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In London, during the bombing, she was assigned to an underground bunker, the plotting room, tracking the trajectory of incoming planes. Later, she joined a unit called “ The Concert Party”, touring Europe for two years with song, dance and skits, until demobilization. There followed another four years in London studying art at St Martin’s School of Art.

After graduation in 1951, she joined her brother Peter in Canada, and was able to experience life in the wilderness for herself. She gloried in wild nature, the rivers and forests and animals and became their life-long defender; even to civil disobedience while stopping the logging trucks in the “Friends of Clayoquot Sound” blockade of 1993.

Her greatest contribution to public life was through her writings and the illustration of her texts, all of which are based upon First Nations’ achievements, with the exception of her last book, “On Island Time”, which illustrates her life on Quadra Island, the architecture and furnishing of her house, and landscaping of her property. There she lived in harmony with the deer, the birds, snakes, ants, bats, and native plants, until her death. “On Island Time” was published in 1998. It was subsequently translated into Chinese. The edition in English was dedicated to her brother, Peter, “my brother and buddy”. In her fern filled forest land she erected a natural stone memorial to his memory.

Hilary’s first venture into writing a book was while she was working as Art Director and Designer at BCTV, in Vancouver. She had been volunteering articles and illustrations for the Archaeological Society of B. C., and had as a consequence of this connection, taken part in an a dig on the banks of the Fraser river south of Hope. Her enthusiasm, ability, and sensitive drawing of artifacts caught the attention of the site Director, Dr, Charles Borden, first archaeologist to serve in the Dept. of Anthropology at UBC. Borden encouraged her intention to publish a book that would illustrate the array of artifacts found in B. C. archaeological sites, and to describe their method of manufacture and use. When the book was completed, it was illustrated with over a thousand of her drawings. It was a resounding success. This was the first comprehensive public record of this material. “From a literary and scientific standpoint this book is of great merit”. (Charles Borden) Subsequently Hilary was invited to work with an archaeological team in Turkey where she reproduced in drawings and watercolour each item retrieved from an archaeological site at Anamurium.

When Hilary embarked upon writing her first book in 1972, her manuscript had to be hidden in her desk at the TV station so that she could work on it surreptitiously at times when she was not required to design sets. When the book was published as “Artifacts of the Northwest Coast Indians”, Hilary quit her work as a TV artist, and launched into a life-long career of writing and illustrating books on the artistic achievements of Northwest Coast First Nations. She brought the academic record to the public in a readable and comprehensive way. It was especially rewarding to her that her books were used as source material by First Nation’s artists and craftsmen. The first edition of “ Artifacts” was revised and reissued as “Stone, Bone, Antler and Shell” by Douglas & McIntyre (1976 ) who subsequently became the publisher of all the books that followed. The next of these was “Indian Fishing”, (1977), by which time Hilary had mastered the techniques of making the stone points, shafts, fibre netting, and all manner of native fishing gear. Not only did she carve and assemble the unique hooks of the earliest fishermen of this coast, but she caught fish with them from a canoe.

Book tours became prominent in her life. Hilary lectured widely in B.C. and Washington State to promote and market her books. At April Point Fishing Lodge, she demonstrated the various ways that tribes along the coast butchered salmon for roasting over the open fire. She was a regular hands-on instructor at Strathcona Park Lodge on Buttle Lake. Ultimately Hilary was able to demonstrate how the whole range of materials used in First Nations technology was produced. Many items for display she had manufactured herself. A part of this replica collection can be seen in the Cortes Island Museum.
Being a lover of the outdoors, she enjoyed learning about plant use by coastal peoples for food, medicine, tools and magic, and wrote a book on the topic entitled “Drink in the Wild”. ( 2002). From time to time she cruised Haida Gwaii with Al and Irene Whitney as a resource person, and became a close friend of the family

Hilary was an early and eager appreciator of the complex styles and conventions of the various tribal groups on the Northwest Coast. One of her best-selling books is entitled “Looking at Indian Art” (1992), a handbook which brought an understanding of the difficult conventions of this art to the general public, and has guided many First Nations artists in their painting and carving. Other books are “Robert Davidson, Haida Printmaker” (1979), “ Looking at Totem Poles” (1993), “Cedar. Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians.” ( 1984) “The Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, Captive of Maquinna” (1995).

The greatest of all her works is “Cedar”. In this book, Hilary is able to tell the story of the native people of this coast through the use of cedar from cradle to grave. Bill Reid, Haida master carver has said of this book: “Hilary Stewart has performed the ... difficult feat of telling the wonder of the cedar tree with the same loving care experienced by us for whom it forms a constant part of our lives, and at the same time explores extensively every aspect of this marvellous arboreal giant and gives us a true account of how well it served our precursors on the coast.”

