Legends of Vancouver
Emily Pauline Johnson, also known as Tekahionwake, was a Canadian poet and performer. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief of mixed ancestry, while her mother was an English immigrant. In 1911, she published a collection of legends and folktales told to her by Chief Joe Capilano, based on the stories and traditions of his people. She called the collection, “Legends of Vancouver,” and published under the name E. Pauline Johnson. In her Author’s Foreword she says,
“These legends (with two or three exceptions) were told to me personally by my honored friend, the late Chief Joe Capilano, of Vancouver, whom I had the privilege of first meeting in London in 1906, when he visited England and was received at Buckingham Palace by their Majesties King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
To the fact that I was able to greet Chief Capilano in the Chinook tongue, while we were both many thousands of miles from home, I owe the friendship and the confidence which he so freely gave me when I came to reside on the Pacific coast. These legends he told me from time to time, just as the mood possessed him, and he frequently remarked that they had never been revealed to any other English-speaking person save myself.”
Chief Joe Capilano, was also known as, Su-á-pu-luck, a leader of the Squamish people, indigenous to southwestern British Columbia, Canada. Presented here is a retelling of one of those folktales called The Island.
Su-á-pu-luck spoke saying, “Tekahionwake, our people have lost much over the years. Our lands are gone, our hunting grounds and our game. Our religion, language, legends and culture that our ancestors taught us from the beginning are forsaken and forgotten. Many young people do not know them today.
These things are gone and can never return. The world has turned. Although we may seek them out in the hidden places; the high mountains, the dark forests or the concealed valleys of the world we will not find them. They are gone forever like the island of the North Arm. Once it was there and now it is gone. Maybe it is somewhere near, but we just cannot see it. Although we paddle our canoes in the sea around the coast we’ll never again find the channel, or the inlet, that leads to the past days of our people and the lost island.”
Tekahionwake replied, “You know well there are many islands on the North Arm and many channels and inlets.”
“Yes, but none of these are the island that our people have sought for many, many years,” Su-á-pu-luck told her sadly shaking his head.
“Perhaps it was never there,” she suggested.
Sighing and shaking his head he said,
“Once it was there. Both my grandfathers saw it and their fathers saw it. My father never saw it and neither did I. My father spent many years searching for it. He searched all the sounds along the coast north and south, but he never found it. In my youth I sought it for many days. At night I would take my canoe and paddle in the stillness of night. Twice, long ago, I saw its shadow. I saw the shadow of it high cliffs and rocky shores and the shadows of tall pines crowning its mountain summit as I paddled my canoe up the arm one summer night. The shadow of the island fell across the water, across my canoe, across my face and across my eyes and entered into my head and has stayed. Then, I looked. I turned my canoe around and around and looked but it was gone. There was nothing but the water and the moon reflecting on it, and no, it was not a moon shadow, or a trick of the moon, “
“Why do you keep searching for it?” asked Tekahionwake, perhaps thinking of all of the dreams and hopes in her own life she could never attain.
“You see the island has something I want. I shall never stop searching!” he replied and fell silent. She said nothing because she knew he was thinking and would tell her a legend from the old days. At last, Su-á-pu-luck spoke,
“I tell you, Tekahionwake, long before the great city of Vancouver appeared when it was but a dream of our god Sagalie Tyee, before the new people had thought of it, only one medicine man knew that there would be a great camp of new people between False Creek and the inlet. The dream had come to him from Sagalie Tyee and it had haunted him ever since. When he was among his people laughing and feasting it was there. When he was on his own in the wilds singing his strange songs and beating upon his drum it was there in his mind. Even when enacting the sacred rituals that cured the sick and the dying, it was there. The dream came to him again and again.
I tell you, Tekahionwake, it stayed with him following him through life wherever he went and he grew old and the dream stayed. Always he heard the voices that had spoken to him in the days of his youth. They told him, ‘ There will come many, many, people who have crossed the sea and crossed the land. They will be as the leaves in the forest and they will built a great camp between the two strips of salt water. Their arrival will bring the end of the great war dances. The end of wars with other people. The end of courage, the end of confidence. Our people will be dispossessed of our ways, of our tradition, of our land and who we are. Our people will learn the ways of the newcomers and our ways will be forgotten and we will no longer know ourselves.’
