Legends of Vancouver
04 The Lost Salmon-Run
Looking North from sea wall
Ship "Empress of Canada" passing through First Narrows of Burrard InletLooking NW photo dated 1922
View from sea wall
Looking North from sea wall
Continue walking past Siwash Rock along the sea-wall, and you will come along the The Lion's Gate bridge. The bridge spans, what has come to be known as the The First Narrows, traditionally a place where First Nations people fish. It was in Stanley Park, on the muddy banks of the First Narrows, that Pauline Johnson met her indigenous friend, a grandmother and fisher-woman . Her friend told her of the imminent birth of a new grand daughter and explained to Johnson why female children are so valued by her people. In Pauline Johnson's book you can read her story of The Lost Salmon-run: the legend tells of the story of the power of female children to the survival and the prosperity of the tribe.
The Lost Salmon-run
Great had been the "run," and the sockeye season was almost over. For that reason I wondered many times why my old friend, the klootchman, had failed to make one of the fishing fleet. She was an indefatigable work-woman, rivalling her husband as an expert catcher, and all the year through she talked of little else but the coming run. But this especial season she had not appeared amongst her fellow-kind. The fleet and the canneries knew nothing of her, and when I enquired of her tribes-people they would reply without explanation, "She not here this year."
But one russet September afternoon I found her. I had idled down the trail from the swans' basin in Stanley Park to the rim that skirts the Narrows, and I saw her graceful, high-bowed canoe heading for the beach that is the favourite landing-place of the "tillicums" from the Mission. Her canoe looked like a dream-craft, for the water was very still, and everywhere a blue film hung like a fragrant veil, for the peat on Lulu Island had been smouldering for days and its pungent odours and blue-grey haze made a dream-world of sea and shore and sky.
I hurried up-shore, hailing her in the Chinook, and as she caught my voice she lifted her paddle directly above her head in the Indian signal of greeting.
As she beached, I greeted her with extended eager hands to assist her ashore, for the klootchman is getting to be an old woman; albeit she paddles against tide-water like a boy in his teens.
"No," she said, as I begged her to come ashore. "I will wait–me. I just come to fetch Maarda; she been city; she soon come–now." But she left her "working" attitude and curled like a school-girl in the bow of the canoe, her elbows resting on her paddle which she had flung across the gunwales.
"I have missed you, klootchman; you have not been to see me for three moons, and you have not fished or been at the canneries," I remarked.
"No," she said. "I stay home this year." Then, leaning towards me with grave import in her manner, her eyes, her voice, she added, "I have a grandchild, born first week July, so–I stay."
So this explained her absence. I, of course, offered congratulations and enquired all about the great event, for this was her first grandchild, and the little person was of importance.
"And are you going to make a fisherman of him?" I asked.
"No, no, not boy-child, it is girl-child," she answered with some indescribable trick of expression that led me to know she preferred it so.
"You are pleased it is a girl?" I questioned in surprise.
"Very pleased," she replied emphatically. "Very good luck to have girl for first grandchild. Our tribe not like yours; we want girl-children first; we not always wish boy-child born just for fight. Your people, they care only for war-path; our tribe more peaceful. Very good sign first grandchild to be girl. I tell you why: girl-child may be some time mother herself; very grand thing to be mother."
I felt I had caught the secret of her meaning. She was rejoicing that this little one should some time become one of the mothers of her race. We chatted over it a little longer and she gave me several playful "digs" about my own tribe thinking so much less of motherhood than hers, and so much more of battle and bloodshed. Then we drifted into talk of the sockeye and of the hyiu chickimin the Indians would get.
"Yes, hyiu chickimin," she repeated with a sigh of satisfaction. "Always; and hyiu muck-a-muck when big salmon run. No more ever come that bad year when not any fish."
"When was that?" I asked.
"Before you born, or I, or"–pointing across the park to the distant city of Vancouver that breathed its wealth and beauty across the September afternoon– "before that place born, before white man came here–oh! long before."
Dear old klootchman! I knew by the dusk in her eyes that she was back in her Land of Legends, and that soon I would be the richer in my hoard of Indian lore. She sat, still leaning on her paddle; her eyes, half closed, rested on the distant outline of the blurred heights across the Inlet. I shall not further attempt her broken English, for this is but the shadow of her story, and without her unique personality the legend is as a flower that lacks both colour and fragrance. She called it "The Lost Salmon-run."
