Candle Lake was reputed to be haunted long before white settlers arrived.
Candle Lake — 45 minutes Northeast of Prince Albert — is located in the Canadian Province of Saskatchewan. It’s more than just a lake, though. The Provincial Park is also a resort community, boasting a population of 700 people during the winter months, and up to 2000 people in the summer. The lake’s a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and tourists alike, making it an even busier place during the summer months than the resident population might suggest.
The Boreal Forest that Candle Lake is located in is home to a wide array of wildlife, including the wolf, bear, coyote, fox, lynx, cougar, fisher, deer, elk, moose, badgers, otters, and many others including birds such as owls, eagles, hawks, herons, loons and cranes. During the winter months, it’s not uncommon to be looking up at the Northern Lights while listening to the haunting howling of the wolves. In many ways, it truly is paradise.
This is a short First Nations ghost story taken from Franz Boas’ 1895 text, Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America, which was translated from German by Dietrich Bertz.
The city of Nanaimo – where I live – received its name from the Anglicized spelling of Snanaimuq (Snuneymuxw or Snuh-NAY-Moo), which is the name of the First Nations people whose traditional territory I live in.
The Origin of Fire
In the beginning, the ghosts (of the dead) owned fire.
The following is a short Nuu-Chah-Nulth legend from the 1895 German book ‘Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America’ by Franz Boas ~ Dietrich Bertz translation. What fascinated me the most about the Girl and the Ghosts tale was the similarities to many of the Celtic spirit-abduction stories:
Once upon a time there was an ill-tempered girl. When she was given food, she complained that it wasn’t good enough, and no one was able to satisfy her. One evening someone gave food to her parents and her, but she cried and wanted to have something better. When her parents had finished their meal and wanted to go to bed, she was still crying and didn’t want to go to bed. Her mother said, “Come to bed, my child! I cannot give you what you ask for.” Since she sat there obstinately, her parents finally went to bed by themselves and went to sleep.
After a while the woman woke up. She called her daughter, but received no answer, so she got up and looked for the girl, yet was unable to find her. Then she woke up her husband and asked him whether he had seen their daughter. He also did not know what had become of her, and all their searching was in vain.
Suddenly they heard the girl’s voice calling deep under the ground. “Oh, give me good food, only a very small piece!” Thereupon the father called the whole tribe together and they considered what to do to get the girl back.
They decided to dig after her. They dug ten deep holes, but were unable to reach her, so they gave up. When they had assembled for a council again, one of the men said, “The ghosts (of the dead) must have got her. You know, when a village is abandoned, the ghosts always come back and look at the houses. Let’s all move away! Two men shall hide, and when the ghosts come with the girl, they shall take her away with them.”
The people resolved to follow his advice. They loaded their canoes and set out. Two men hid on the roof-beam of a house. When it got dark the ghosts appeared. They lit a fire and sang and danced. The girl sat among them and the ghosts sang magic incantations in order to change her too, into a ghost, but these didn’t bring the desired effect. Before the men could rush at the girl, they were scented by the ghosts, who vanished into the ground with the girl.
So the two men went down to the river and washed themselves for four days. Then they returned to the house and hid again on the roof-beam. When it got dark, the ghosts came again to sing and to dance. This time they didn’t scent the men, who rushed upon the girl and seized her before the ghosts were able to pull her down into the depths with them.
This is the tale of the girl and the ghosts. If you are interested in more Vancouver Island ghost stories, check out my new book The Haunting of Vancouver Island.
James, you were talking about letting the spirit of a person go after they’ve died by practicing what you called “dealing with things the right way…”
In our culture, we have a song called the yatsu-yatsu (sp?) and it lets the spirits go. We can’t have bad thoughts about a person, even from a photograph, or we will hang onto them. So we sing the yatsu-yatsu and it lets the spirit go.
We will also have a memorial ceremony, a potlatch. It’s really tough for people when a loved one has passed – to let them go – because we always want to have that person close to us forever.
Even with my dad’s death. He is always with me, my father (James Swan Sr). Half of what he was is always with me. Same with my mother, I am half of what she is. So my father, or my mother, will never be gone. I look at my daughter and I say to her, “Make (Grandpa) James” and she goes like this (makes a face). Jessie will make a frown on her face and when you will see it, it’s just the way he would look. So he’s always going to be around. All of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they know who he is from his pictures, as well. His memory will always be around.