Karen Duffek of UBC Museum of Anthropology has this story to tell of the part Hilary’s book “Cedar” has played in the life of a native woman of her acquaintance. ( July 2009). Speaking of the cedar-bark weaver, Vicky Moody of Skidegate, Karen says: “I met her in 2000, and she told me that Hilary’s “Cedar” book had helped to change her life. This book opened her eyes to the tradition of cedar bark weaving. She got her bark from a pile somewhere, and it was old and dry but it was her beginning, and she sat there with Hilary’s book propped up and began to try the techniques for herself. She has gone on to create innovative works such as the cedar bark bustier trimmed with rabbit fur with which she ( a slender and beautiful young woman) caused a stir as she appeared in it at her grandfather’s potlatch. She has gone on to create interesting hats, capes, etc. that are in museum collections.

Almost all her manuscripts were written by pen on paper while propped up against a log on Wreck Beach in West Point Grey. She loved the freedom of nudity there. Being a writer, she became the spokesperson for the regulars and wrote the letters to the Vancouver Sun objecting to intrusions from the cliff-top above. She continued to write her manuscripts in long-hand, and have it typed by a professional, though she eventually acquired a typewriter of her own. She refused to use a computer. This decision was part of her general rejection of new technologies, and the spendthrift philosophy of acquisition being embraced by society, which she perceived as contributing to the wrecking of the planet. “Thrift” was her watchword.

Hilary travelled to museums in the United States to photograph rock carvings of the Northwest Coast for a book and Victoria Art Gallery show entitled “Images Stone”, by Wilson Duff. Her photography and drawings and interpretive texts have been used in many other publications. During her time on Quadra Island she illustrated books by friends, Joy Inglis and Burton Wohl. She received many requests for use of her illustrations and photographs and these were always offered freely to any First Nations projects for which they were sought.

Hilary Stewart is the recipient of several awards. She received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for excellence in writing, in 1980; and a Certificate of Merit for “Indian Fishing” in 1978, and “Looking at Indian Art, in 1980. She won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional prize in 1985. Hilary received two Bill Duthie Booksellers Awards, first in 1985 for “Cedar”, and again 1988 for “Adventures and Suffering of John R. Jewitt. And in the same year she received the James F. and Margaret Pendergast award for contributions to Archaeology. Following upon a UBC museum course which she devised with Madeline Bronsdon, Hilary made a substantial donation to the museum in 1993, thus the “Hilary Stewart Endowment Fund for First Native Educational Programs” was set up, with ongoing support for native studies. In 1992, her work was awarded a commemorative medal by the Governor General of Canada, on the occasion of the 125th Anniversary of the Federation of Canada, in recognition of her contribution to her compatriots, community and to Canada.

The subjects of her writing brought her into constant contact with native people at pole raisings, canoe carving, potlatches, and other activities. Hilary counted among her friends artists of our era, such as Bill Reid, Roy Vickers and Robert Davidson, writers such as Vicki Jensen and Lynn Handcock., and close friends such as book collector, Bill Ellis. She always felt fully supported by Scott McIntyre of Douglas & McIntyre, and was especially fond of her Editor, Saeko Usukawa, and enjoyed the scrimmage over points of detail that sometimes ensued upon revision of her manuscripts. Hilary will be remembered on Quadra Island for love of the island and desire for its protection. The beautiful drums she made, and the occasions for “drumming up the moon” she initiated at Rebecca Spit. For many years she was in regular attendance at the United Church on Reserve at Cape Mudge. She was a member of “Sierra Quadra”, the environmental group that works to preserve the natural wilderness. With her art training, she made a significant contribution to the group responsible for the rebuilding of the Quadra Community Centre. She offered her landscaped garden for annual public events; and in her declining years, joined the choir “Letz Sing”, an a cappella group meeting at the Community Centre, organized by Tina Filippino, and then by Mary Dennison. Singing gave her great joy.

Hilary was predeceased by her older sister, Heather in England and her brother Peter. She is survived by her sister-in-law, Anna Stewart of Salmon Arm; her niece Robyn Stewart, and her husband Wade; and nephew Ian Stewart and his wife Jeannie and their two children, Connor and Isla. She has a host of friends, amongst them myself, Hilda Van Orden, Michael Mascall, Marcia Wolter, Ellen Tye, Heather Kellerhals and so many more than I know, or can recall. Hilary Stewart will be forever remembered for making available to upcoming young native people a thoroughly researched and perfectly understandable record of the achievement of their people. Her lasting memorial will be the Foundation established in her name at UBC Museum of Anthropology and the contribution she has made to the on-going success of the Community Centre on her beloved Quadra Island.
Beautifully written!
Comment by Astrid Johnston on 16th June 2014
Thanks Joy, for sharing much of Hilary's story with us. She will be lovingly remembered!