The Gitxsan Knowledge Keeper Writing Illustrated Children’s Books to Teach About the Land

“Young people aren’t learning about the land the way that I grew up learning about the land,” says Hetxw’ms Gyetxw. “What I write about are the basics, things that all young Gitxsan people are just meant to learn and know at a very young age.” Gyetxw, an author who also uses the name Brett D. Huson, hails from the Gitxsan Nation of the Northwest Interior of British Columbia. The seventh book in his Mothers of Xsan series, The Bee Mother, comes out this month. “We changed our way of living for the land, rather than changing the land to meet our needs. And that’s a huge difference between Western society and Indigenous cultures.”

Each of the Mothers of Xsan illustrated children’s books presents science within the cultural context of the Gitxsan Nation’s close relationship with nature, with an emphasis on mothers. “I come from a matrilineal society,” Gyetxw explains. “My real name, my clan, all of my rights and privileges on territory, all come from my mother.” He felt driven to offer an alternative to the nonfiction books typically available to young people in the modern school system, which he describes as industrialized and patriarchal.

“The whole point to my stories is to start to look at other perspectives,” he says, speaking with passion about the long history of knowledge carriers in Indigenous cultures. “I want people to see that our knowledge systems parallel modern scientific research. We had our own versions of observation and our own versions of scientific research. We had people who were biologists who were specialized in particular species, and in my Nation, many people have always monitored populations of different species to make sure that our ecosystems were healthy.”

Previous books in his series focus on grizzlies, ravens, frogs, eagles, wolves, and sockeye salmon. The Bee Mother shines a spotlight on pollinators: bumblebees, honeybees, and wasps. “Bees are so important to ecosystems,” Gyetxw says, then points out that honeybees aren’t native to Canada—European settlers brought them to North America. “One of the things I learned is they’re quite harmful to natural species,” he says. “They’re immune to certain diseases that can actually wipe out other bees, so they tend to take over ecosystems if they’re left out.”

Ten titles in total are planned for the Mothers of Xsan series. The manuscript for his next book, The Cedar Mother, is already complete. “That one really expresses the importance of the flora for my people,” he says. “Our whole culture is surrounded by both the lifecycle of salmon as well as the lifecycle of cedar.” He adds, “We revere plants just as much as we revere anything—mammals or amphibians or aquatic life.”

As an author, knowledge keeper, and research associate at the University of Winnipeg, Gyetxw already possesses a vast range of knowledge, but his goal is to never stop learning. “In the perspectives of our pedagogy, it’s all about learning until you die. There’s not a moment in your life where you’re considered the utmost expert in anything, but you are respected for knowing many things about a particular subject.”

He hopes his books will help both young people and adults—he has a devoted fan base of adult readers—learn more about the land they live on, instead of focusing solely on how to exist in the human world. “People should understand the things that make their ecosystem work wherever they are, whether they’re in a municipality or a rural community. It’s really about putting the onus back onto people to learn to love the land, so that slowly we can start making better decisions, so that our kids have better opportunities in the future.”


The Bee Mother, written by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) and illustrated by Natasha Donovan, is published by Portage & Main Press. Images are reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. Read more stories about the arts.

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May 16, 2024