By putting pictures away when someone passes on we let their spirit go as well. When my dad passed away, all of the pictures of him we put away for one year after the memorial service. Usually, this is for four years, but our elders said only to do it for one year because all of our songs and dances were really popular back then and they wanted to have them back. They didn’t want them gone for four years, so we took them back one year after he passed away.
We had a memorial potlatch and took the pictures and songs back after we did the yatsu-yatsu. After all of the songs and dances were finished, we did ours and took them back that day. This was after the songs had been gone for one year. It was one year after my dad passed away.
In our belief, if something was really loved by a person we would also send that item with them when they died. We would take that special item and we would put it in a grave or in a cave with them. Nowadays, even if you went to our cemetery there are items there like somebody’s sewing machine. The sewing machine will be sitting on top of the grave of the person that loved that item they cherished so much. It is not very often that this happens any more, though.
So do people in your culture bury the deceased?
We do now, but I’m not going to be. I am going to be put up in a tree for one whole year waiting for my body to decay. I then want my bones put into a cave.
A cave? Is this the traditional place to be buried?
In caves, yes it is. The cave I want to be put in is in Manhousaht territory.
The old way.
Yes, the old way. Some people might say it won’t matter because I’ll be dead but I want it done this way. It’s all in my will.
James, you’ve been telling me about the spirits, and funerals, but I also wanted to ask you another unrelated question. I wanted to ask you whether your people have any stories about people coming from the stars or gods that live in the stars or anything like that?
Not that I’m aware of.
I’ve noticed that a lot of places in Ahousaht have paintings of the thunderbird on them. Can you tell me a bit about that story?
What we are told, from a long time ago, is that when you hear the thunder rolling out – when you first hear that thunder – it is actually rolling out to the ocean. It means that the thunderbird is actually going out to capture its prey; the whale.
Shortly after, you will hear it rolling back in, so if you listen very carefully you will hear the thunder roll, or rolling. It will roll out towards the ocean and it will come back in after it captures its prey. Every time you hear the thunder going out, that is the thunderbird that is going out hunting.
(I found out later that according to Nuu-chah-nulth lore, the thunderbird sometimes carries the sea serpent with him out to sea, and it is he who creates the lightning in the sky. Lightning is not very common off of the coast of Vancouver Island)
One of the things that we’re told is that there was this man that followed the thunderbird. He went over four mountains following the thunderbird. He saw the thunderbird going into a cave. The man followed it into the cave. The man then saw another man coming out of the chest of the thunderbird. So that is one of the reasons why you will see a man’s face on the thunderbird’s chest in our First Nation art.
So the man, is that the spirit of the thunderbird or a separate being?
I don’t know what it could be. It could be anything from the first visions and sightings of airplanes or it could be something else. When some people talk about UFOs that’s something that somebody actually saw. That is where that legend or tale came from in regards to that man coming out of the chest.
Even when I think about it, I think about a hanger. I think about an airplane when they say he got out of the chest of a bird. I think of an airplane with wings. That is kind of what I think of when I hear that story.
A long time ago our people went down to Victoria. They got into a canoe and went that way before we had motorboats and everything else. This was in the 1800s or late 1700s when Victoria was just being made. They went down there and they got scared because they heard this loud whistle. They found out later that it was from the train. So that’s where that whistle came from.
Our people heard that whistle for the first time and it spooked them. They came back. They never made it all of the way to Victoria.
A lot of people in Ahousaht are Christian, or Catholic. There used to be two churches but your mom Mrs. Rosie Swan says that one burned down and now there is only one. Would you say that most people are now mixing the old beliefs with Christian traditions?
I think that there are a lot more coming back to the First Nation’s way. We don’t have a priest that stays in Ahousaht , but we have one that comes to Ahousaht. A lot of the old-timers, especially the ones who had it really rough in the residential schools had it shoved down their throat – Christianity and religion that is. My mom talks about it.
My mom prays to god and Jesus and I don’t disrespect her for that because I’m 100% First Nations. I pray to Nas (sp?), I pray to the creator. I don’t have any disrespect for Jesus or for god. I don’t have any disrespect for Allah or for any other religion or belief that anyone else has. I’m not saying it’s wrong.
What I believe in, in my culture, I practice to the best of my ability. That is what I have.
Thank you James for answering all of my questions, for showing me Ahousaht and your home, and for introducing me to your mom Mrs. Rosie Swan and your family. It truly was an amazing experience. Thank you.
You’re welcome! Now I need a coke! You made me talk for way too long! (laughs)
James’ method of response to these questions was often layered and indirect. Each answer, however, would hold a great deal of information. When I first asked James Swan some of these questions, for example, he would sometimes seem to change the subject completely. He would then wrap around the topic slowly, before eventually responding to the question directly.
