The W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, as part of the work to reinstate W̱SÁNEĆ Natural Laws, is working with Elders to capture W̱SÁNEĆ Creation stories.
Once captured, these stories are then transcribed and translated into English with two goals.
The first goal is to create a comprehensive repository of culture, language, history and law for future generations. The second goal is to articulate and apply the Natural Laws in policies made throughout W̱SÁNEĆ territory.
This work of compiling W̱SÁNEĆ Natural Laws began 40 years ago through the hard work of W̱SÁNEĆ Elders. To learn more about this work, the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council interviewed respected Elder, Tribal School teacher, and SENĆOŦEN expert, J,SIṈTEN (John Elliott) on his personal involvement with this project.
In the interview, Elliott shares the history and importance of the Natural Laws as well as four stories of how things came to be:
Background on the Natural Laws
Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about the Natural Laws?
W̱SÁNEĆ Natural Laws as told by J,SIṈTEN
The Natural Laws were originally given to our ancestors and forefathers by XÁLS (the Creator) when he walked on the land. He gave us our natural ways of living on our land. Our families have been here for thousands of years. Our parents were fluent in SENĆOŦEN.
I’ve been working on this project with my sister, ȻOSINIYE (Linda Elliott), my cousin SELILYE (Belinda Claxton), my nephew Kevin Paul, Lou Claxton and also Eric Pelkey who is working on parks and such things like that. I’ve been working on this for 41 years and my sister has been working on this for 42 years.
We have been working with 18 fluent SENĆOŦEN speakers, developing a curriculum for the tribal school. Part of this work includes the publications of Reef Net Technology, The Saltwater People, and the Calendar of the Moons. Tim Montler came up from Texas University to work with us on capturing the stories and the language.
We’ve been delving into stories about the origins of our people as far back as we can remember. We worked with those 18 fluent speakers until they were all gone. Lou Claxton is the only elder left.
We were recording the stories on cassette tapes and my father developed the writing system for W̱SÁNEĆ people.
Our stories contain the history of how things came to be. They tell of our long presence on this land.
There are some things in the language, sacred words we use to communicate with the Natural World, that we can’t share.
What we can share are the stories that contain the history of how things came to be. They tell of our long presence on this land.
(Shown above Fulford Harbour Sunset)
How The Mountains Were Created:
The Creator paddled over to the east side of the Tsawout village and found some shiny black stones on the beach. He threw one into the water and nothing happened. He threw the second stone into the water and a mountain grew out of the stone.
He filled his basket with more shiny black stones and went to the top of this mountain. And, then people followed him up to that mountain and there’s a rock face cliff on the mountain where they went. Once there, he threw more shiny stones around him and that’s how the other mountains came to be.
And, then when he was finished with that work, and then he grabbed some of our people, one by one, our ancestors, and he threw them out into the straits.
And, as he tossed them out into the straits he said “QENT E TŦEN SĆÁLEĆE, QENT E TŦEN SĆÁLEĆE, QENT E TŦEN SĆÁLEĆE, QENT E TŦEN SĆÁLEĆE”: “Look after your relatives, look after your relatives, look after your relatives.” And, as he threw them out into the straits, and as they landed into the straits, and then they became those islands that are still there today. What they call the Gulf and San Juan Islands.
Those were our original ancestors that got changed by the Creator.
These directions to look after our relatives are our laws. These are the kinds of things we speak about with respect to the Natural Laws. For us, a belief and a law are the same.
The names we have for different parts of the natural world are in relative terms. For instance, the SENĆOŦEN word for Salmon is older cousin, while the SENĆOŦEN word for deer is grandson. The word for Island means “Relative of The Deep.” Our word for Rock, Boulder and Mountain means “My gift”. Our word for Earth means “Wish for the People.”
The stories of how things came to be contain teachings from The Creator. These are our natural laws.
How The Deer Came To Be:
The story of how deer came to be takes place at what is now known as Fulford Harbour. There used to be a large village there.
There was a young man who didn’t want to be changed from a person. He said, “If the Creator comes around here, I’ll shoot him with this arrow and slice him with this knife,” which was made of a mussel shell.
This young man had been sent to be raised by his Grandparents so he could learn the values and how to live.
He didn’t listen to his Grandparents though. Whatever he was taught, he would say, “I already know that” just like teenagers today who have their own mind and want to do things their own way.
The Creator heard this and paddled over to Fulford Harbour in his canoe. The Creator called the young man’s name and asked “What are you working on today?” to which the young man replied, “I’m making these arrow points, so when The Creator comes, I’m going to kill him.”
