Journalists trade in reports about the specific, yet good journalism must always have a solid grip on the general. Context matters, and that means knowing about histories — local histories.
It means understanding a place. When that knowledge is missing, the writing is full of holes.
For reporters, that means seeking out histories, memoirs, literary journalism — works that yield deeper insights into the place and the people living there.
One gem I came across lately is A Death Feast in Dimlahamid by Terry Glavin. Published in 1990, it documents a series of blockades on logging roads in the late 1980s.
Those events took place during a legal struggle that ended up in the Supreme Court — the Delgamuukw case, which involved the use of oral history to establish Aboriginal land title.
A lot has changed since 1990, but it’s clear that resource extraction is profoundly divisive in the communities clustered along Highway 16.
The Unist’ot’en camp south of Houston has demonstrated this clearly — amidst mounting pressure for construction to begin, the Unist’ot’en have led direct action to block multiple proposed pipelines simultaneously based on decisions from hereditary chiefs, even as government chiefs have given their consent.
A Death Feast in Dimlahamid reveals some of the ancient roots of that dedication, as it recounts how Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en oral histories trace back to a mighty city-state known as Dimlahamid or Dzilke.
The people had to abandon Dzilke (the Wet’suwet’en word) after breaking ancient laws, mocking the sky and treating mountain goats with cruelty. Great environmental disasters occurred — fascinating not least because it applies so well to our moment of climate crisis.
The book also reveals the intense passions of the people involved. In one scene, a government official tells a group of Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en leaders there will be no discussion of land claims that are before the courts.
The immediate reaction of a Gitksan man called Sgenna: “‘Land claim?…Whose land claim? This is our territory. We’re not claiming the land.’”
All of this suggests a sense of place, just as some passages convey the majestic beauty and magic of the land on which we live. To quote Death Feast once more:
“On the road out to the Suskwa the night sky was shimmering with the northern lights, hanging in the delicate aurora curtain between the snow-capped mountains. The old people said if you whistled, the curtains would move towards you.”
This is the kind of long-form journalism suggesting worlds that cannot be contained in one text. It reminds the reader to make sure to see the northern lights sometime, if they haven’t.
And it reminds the journalist of the myriad stories to tell. On that note, please send your tips, whether specific or general or journalistic, literary or historical — written or spoken — to firstname.lastname@example.org.