When I asked about Ahousaht ghost stories, James first explained his own scepticism – delicately – but seemed to be honor-bound by tradition to believe in the stories of the elders. Following this introduction and explanation, James then went on to tell me the original stories to the best of his recollection.
James would also usually include the original teller of the tale’s name. This method of storytelling allows the teller of the original story to be sourced. The story can then be linked to another person living or dead. It seems like a small thing, but it is this system of information-sharing that held many communities together for thousands of years. It’s easy to forget that reading and writing hasn’t existed on the west coast for very long. The Nuu-chah-nulth, like the Celts, had a strong surviving oral tradition instead.
As I wrote out these responses – from the recordings – I would sometimes suddenly realize that there were many things James had said that I hadn’t picked up on the first time. When talking about black magic, for example, he had a certain compassionate contempt for those who practiced this form of sorcery. Only later did I realize that James had listed out his own personal items (with his name on it) that a dark practitioner could steal to put a curse him, where those items could be found (usually unsecured), and how little he cared if they even tried to put a curse on him in the first place. I say “compassionate contempt” because contempt almost doesn’t suit the philosophical stance that James seemed to be taking. He had a genuine pity for these dark practitioners first and foremost. He knew that they would receive three times the negativity that they had directed at him. Much of the specific wording was edited out including where to find these personal items, but I included his response about the army labels to demonstrate his overall lack of concern, or perhaps his unshakeable faith.
There were a lot of topics we discussed that I couldn’t include due to the length of this post and the subject matter deviating too far from the original focus of the blog. Most fascinating to me were the conversations with Mrs. Rosie Swan and James regarding circle sentencing and criminals being sent to live in quasi-isolation on islands. We were also able to discuss the reasons for James joining the army, the return of the people to Ahousaht, the history of Manhousaht and the role of men in their culture. For good or for bad, the Nuu-chah-nulth truly are a male dominated society.
There has been a lot of suffering inflicted upon the people of Ahousaht and other First Nation’s people by agents of government in the not so distant past. Additionally, some Ahousaht families are said to be able to trace genetic differences in their family (like curly hair) to rapes committed by sailors aboard specifically named well-known historical vessels. The often-stated intentional spread of infectious diseases by early settlers is also well known… even outside of First Nation communities. There has also been a lot of publicity in recent years regarding the treatment of First Nation children in Catholic-run residential schools. Men in the name of religion, not so long ago, committed these atrocities on First Nations schoolchildren ranging from torture to rape. From the back of a boat, one of James’ aunts pointed out to me where the residential school was that they had all been forced to attend. My only response – unfortunately – on such short notice was, “I hear it was bad there?” She looked me directly in the eyes and silently nodded yes. There was no judgment there, but I felt guilty just the same.
According to James, the passing of time “has really brought a lot of healing” back to the people of Ahousaht. A return to the old ways seems to be helping a great deal as well. Problems like addiction or bootlegging become community issues to be dealt with by the elders instead of an excuse to cast members out of society forever. The Nuu-chah-nulth art, history, dancing, and storytelling must also give a whole new generation something to be incredibly proud of. At least they should be.
I feel honored that James trusted me enough to share these stories. With a new age moving in, much of the old lore might be forgotten or lost. James said that his mom, for example, is the last one in his family who remembers how to speak their language. This is a sad thing, for this is what the residential schools intended on doing in the first place. Children were beaten for speaking their own language. The ultimate goal, of course, was assimilation.
100 years ago a few writers went around the British Isles and asked other Celtic people about their beliefs while they shared their own. These same families changed over time, became modernized, and the world moved on. Fortunately, these early writers provided a snapshot into the belief and lives of the Celtic people of those times before most of it was lost. Hopefully, in this modern age of information, a greater amount of these stories will be written down and passed on from the Nuu-chah-nulth nation than those of other cultures like the Celtic Irish, for example. There seems to be many people committed to doing such a thing and in keeping the old ways alive. As we bear witness to this, I am sometimes left with a sort of longing, which seems to be wondering what my ancestors have long since forgotten?
The similarities between the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Celts is sometimes eerily blatant. There are clearly cultural differences, true, but the respect for the natural world becomes a commonality between the two cultures that entirely prevails. It would seem that when people have to grow, gather, or hunt their own food that they are prepared to be more thankful – in general – and are able to find a greater meaning from the natural world around them. When a person relies on the life of a fish from the sea – instead of a breaded piece of flesh from a box – it comes with a certain sense of understanding, respect and gratitude. Idealistically, the animal or tree is thanked for its sacrifice and we humans can in turn remain humble.
