Continuum

Adam Shewish, the late hereditary Tyee Ha’wilth, the hereditary chief of the Tseshaht, and I worked quite closely together for a number of years. I was working with him, his wife, Margaret Shewish, and his aunt, Auntie Mable Taylor. I was telling them a story that I had read. It was about a 100-year-old story being recorded, 100 years ago. It essentially told the story of a young man, his wife and his brother, who were fishing in the Somass River. They went up above the rapids that we now call Papermill Dam and they fished, filled their canoe and came back down to go back to the village. In the rapids, unfortunately, the fully laden canoe flipped and the three adults and baby were sucked under by the current. The two men came up downstream and started looking for the woman, the wife of one of the men. She didn’t come up so they were running up and down the banks of the river trying to find her–couldn’t, so both the woman and the infant child that she was clutching to her, presumably, drowned. So they had to go back to the village and give the bad news. Meanwhile the mother, underwater, clutching the infant, had found an opening in the bank. She went into it and got above the water so she could breathe. The story is very long–she goes along this tunnel for some time until she comes up. In the story it’s suggested that it’s about a month before she comes up at the other end, in a place called the Schumacher Bay in the Somass River delta. She sees out there, in the bay, her husband and brother-in-law. Fortuitously are there in Schumacher Bay, hunting hair seal. Anyway, she hails them and they go back to the village, great rejoicing. So I tell them the story because in it there’s a bunch of place names. I want to get to know if those are accurate place names and they would know and be able to tell me. So I finish the story and I say, “So, umm, do you know that story?” There’s dead silence around the table. And I’m waiting and waiting, and nothing is said. I thought, Ugh, I’ve done something wrong, ’cause this was very early in my work. I’ve done something wrong. I’ve said something. I’ve stepped where I shouldn’t step. Maybe five, six or seven seconds went by and it seemed like five or six minutes. I said again, “So, do you know this story?” I’m sweating. Finally, Margaret Shewish said, “Yes. Yes, we know that story.” And again, quite a long pause. Urgh, I’ve done something wrong ’cause I’m very new at this. Then she said, “Yes,” again, “We know the story.” She turned to Auntie Mable, who was older, she was probably in her late 70s at that point, and she said, “Auntie Mable is the daughter of the infant in the story.” You know the stereotypical story about the hair going up at the back of your head? That’s the one and only time in my life that actually happened to me and I’m sure my mouth dropped. At that moment, no matter how much work I had done, although it was the early stages of my career, I totally understood in this personal experience that in front of me there was this venerable lady, honoured by her tribal group and other First Nations, that had her feet, you know, one foot in the past and one foot in the present. One foot in the oral tradition past, that some people might say mythological but it’s wrong. They are stories. They are events. And the present. That’s what so many people don’t understand–unfortunately, government officials, as well as the late public. That you don’t have two entities, the past with First Nations and the present. It’s a continuum. It just so struck me that in front of me I had this precious lady that’s encompassed both realities. It was one of the most moving moments of my life.