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…

Artist and Chief James Swan: on First Nations legendary creatures and animal spirits (Part 1/3)

True Reflections by James Swan

(True Reflections. James UuKwaqum Swan)

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.

Chief Shawn Atleo: an important man with a long list of accomplishments. 2012

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.

First Nations legendary creatures
Near Ahousaht. 2012

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.

Hishuk ish tsawalk. Everything is one.

James Swan
Artist and Chief James Uukwaqum Swan with Raven Headdress. 2004

More stories from Artist and Chief James UuKwaqum Swan next week regarding spirits (ghosts), the power of prayer, and the belief in black magic…



error: Content is protected !!