I fully intend on incorporating some of the practices James described into my own life. Since I’ve returned from the trip, I’ve been saving the bones from the salmon we eat. I intend on casting them back into the ocean while giving thanks for the fish’s sacrifice. I like the idea of respecting my food in this way. It’s something I don’t focus on nearly enough.
The Nuu-chah-nulth teaching I take from this experience is simple, it’s environmental, and it’s profound. The law applies to all things from the spider to the wolf, from the darkest storm to the brightest day, from the twisted ancient tree to the brightest colored songbird. The teaching is Hishuk ish tsawalk, and it means:
Everything is one.
(Father James Swan Sr. and Grandfather Luke Swan*)
(Jessie and James Swan*)
* These images are not the author’s and are used only with permission from James Swan
(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.
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.
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.
Ahousaht is located on Flores Island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The community is only accessible by boat or air, but as anyone who has ever been there can tell you, it’s well worth the journey. With mountains jutting out of the sea, foggy mists, monstrous trees, majestic whales and proud circling eagles, Ahousaht is truly nestled in god’s country. With an oral tradition believed to stretch back thousands of years, some of the Nuu-chah-nulth people (previously Nootka) remember a time when their ancestors lived in harmony with nature and with the spirit world. They also speak of an age when humans were able to harness great powers that lived inside their bodies and existed within their minds.
I first met James UuKwaqum Swan several years ago. We were actually in the army together and it was there where we became friends. Still, it was with a certain degree of hesitancy that I approached James with a request to interview him for this post. I did not want to impinge on our friendship. Despite being a hereditary chief and an amazing artist, James had humbled himself to the position of Private in the Canadian Forces infantry. Truly, we had slept in the mud and had eaten dirt together. We had broken bread and had become good friends. Perhaps, it was our shared reverence for nature that had brought us this close, or the fact that we were both a lot older than your average 20-year-old infantry soldier? Regardless, by the time we prepared to leave for Afghanistan we had become quite close.
Unfortunately, in the infantry injuries are usually inevitable. Sometimes, the timing of that injury can be completely life altering. When James suffered a back injury – which he didn’t recover from quickly enough – he was ordered off tour and back home to B.C. He could barely stand, but had met with every officer who would listen and had pleaded to go on tour instead of home. Despite his tenacity, the request was ultimately denied.
It has never been spoken aloud to me, but I sense that there was a silent wave of relief from James’ relatives and the elders at this news. Despite now being a Corporal in the military at the time, James’ other role, as hereditary chief of Manhousaht, made him an important man. I think many people were relieved that he wouldn’t be going to Afghanistan where soldiers were still dying. James, on the other hand, was more than a little disappointed after all that training. In fact, it was the most upset I’ve ever seen him.
We kept in touch, but a lot happened over the next few years such as my return and battle with cancer. We lived in separate cities but tried to watch out for one another as best we could. Being sick, I was quite self-absorbed to be honest. James was the one who kept in touch with me and kept asking if he could come to Vancouver or do anything at all to help. He was a true friend during a very difficult time. James, during this period, continued to raise a family, create art, work, volunteer, parade as a military reservist (still by choice not an officer) and to honour his ancestors in the role of hereditary chief of Manhousaht. The title of chief is a role he takes quite seriously.
According to James, Manhousaht had actually joined Ahousaht at a time of great need in order to avoid an “extinct” classification from the government. As a part of the Ahousaht Nation, the lineage of the Swans is one of artistic vision and respect for the old ways. It was this other life of James’ that I had always wanted to ask more about. His heritage fascinated me. Anything I had ever read on the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) was awe-inspiring. Some had called them “the Vikings of the Pacific.” They were known for their intricate art, fishing abilities, navigational skills, fierceness in battle, and long-range coastal raids. Today, their oral traditions have somehow survived, their art is recognized around the world, and they have learned in many ways how to exist in a new age using the old Nuu-chah-nulth ways of living.
