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…



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