The Creator said “Give it to me right now,” and it wasn’t in a gentle way. He suspended the two arrows in the air in front of the young man’s face and that’s when the young man realized who he was talking to because not everyone can do that.
The Creator said “It’s wrong to kill anything, just for the sake of killing. Now, you will be the hunted one. I will give you big ears so you can listen.” With that, the Creator shoved the arrows down the young man and they became Deer legs. After the change, the Deer tried to run away, but the Creator said, “Wait”, and he called him back and gave him horns.
So when we speak of deer, we are reminded of the law: to listen to the teachings regarding killing. This story and teaching give us the laws that tell us how to behave when we go hunting for food.
Before we go out, we prepare. We fast and pray. You wash yourself in a cold stream with certain plants. You sacrifice yourself a bit, because you’re going to eat him (Grandson) today.
We say a prayer “Grandson, cross my path today, take pity on us so we can feed ourselves and our families.” And the prayer works, I’ve used it myself and it works.
That’s a Natural Law and how we should live and interact with the animals. We have to respect them. It’s not a sport. It’s for survival. When our people kill the deer we hold up the blood and thank The Creator. Then we take the entrails and find a place that a deer would like to sleep, with it’s back along a tree, for example, and we bury the innards there.
We use all of the deer: the meat to eat, we make clothing and rattles, and whatever is not used it is to be buried – not left laying around.
There are so many stories, I’ll tell you another one about ĆIYE.
(shown above Stellar’s Jay, photo by Photo Liron Gertsman)
How the Steller’s Jay Came To Be
ĆIYE was a hardworking lady. One day she was filling her basket with blueberries. ĆIYE was picking so much her baskets were getting heavy and her hands were getting blue. She was planning on making cakes with the berries, where you squash them and put them out in the sun so you can eat them later. ĆIYE was so grateful for the abundance of blueberries, she prayed in thanks.
The Creator then appeared as a human. He said to her, “Hard work is good. Ambition is good. Gratitude is good. Thinking of your future is good. I want you to be remembered, so I will make you the colour of your hands.” Then The Creator turned ĆIYE into a Steller’s Jay. To this day she still says her name “ĆIYE! ĆIYE!”
This story and the others teach us the way of living with the Natural World. These are still our relatives. These are our stories, our way of life.
This is what was interrupted. Our people lived in peace and harmony with nature, in respect for the land. We even have stories of the wind. We are sharing them so people know them. We have sacred names so W̱SÁNEĆ people can interact with nature.
We were born into these beliefs, the stories of the sacred times when things could be changed. The Creator hasn’t gone away just because the Europeans live here too. What we want is for people to understand that our relationship with the Natural World is not monetary, it’s sacred. We want people to respect that.
When People Forgot To Follow The Natural Laws
When people forgot to follow the Natural Laws, The Creator brought a flood to the whole world. Our people lived through it and experienced it and knew it was coming. We prepared a long Cedar rope. We were told to gather all our possessions and put them in canoes. The tide started rising and it kept rising all the way to the top of LÁU,WELNEW mountain.
Our people went in our canoes, we tied the long Cedar rope to an Arbutus Tree at the top of the Mountain, and we tied our canoes together, side by side. The tide kept rising and the mountain went underwater. We were afraid, we were praying to survive. Then finally a raven landed on the head of a canoe. At that time our canoes had wolf heads on the front. The raven had a stick in its beak and someone said, “I think he’s trying to tell us something.” We could see a mountain top emerge in the distance. The water was going down. It kept going down and so we untied the rope and thanked the tree, and to this day we don’t burn Arbutus trees in our fires. We gathered that long rope and gave our thanks for surviving.
There was a lightning bolt that went into a cave, which had a message for an elder: “You won’t be punished by flood again. Next time it’s fire.” This is why we are so determined. This is why we are called the people of the emerging land. This happened 10,000 years ago or more.
I believe the BC Fires are just the beginning. I see what’s happening in Australia and that’s what I think of, because the people have forgotten how to live on the land.
Our original law says what you do in life will return to you. If you do good when you’re young it will come back to you when you’re old. If you do wrong, it comes back to you or your loved ones.
I believe this virus is a notice. If things don’t change we’re going to see the fire come.”
J,SIṈTEN (John Elliott) has been instrumental in maintaining and capturing both Natural Laws and SENĆOŦEN. The work done by J,SIṈTEN and many Elders has resulted in a SENĆOŦEN curriculum for the Tribal School, the capture of countless Creation Stories, and the recently released SENĆOŦEN dictionary.