When I first asked James if I could interview him he responded, “I always need a fishing partner.” As fishing was another shared passion, I quickly jumped at this opportunity. After all, being from Northern Saskatchewan I’d never even fished in the ocean before! What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that I would be welcomed into his mother Mrs. Rosie Swan’s home on the Ahousaht reserve, that she would also tell me about their culture, that I would meet many of his relatives and friends, that I would be fortunate enough to witness a great ceremony to honour Chief Shawn Atleo, that I would get to go to his feast, that I would have the fishing trip of a lifetime, and that I would be told some of the old stories that I had asked about in the first place. In short, I was humbled that James had trusted me enough to let me into his private world. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I could write a book based on how much I learned over the course of this one weekend, but it’s James’ voice that can tell these stories much better than I ever could, and this is why I interviewed him in the first place.
During our conversations, James often referenced his grandfather’s (Luke Francis Swan) 250 reel-to-reel tapes that were filled with the old stories. Dave Ellis, who had initially recorded them, had then written a book titled the Teachings in the Tides which is credited to both men. While we spoke, James also often recounted his mother Mrs. Rosie Swan’s words and spoke of the cultural spirit of the Ahousaht Nation in general.
I feel honored to be able to share some of these stories over the next three posts. In this first one, James will speak of First Nations legendary creatures and explain his understanding regarding the spirits of animals. This week will be shorter, due to this introduction. The following post – next week – will be in regards to spirits (ghosts), prayers and the belief in black magic. The third and final post in this series will be on the thunderbird (and how some people have contemplated the possibility of it being a sort of unknown aircraft). Finally, I will end with some closing thoughts. As much as possible, I will share the exact words used by my friend, Artist and Chief James UuKwaqum Swan, during these conversations:
James, there’s been a lot of speculation about the possible existence of Sasquatch or Bigfoot on Vancouver Island. Do your people believe that this creature could possibly exist?
The short answer: yes (laughs). My grandfather used to talk about a man or creature that had one big foot and one regular foot. He lived at a hunting place up the Watta Creek past the big boulder. We never went past there after the footprints were found. We left it alone. We never bothered it and we gave it space. After we stopped going we never saw it or heard of it anymore. My grandfather – on the old tapes – says that it was actually pretty scary. That is the only story I know of a Bigfoot or Sasquatch.
Do people believe in sea serpents or lake monsters, anything like that?
We believe in them, that’s why we draw them, that is why they’re in our art. One man (says his name) was fishing alone on a herring skiff when he saw one.
When you see something that’s not normal you are actually not supposed to talk about it for 4 years. When a creature or sea serpent or anything shows itself to you, you are supposed to ask why it showed itself to you, because a lot of the things we see out of the normal are something special. That person needs to go find it. That person needs to go fast (not eat), to go up to the mountains, to pray to the creator and find out why that creature, that animal appeared to that one individual or many.
(Says his name again) was fishing alone and he saw a sea serpent. He said that it was so big it could have taken out his herring skiff no problem! He did not talk about it for four years after.
Do animals have spirits? You have told me before that in your culture you thank the animal when you kill it, much like other First Nations people?
We are taught that you pray for an animal when you kill it. Any time you take a deer or elk or anything you thank it for its life, even a tree.
We believe because it is alive there is something existing within it so we thank them, we will actually say a prayer and it will give us good luck. When part of the tree is used to catch sea urchins for example. In modern times when you are getting a pole for your trawler it will give you good luck and help you catch fish if you ask it.
My mom (Mrs. Rosie Swan) will also pray that I catch fish, she is my “backer” if you will, that the fishing will be good. One man stopped being a “highliner” (a person who catches a lot of fish) when his grandmother passed away. It might be psychological but when you hear my mom talking about the creator this is what she means.
When we thank the salmon we don’t throw away their bones in the garbage we throw it back in the ocean. It doesn’t matter where we are we throw it back in the ocean. But we use most of it. When we put it back in the water that’s when we thank the fish so that more fish will come back.
My mom was once very upset with me because I shot a deer and put it in my vehicle and moved it before I cleaned it. It was supposed to be cleaned right there, where it had been killed. My mom said that you bring the water you are going to use after to wash your hands… you don’t move it!
My mom is very strict. She is adamant about our teachings. My mom is strong. She’s culturally strong.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the wolf hunt taking place in some of the American states this year? In Wisconsin for example, the wolf was taken off of the threatened list this year. The DNR has now declared that ¼ of the 800 wolves need to be killed by sport hunters. What are your feelings about this?
There is a saying in my culture Hishuk ish tsawalk. It means that everything is one. If you interfere with one thing, you will interfere with everything else.
My dad (James Francis Swan Sr.) said that we couldn’t have caught the fish they used to catch before with the fishing line we use today. They were too big. They would break the line today. That’s how big they were.