With the title of the book, Stampede and the Westness of West, I was trying to say that you can’t totalize the west or the westness of the Stampede celebration. This spirit is what this community is about, an essence that’s hard to define, almost impossible to capture, but we live it every day.
Aritha van Herk is a novelist, essayist, cultural commentator, editor and professor. She was the Stampede Artist in Residence in 2012, when Calgary was the Cultural Capital of Canada. The resulting book, Stampede and the Westness of the West, has just been published. Join Aritha this Sunday, June 26 at 10 a.m. at Rotary House on Stampede Park for a book reading and signing–and free pancakes for the first 80 people!
Calgary Stampede (CS): Do you remember your first Stampede? How old were you? What do you remember?
Aritha van Herk (AVH): I was not a child – I did not grow up in Calgary. I moved here in my twenties. So my first Stampede was around 1986. Before that, I didn’t realize the extent to which it takes over the city—that neighbourhoods all have their own celebrations and pancake breakfasts. Once I realized that, I thought, This is exciting. I had never lived in a city where this happens – I’ve lived in Edmonton, Vancouver, different places outside North America, but I had never seen a city embrace an event like Calgary does.
Then, the University, around 2005, offered a course on the Stampede. They knew I was interested in the Chuckwagon races, so they asked me to teach the Chuckwagon module. It was total immersion. That was when I began to really understand the Stampede as event. There’s a whole history, rules, culture behind not just the Chuckwagon races, but the Stampede itself.
CS: Tell us more about what you mean by you ‘really began to understand.’
AVH: Well, I was finding out the story behind the story. When I’m in meetings with people across Canada, everyone knows us as the Stampede city, while here in Calgary, some people wish we weren’t defined by the Stampede brand. But other towns say, with serious envy, “We would give our right arm for that indelible brand.” It is so compelling. So long lasting.
I don’t think Calgarians appreciate that Stampede has given us a flavour and a flair, and that it integrates our powerful history of ranching, animals, agriculture and indigenous culture, as well as our contemporary spirit of volunteerism and can-do-ism. All of those elements shape the character of Calgary—and Stampede gathers together those different facets of our character.
CS: What did you do as the artist in residence for the Stampede?
AVH: I would go down to Stampede Park every day. I would go to community parties and Stampede breakfasts, walk around with a notebook and my iPhone, which became my notebook when my notebook got full, which it did. I would inhale the flavour, pay attention, look behind the bleachers and behind closed doors. As a writer, you don’t write immediately. You soak up details. You go home and think about what you’ve observed. Then you start writing. And it takes a long time to write a book.
For me, that experience, those 10 days when we were the Cultural Capital of Canada, were an amazing source of ideas. I let myself be the observer, in the corner in every part of Stampede, everywhere in the city. Then I went back and did the historical research, spent time in Glenbow, read all the books, dug around in various other historical elements.
For example, I got so excited about the origin of pancakes and their appearance in literature and history. They are this completely portable food that can be cooked on the back of a chuckwagon, on a tailgate. Flour, egg, water, off you go.
Another example is that people think that Chuckwagon races are an invention, but they don’t realize that the races are a contemporary version of Roman chariot races, which go back thousands of years. It’s a human ritual that we have been engaging in for centuries. So I think we need to understand that our rituals adapt a long history. In that context, Stampede is not a one off carnival that happens every year – it’s an encapsulation of what humans have done for centuries. And in a strange way, it distills how we try to understand our connection to the land, our place within it, our connection to the sky, the weather, and all the other generous and renegade parts of our city.
CS: What surprised you the most?
AVH: There were so many moments that were just amazing. Sitting up in the box at the beginning of the chucks during the first call. You realize what a complex organization the whole production is – when the helicopter comes in with the flag, everything timed to the second. Often guests just don’t get it; they think it’s total chaos down in the infield, but it’s not – all the events are timed to the second, planned perfectly.
Another surprise, I loved the World Stock Dog competition. I could sit there every morning and watch Stock Dogs herding sheep. It’s the most peaceful and gentle competition. And once you get into Stampede Park, it’s free.
I knew that entrance gives attendees all kinds of events to take in, but during my time there I was reminded that Calgary works on a remarkable gift economy. Like the pancake breakfasts – I remember being down on Stephen Avenue – tourists looking at me asking “Do they do this every day?” Their mouths were literally agape. We don’t realize how blessed this city is by generosity, and how much volunteerism and generosity are parts of the Stampede.
CS: Tell us about the phrase “The Westness of West.”
AVH: With the title of the book, Stampede and the Westness of West, I was trying to say that you can’t totalize the west or the westness of the Stampede celebration. This spirit is what this community is about, an essence that’s hard to define, almost impossible to capture, but we live it every day. And Stampede is where it hits its peak, at least in a performative sense. Those 10 days distill who we are, even if we refuse to participate. Like Nenshi on a horse, we all change into a different character.
CS: Anything else you want to tell us about the book?
AVH: The book is an exploration. It’s not a critique, nor is it total praise. It’s not an advertisement. It’s an exploration of what the Stampede means to us. And that’s the way it should be read.