Dorothy Jepp and her daughter, Ramona Holota, have worked together on a variety of books, authored by Jepp, that share the stories of their indigenous heritage. Raven Nyman photo.

Indigenous artist keeps her culture alive in new children’s book

‘For hundreds of years, it was the animals they used [in stories] because they were common things’

Local indigenous artist Dorothy Jepp is proud to release her fourth children’s book, Shuswap Village Life on the Fraser River, which contains four life lessons for young people, told with an emphasis on Jepp’s aboriginal heritage.

“Once I started writing, I realized that there was something in my brain that’s been dormant all my life,” said Jepp.

She was born in Soda Creek, near Williams Lake, and was adopted early in life by her grand uncle, Chief Joe Moses. That adoption brought her to the High Bar First Nation, where she was raised and still lives off-grid to this day.

Jepp grew up off the grid on the High Bar reserve, located on the Fraser River west of Clinton, but she also lived in Ashcroft for years, where she worked as a nurse in the community.

Her autobiography, Once Upon A Lifetime In The Cariboo, and her children’s books, are available for purchase throughout the Cariboo and Interior.

She began writing probably 15 years ago or so, she recalled.

“Then after that, I decided to do kids’ books. Once I got started, it was unbelievable. Sometimes I was up until three in the morning, because thoughts just kept coming and they wouldn’t go away until I’d get on the computer.”

Jepp illustrated all her books, and the photos included were all taken by either Jepp or her daughter, Ramona Holota.

“This little rooster actually started kind of funny. That was the first story I did. I was so busy at Black Canyon. My two girls were in school.”

Jepp said her oldest daughter came to her one morning, last minute, with a request for her mother to draw a picture for her to take to show and tell.

“I can’t do that right now, Gwen, I’m really busy. I’ve got to feed the pigs and chickens,” Jepp recalls telling her daughter.

“But you have to, mom,” said Gwen. Jepp soon agreed and sat down to draw a picture for her child.

“I drew this type of rooster,” she said, tracing her hand over the multi-coloured rooster displayed on the book in front of her. “I put the boots on, and the cane, and the cowboy hat. And they really got lots of comments from the parents and everything because of that, because the kids were so excited. I thought, well, that’s the first book I’m going to write. That’s how it started. This is the second edition now, where he gets a mate, but maybe I’ll do another one, and make a different picture of him as an adult.”

Jepp has authored four books in total, but her newest work contains four short stories: Ghost Rider’s of Emotions, Big Rescue by Baldy Eagle and His Boys, What Happens When You Think You Know It All, and Old Man Winter Is On His Way. Each tale includes a life lesson or two, as well as plenty of laughs.

One thing that sets Jepp’s work apart from others is her photos. She said she has noticed children are often scared of some of the computerized illustrations they see in modern books but seem drawn to her illustrations because of their authenticity.

When she attended school, Jepp recalls having some access to children’s stories, but said that the ones she did encounter didn’t relate to reality in the way she saw it.

“So I thought, well I’m going to do books that will relate to somebody, and children somewhere, but it turns out, that adults like them, too. Books like this, in this area, with natives in it, it really grabs the adults.”

Sharing her culture in this way feels good, said Jepp. “I’m thinking there’s a lot of people that probably could do the same things, but on other things in the native culture. It doesn’t have to be the Shuswap culture.”

Jepp feels that a lot of her culture’s stories, and even the stories of other indigenous peoples, will soon be forgotten if they are not written down and memorialized. Many stories have already been lost, she said.

Read more: Local artist and teacher recalls history through art

Once Upon a Time in the Cariboo was not originally meant for publication, but a close friend found Jepp writing her stories out by hand and urged her to share what she was working on with the world.

“I [was] doing a book about people that I want recorded for the rest of life. What it was, was to remember some people that I knew in Clinton and other places, because when a person dies, it seems like they have this big funeral and everybody’s there, but in four or five years, he or she is totally forgotten.”

In its own way, Jepp’s writing seeks to memorialize the people she has encountered during her lifetime.

“It’s something so that their names would be down somewhere.”

Fraser River Publishing is Jepp’s own publishing company. She edits her own work, with help from her daughter, Holota.

Jepp also reads her stories to schoolchildren, an effort she was surprised to find so enjoyable. The children she reads to have even helped to inspire follow-up books, with their questions and comments about her existing stories. Her readers are so invested in her work that they often ask her questions about where Jepp’s animal characters are now.

The repeated use of animal characters in her art is not a coincidence, she explained.

Jepp’s ancestors would often see and interact with the animals around them, such as coyotes, ravens, moose, or wolves. They would use those creatures in their stories, to express emotions and even navigate trauma, often using the animals as a means to communicate the seemingly inexplicable.

“For hundreds of years, it was the animals they used because they were common things,” she said. “So they made stories with animals, which kids could relate to because they would know what it was. I think that’s why all our stories are still related to animals, with natives.”

Today, Jepp said that many young indigenous people don’t know those stories. “There’s trouble amongst all of them,” she said.

Jepp hopes to continue telling the stories of her people, sharing indigenous knowledge and harbouring cross-cultural connections through her artwork.

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