Artist and Chief James Swan: on First Nations ghosts, prayer and black magic (Part 2/3)

First Nations Ghosts

(Take Back Our Children mural detail. James UuKwaqum Swan)

James, do the Nuu-chah-nulth people believe in wandering spirits, or are there First Nations ghosts?

Whether I believe in it or not, there are ghosts. In our culture ghosts are stuck. They are souls or spirits. One of the things that I was taught, is that there’s another realm where our spirits go into. Some people believe, like the Catholic for example, that there is a heaven (holds his hand up high) and a hell (holds his hand down low) on the other side. These people are stuck between heaven and hell.

Our souls go into another room, another realm, and are always met by three people; three other people that are a part of our family. Anyone who has died or has went slowly has seen someone like their father or even my father coming to greet them and show them the way. They were there waiting for them to show them the way.

Sometimes, people don’t see good things. My grandfather talks about it. He says there is a hell and there is a heaven, although I don’t know the name for it, but it’s something that my grandfather talks about.

All of the things we see, in our culture, in our heritage, he says that they happen for a reason. He also says that all of the things that you dream about can happen if you really truly believe. That’s one of the things. I went down to the United States, for example, to go see a friend of mine’s son who was in the hospital. I turned to one of our songs and I prayed for him and he got up. The doctor said he wasn’t supposed to do that. He was supposed to be in the hospital for the rest of his life. He got up and left the hospital. It might be psychological but if you believe in it…

In society you talk about being stubborn. When I go out hunting or I go out fishing and I get cold in my mind I will say, “I am going to be warm when I get home and have a nice warm bath,” and I am not cold. In the army, the first time that I had to run 13 km (8 miles) I knew I would finish it even though I had never run it before. I puked, but I did it. I am stubborn.

So when you talk about ghosts one of the things I always tell myself is that I will believe it when I see it. Whenever I hear of ghosts, or Sasquatch or anything I think that I will believe it when I see it. But when you hear the stories of what people have experienced, of seeing my father, who was seen by one of my other relatives, I am sometimes disappointed. I think why doesn’t he come see me the way he does in my dreams? That is one of the places, I believe, there is a place for our spirits. In our minds and in our dreams.

When you talk about dreams; things you’ve done before but you haven’t – like Deja Vu – or something you’ve dreamt about. You are wondering, for example, “I have been here before, I’ve done this before, I have asked this before and it is the first time that you have ever done it for real. I believe that someone has given me that thought. Whether it’s a soul, a lost soul, an ancestor, a father, a grandmother, they have gone on and have given that thought. I am not saying out-of-body but that they are visitors that were in those places that give us those thoughts, that Déjà vu.

So I really want to see a ghost. I really want to see it to believe it. When I listen to the stories of my father and my mother and everyone else talking about ghosts and spirits, these stories you can’t dismiss them. You can’t dismiss the elders because then you are calling them a liar and saying that they are full of shit because in my language that is what you are saying. They are not. They raised you, they taught you, they gave you everything they could and told you stories of their life and maybe their story of a ghost.

There is actually one, she was actually dressed like a witch in Ahousaht. There are two different stories about this witch dressed in black. We call her a witch because she was dressed in black. She had a black hat on. There is no face. We know it’s a girl even though it has no face on it. My grandfather saw it.

Ahousaht at Low Tide. 2012

The first time I ever heard about this thing was when my grandfather saw it. There was a house fire at my mom and dad’s house and it burnt to the ground. My grandfather had been burnt inside and he went to my sister’s house. He had half his face burnt in the fire. The house burnt down when I was about sixteen years of age. What happened was that my grandfather was out on the deck – at my sisters – and he was looking down the hill. He said that he saw somebody then running away from that black hag, and my grandfather saw it yelling at them.

Another person experienced the same thing around the same time. They got so terrified that they jumped into the nearest house. They smashed a window and jumped in a bunk in the nearest house. That was probably about 30 years ago… quite a while ago.

My aunt talked about a thing too. She was reaching up into the attic once to grab an item she was going to sell, and a hand grabbed her wrist. She was fighting to get her hand out of there. It scared the bejesus out of her and she never did it again.