I knew the old man hated the words – hated the dream. He was the strongest man, the most potent medicine man on the North Pacific Coast but even he could not stop it, could not defeat it.
I tell you, Tekahionwake, he was a tall man, strong and mighty. His endurance was like Leloo the timber wolf. He did not need to eat for many days and could kill the mountain lion with his bare hands. He could wrestle and defeat the grizzly bear. He could paddle his canoe through the wildest sea and the strongest wind riding upon the crest of the highest waves.
No warrior could stand against him, he could defeat whole tribes. He had the strength and courage of a giant and feared nothing on land, sea, sky or in the forest, he was completely fearless. The only thing he could not defeat – could not kill – was the dream of the coming of the newcomers. It haunted him! It was the only thing in life he had faced that he could not defeat.
I tell you, Tekahionwake, It obsessed him. The obsession drove him from the village. He left his people, the dancing, the story telling, he left his home village by the water’s edge where the salmon gathered and the deer quenched their thirst. Chanting wild, wild songs he climbed through the trailess forest to the summit that the newcomers call Grouse Mountain.
On top of the world on Grouse Mountain he ate nothing and drank no water and fasted for days. He chanted his medicine songs day and night. Below him, beneath the mountain, lay the strip of land between the two salt waters and in that high place the Sagalie Tyee – the god of our people – gave him the gift of seeing into the future. As he looked out from the mountain over the strip of land his eyes saw across one hundred years.
He looked over what is called the inlet and saw great lodges built close together in straight lines. Some were tall and vast being built of wood and stone. He saw the strait trails the newcomers made between the lodges and saw crowds of newcomers swarming up and down them.
He saw the great canoes of the newcomers and how they moved without paddles. He saw the trading posts of the newcomers and how they multiplied. He saw the never ending stream of newcomers pouring steadily on to the strip of land and watched as they multiplied among themselves.
At last the vision faded and he saw the world in his own time and was afraid. He called out to the Sagalie Tyee, ‘I have not much longer on this earth. Soon I shall meet my ancestors in the place prepared. I pray to you not to let my strength and endurance die. I pray to you not to let my courage and fearlessness die. I pray to you not to let my wisdom and knowledge die. Take them, keep them safe for my people that they may be strong and wise enough to endure the rule of the newcomers and remember who they are. Take these things from me and hide them where the newcomers cannot find them, but where someone from my people one day will.’
Finishing his prayer he went down from the top of Grouse Mountain singing his songs of power to where he kept his canoe. Launching it he paddled far up the North Arm, through the colors of the setting sun and long into the night. At last he came to an island surrounded by high grey cliffs, where a mountain soared in its center crowned with pine trees. As he drew near he could feel all of his courage, his bravery, his fearlessness and his great strength float from him as wisps of mist that wrapped themselves around the high cliffs and mountain shrouding the island from view.
With all his strength gone he barely managed to paddle back to the village. When he arrived he called the people together and told them they must search for ‘The island’ where they would find all of his strength and courage still alive forever to help them with their dealings with the newcomers. That night he drifted into sleep and in the morning he did not wake up.
Ever since our men, young and old, have sought for the island. Somewhere, in some lost channel, some hidden inlet along the coast, it awaits us but we cannot find it. The great medicine man told them one day we will find it and when we do we will get back his power along with all his strength, all his courage, all of the wisdom of our forefathers, because such things do not die but live on through our children and grandchildren and their children.”
His voice quivered and ceased and her heart went out to him as she thought of all of the of courage and strength he possessed. She said,
“Su-á-pu-luck, you say the shadow of this island has fallen upon you!”
“That is true, Tekahionwake,” he answered mournfully, “but only the shadow!”
© 31/10/2018 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright October 31st, 2018 zteve t evans