Q&A with Shawna Davis

Story, Illustrations and Hand Cut Paper

Majagalee: The Language of Seasons
Photography: Toonasa Jordana Luggi
Book Design: Robin Mitchell Cranfield for hundreds & thousands
Published by: McKellar & Martin Publishing Group

The beautiful cover of the third edition of From Sea to Sea to Sea: Celebrating Indigenous Picture Books features artwork from Majagalee: The Language of the Seasons by Shawna Davis.

We are delighted share this Q&A with Shawna Davis about the making of Majagalee, a book greatly admired by the selection committee. In the words of chair, Colette Poitras, “Majagalee: The Language of the Seasons is more than just a book—it is a work of art in all possible ways. The text is both lovely and poetic, and the artwork is absolutely stunning. This book is a triumph!”

Photo of Shawna Davis (left): Toonasa Jordana Luggi. Photo of Toonasa Jordana Luggi: Billie Jean Gabriel.

  1. What was the inspiration for Majagalee: The Language of the Seasons?

The inspiration for Majagalee came from the Gitksan way of thinking towards our children. We call them majagalee—flowers. With that comes the importance of remembering how to care for and nurture the homelands of majagalee. The story was born in that way of thinking.

  1. In the introduction you also mention, “this story weaves childhood memories of being closely tied to the land and reflects the teachings that continue to be passed down as we move through the seasons, in the footsteps of our Ancestors.” How did childhood memories, the land, and the teaching of the season influence the creation of Majagalee?

I grew up on a small Nisga’a reserve. Gitlaxt’aamiks is a village situated at the base of a mountain in the Nass Valley. It overlooks the lava beds which cover the valley of the Nisga’a Nation for miles around. It’s a tight knit community which strongly follows our matrilineal hereditary feasting system to this day.

As a child, I spent many days and nights in the feast hall sitting next to my mom. You learn by watching and listening. Gitksan and Nisga’a are closely related. Both of our feasting systems are tied to the land and water. The names our high sim’oogets—high chiefs—hold are tied to specific parts of the land. As children, my sisters and I were brought to our fishing grounds in the summer. We hold strong memories of being surrounded by salmon and oolichans, strong memories of the smell of the smokehouse. And just being outside. When you grew up on a small, isolated reserve in the middle of nowhere, you could explore anywhere you wanted as a child. We would walk deep into the bush, find different creeks to cool us down in the summer, to drink from, we would eat wild berries if we found them, we would play outside all day until dark.

We knew our lands well, and I like to think our lands knew us well, too. At least, I’m convinced that’s the reason the wolves and bears left us alone in the bush and never bothered us. All these memories naturally steeped into Majagalee.

My original intent for the story was the protection of water. How we protect water for the majagalee.

The first piece I completed was the beaded water droplet. I still wasn’t sure how the story was going to unfold. When I bead, it’s the process of beading that brings out a story. I suppose you could say beadwork has a life of its own and tells its own story.

I was very nervous as to how I was going to create a story, not knowing what the story was going to be. I went ahead and just started beading, trusting my process. I completed 17 pieces in 10 months, one didn’t make the cut. I sat with the beadwork for a couple of weeks or so, trying to figure out what the story was. There was a lot of pressure, mostly from myself. Thank goodness the publisher, McKellar & Martin, created the safest environment for me to work in. This was my very first go at creating any type of literary piece and illustration, and McKellar & Martin were very patient and supportive of my process. It truly gave me all the confidence to just go for it. There was a moment when I was getting a bit frustrated with myself, and the lack of breakthrough of the story. I gently tossed all the beadwork on the floor and started moving it around, back and forth. Then it happened, they all naturally flowed into the four different seasons.

All of the memories of all of the activities that take place on our lands and waters year-round started coming through—with summer holding the most activities of all. There are so many teachings that are learned within our culture, through lived experience. They’re not necessarily lessons where you’re sat down and told “Here are your lessons and teachings.” It’s much more active learning. You learn by doing and participating over the years. It was quite challenging to try and break it down into one paragraph stories for children. I love a good challenge.

  1. Could you elaborate on the “story within the story” you mention in the introduction?

To me, beadwork is the telling of a story. It’s a story of ultimate patience, discipline, focus and love, and remembering. Beadwork holds incredible energy and spirit. When the beadwork for Majagalee was placed beside the words, I felt it told a deeper story within the story. At the core, beadwork is a signal of existence. We’re here. We are still creating art, creating beauty, and still telling our story in our own words, from our own hands.