I also have a story of Jenny’s (sp?) Beach. There was an old lady that lived there and she lived there all by herself. They used to say that she used to talk to somebody and that somebody would carry wood and water for her. People witnessed the water and the wood come in there by itself so that she was taken care of. That was a long time ago my grandfather would talk about it.

Have you ever heard of stories about possession? Can a person become possessed by spirits in your culture?

Like I said before, my grandfather said we had a name for hell so my answer would be yes. I don’t think our people ever had possession before, though. Our culture was really strong before Europeans came.

One thing, people were not allowed to watch us during our cleansing whether we were in the ocean or up a mountain we never told anyone where our cleansing spot was. We never told them when we were going to go out and when we were going to come back. It was something that we did on our own; going up the mountain, finding our own pond or pool or going into the ocean in the morning in our own spot.

First Nations Ghosts

God’s Country. Near Ahousaht. 2012

We used to pray this way to get things right. Someone would pray to use the medicines to make him stronger, or to make him more powerful, or to conquer a whale, to kill a whale or a fur seal, or to do something that he wanted like being a warrior. These were the types of things he had to do to prepare himself. He had to fast for four days in order to do the stuff that he had to do when it comes to cleansing himself. In some cases you would see visions which would tell you something like what to do with your life, or how to do something, or give you songs in some cases or dances. All through fasting.

If somebody was watching you, one of the things we had to do was actually kill that person. This is because all of their bad stuff will be absorbed into us. You were talking about being possessed, possession. That is one of the things that I understand. Our culture tells us we should not have been there, that we should know better than to watch or to observe what that other person was doing to get things right.

Do people still fast?

I fast. It’s really hard not to eat for four days especially when we consider what we eat today. Back then it could have been easier because every day you had to go out for food but we usually had nothing. Back then we could smoke our fish but there was no refrigeration or anything.

I think if we don’t believe something our elders taught us now we are really missing something. It is important that we do not get off so easy. Otherwise you can become weak minded, because we are missing something in our life. Our teaching is Hishuk ish tsawalk, “everything is one.” It doesn’t just mean the resources we have it means the stuff we have inside of us too.

If we don’t deal with things like grief the right way it will leave a hole inside us and make us vulnerable. By dealing with things the right way, by having yatsu-yatsu and having the dance we deal with things the right way.

In the Nuu-chah-nulth culture are there such things as curses or people who can give you the evil eye?

They talk about black magic. Nobody likes to talk about them – I don’t know why – they are scared of them. One of the things we are told is that even a hair… My grandfather said to me, “You put your own hair away! You don’t trust anyone else! Every time you cut your hair you put the hair in the garbage and you tie it! You put your own hair away and you don’t trust anyone else!”

They will put a curse on you or hex you or whatever you want to call it. That’s the kind of thing my grandfather said to me in real life. I heard him saying this and I heard other people talk about it.

Like when you put your name on a container, like one on my boat that has James Swan on it. If somebody took something like that and they did something with it… well it had my name on it and it belonged to me and was mine. One of the things we are always taught is not to put your name on stuff you own. If somebody wants it bad enough they can take it.

That must have been difficult in the army?

(Laughs) Yeah! I have my name on everything!

Do you think anyone still believes in these things or practices them anymore?

Yeah, they do because they say that even some people in Ahousaht practice black magic or witchcraft or whatever you want to call it. Some people in our culture do.

All we are told is to pray if something bad happens. Pray for the people that you think are doing bad things. You never pray or wish them the same bad luck. You never do that because it will come back to you three times. So, if they do it to us you will see things happening to them really bad, and that is how you know it is them.

They pay a price for sending something off.

James Swan and Guy Louis Sr.

Artist and Chief James Uukwaqum Swan with Guy Louis Sr. at Tribal Canoe Journeys. 2012

More stories from Artist and Chief James UuKwaqum Swan next week regarding funerary rites, religion, and the mightiest of the mighty: the Thunderbird…

About Shanon Sinn

The Spirit of Vancouver Island. Nature Beings, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & Ancestor Spirits. The Earth is Sacred.

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