Born in 1900 on a potato farm in Oyama in the Okanagan Valley, Harry Robinson grew up in a small village in the Similkameen Valley of south-central B.C. as a member of the Lower Similkameen Band of the Interior Salish people. A rancher for most of his life, Robinson also looked upon himself as one of the last storytellers of his people. In his boyhood, he spent long hours in the company of his grandmother and other elders, who told him numerous stories that would later become central to his life. He attended a local day school when he was thirteen but soon quit because of the twelve-mile travelling distance.
Nonetheless, he was determined to learn to read and write, and, at the age of twenty-two, he enlisted the help of a friend, Margaret Holding, in his quest to master these skills. In the early 1970s, after the death of his wife, Robinson began to reflect upon the hundreds of stories that he had learned in childhood. As he came to realize fully the importance of the storytelling tradition in his community, he began telling stories in the Okanagan language and became as skilled in English storytelling by his mid-seventies. Wendy Wickwire met Robinson while working on her doctoral thesis and recognized what, as Thomas King would later suggest, may well be “the most powerful storytelling voice in North America.” She began recording the stories in 1977, with Robinson’s approval, and brought them together in the award-winning collection Write It on Your Heart.
Robinson took his role as a storyteller very seriously and worried about the survival of the oral tradition and his stories. “I’m going to disappear”, he told one reporter, “and there’ll be no more telling stories.” He passed away in 1990—shortly after the publication of Write It on Your Heart, the first of three story collections which will ensure the survival of the epic world of Harry Robinson in many generations to come.”
Winner 1993 B.C. Book Prize