Artist and Chief James Swan: on funerary rites, putting spirits to rest and the thunderbird (Part 3/3)

(Safe Journey. James UuKwaqum Swan*)

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.

Ahousaht School Mural of Thunderbird. 2012

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.

Ahousaht Church. 2012

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)

Whale near Ahousaht. 2012

Closing thoughts

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

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