  1. Do you have a favourite spread in the book?

This is a tough one! They all mean so much to me for different reasons, but if you’re forcing me to choose… I’d have to say the teacups are my favourite. My grandparents’ home, their tea/coffee cups, their dining room table, my Ts’iits and Ye’e’s love of sweets, desserts and cookies—it all holds my warmest memories.

  1. The Sim’algax language plays an important role in the text. How did you choose which words were chosen for translation?

It was very important to me to include bits of Sim’algax. As only the second generation removed from residential school, and one generation removed from Indian day school, I felt it was important to acknowledge that the loss of language is very real and very present in our daily lives.

I subtitled this book with The Language of Seasons because I wanted to recognize the land and water, the plants, the animals; they all speak their own languages. The little droplets of Sim’algax throughout the book acknowledge my personal on-going struggle to learn my language and our collective loss. However, it was also very empowering to share what I knew and have pieces of Sim’algax visible to the reader. I thought of all the little Sim’algax learning children, and how exciting and encouraging it would have been for me as a child to see our language in a children’s book.

  1. Have you had the opportunity to do many school readings yet? What response are you getting from kids? (Do they all want to learn how to bead?)

My first school reading was for my son’s Grade 1 class—a day I will never forget. He was so happy and excited to have Mom in his classroom. I also had the opportunity to do a presentation and reading for the teachers and the administration for my old elementary and high school in Gitlaxt’aamiks— Nisga’a Elementary Secondary School. I’ve done a few readings for residential school survivors at a few different gatherings. All were very emotional full-circle moments for me.

The response from children and parents has been so incredible—more than I ever could have wished for. I’ve had parents reach out to me, thanking me for the representation, sharing how their children felt so excited, special and uplifted. While reading to my son’s class, the children kept excitedly interrupting the story, they could relate to it so well. It was amazing, I loved every moment of it.

In my son’s class specifically, I had a child ask if I knew his uncle and where he lived because his uncle had lots of fireweed growing beside his house. I thought that was the sweetest thing ever. I loved the idea of hearing the story reminded them of their own family members.

Most do want to learn how to bead, which I think is amazing! It’s such a beautiful intricate art form that holds and brings forward many important teachings. I learned how to bead after being away from my homelands for over 20 years. It was incredible to experience how quickly beadwork brought my homelands to me.

  1. Do you have influences and/or children’s book illustrators and authors you admire? (There is a nice shout out from Richard Van Camp on the back cover of Majagalee.)

Oh boy, I remember the morning the publishers sent me the email with the quote and review from Richard Van Camp, which is on the back jacket of Majagalee. I cried. It’s one thing to write a book and put it into the world—that is scary enough—but then the inevitable realization that people are going to read it, too?! It’s almost too much. To be acknowledged and celebrated by such a prolific storyteller, it was a surreal day. It’s all still kind of surreal to me to be honest.

As far as authors and illustrators who I admire, of course Richard Van Camp, Richard Wagamese, John Trudell, Terese Marie Mailhot, Alicia Elliott, Julie Flett, Monique Gray Smith, Chief Lady Bird, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Erica Violet Lee… the list goes on. What an exciting time to be a part of this world.

  1. What do you think of the cover of From Sea to Sea to Sea: Celebrating Indigenous Picture Books, Third Edition? (We hope it honours your book!)

It is stunning. I am incredibly honoured to have eagle eye on the cover of From Sea to Sea to Sea. Every time I see a close-up of one of the spreads, I cannot help but be grateful for the amazing photography skills of Toonasa Jordana Luggi. Majagalee really couldn’t come to life without the eye and skill of Toonasa and the rest of the team. What a whirlwind this has been, it’s so exciting!

  1. Do you have other children’s books on the go?

Right now, I am having a go at a short novel. Please send help, a shoulder to cry on, a bubble tea. Anything.

  1. Is there anything you would like to add?

T’oyaxs’y N’isim’ to everyone at IBBY Canada for your love and support of Majagalee: The Language of Seasons. Ha’miyaa to everyone who continues to support this little project of love. Wishing you all health, wellness and safety. Gabeethlit.

p.s. Shawna will be contributing to The Journey Forward #2: Novellas on Reconciliation alongside Eden Fineday, a follow-up to McKeller & Martin’s The Journey Forward #1 by Richard Van Camp and Monique Gray Smith. This will be Shawna and Eden’s first time writing middle-grade fiction. And, of course, Shawna will be beading the illustration for her front cover.

Contributed by Patti McIntosh

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