"The wife of the Great Tyee was but a wisp of a girl, but all the world was young in those days; even the Fraser River was young and small, not the mighty water it is to-day; but the pink salmon crowded its throat just as they do now, and the tillicums caught and salted and smoked the fish just as they have done this year, just as they will always do. But it was yet winter, and the rains were slanting and the fogs drifting, when the wife of the Great Tyee stood before him and said:
"'Before the salmon-run I shall give to you a great gift. Will you honour me most if it is the gift of a boy-child or a girl-child?' The Great Tyee loved the woman. He was stern with his people, hard with his tribe; he ruled his council-fires with a will of stone. His medicine-men said he had no human heart in his body; his warriors said he had no human blood in his veins. But he clasped this woman's hands, and his eyes, his lips, his voice, were gentle as her own, as he replied:
"'Give to me a girl-child–a little girl-child–that she may grow to be like you, and, in her turn, give to her husband children.'
"But when the tribes-people heard of his choice they arose in great anger. They surrounded him in a deep, indignant circle. 'You are a slave to the woman,' they declared, 'and now you desire to make yourself a slave to a woman-baby. We want an heir–a man-child to be our Great Tyee in years to come. When you are old and weary of tribal affairs, when you sit wrapped in your blanket in the hot summer sunshine, because your blood is old and thin, what can a girl-child do, to help either you or us? Who, then, will be our Great Tyee?'
"He stood in the centre of the menacing circle, his arms folded, his chin raised, his eyes hard as flint. His voice, cold as stone, replied:
"'Perhaps she will give you such a man-child, and, if so, the child is yours; he will belong to you, not to me; he will become the possession of the people. But if the child is a girl she will belong to me–she will be mine. You cannot take her from me as you took me from my mother's side and forced me to forget my aged father in my service to the tribe; she will belong to me, will be the mother of my grandchildren, and her husband will be my son.'
"'You do not care for the good of your tribe. You care only for your own wishes and desires,' they rebelled. 'Suppose the salmon-run is small, we will have no food; suppose there is no man-child, we will have no Great Tyee to show us how to get food from other tribes, and we shall starve.'
"'Your hearts are black and bloodless,' thundered the Great Tyee, turning upon them fiercely, 'and your eyes are blinded. Do you wish the tribe to forget how great is the importance of a child that will some day be a mother herself, and give to your children and grandchildren a Great Tyee? Are the people to live, to thrive, to increase, to become more powerful with no mother-women to bear future sons and daughters? Your minds are dead, your brains are chilled. Still, even in your ignorance, you are my people: you and your wishes must be considered. I call together the great medicine-men, the men of witchcraft, the men of magic. They shall decide the laws which will follow the bearing of either boy or girl-child. What say you, oh! mighty men?'
"Messengers were then sent up and down the coast, sent far up the Fraser River, and to the valley lands inland for many leagues, gathering as they jour- neyed, all the men of magic that could be found. Never were so many medicine-men in council before. They built fires and danced and chanted for many days. They spoke with the gods of the mountains, with the gods of the sea; then 'the power' of decision came to them. They were inspired with a choice to lay before the tribes-people, and the most ancient medicine-man in all the coast region arose and spoke their resolution:
"'The people of the tribe cannot be allowed to have all things. They want a boy-child and they want a great salmon-run also. They cannot have both. The Sagalie Tyee has revealed to us, the great men of magic, that both these things will make the people arrogant and selfish. They must choose between the two.'
"'Choose, oh! you ignorant tribespeople,' commanded the Great Tyee. 'The wise men of our coast have said that the girl-child who will some day bear children of her own will also bring abundance of salmon at her birth; but the boy-child brings to you but himself.'
"'Let the salmon go,' shouted the people, 'but give us a future Great Tyee. Give us the boy-child.'
"And when the child was born it was a boy.
"'Evil will fall upon you,' wailed the Great Tyee. 'You have despised a mother-woman. You will suffer evil and starvation and hunger and poverty, oh! foolish tribes-people. Did you not know how great a girl-child is?'
"That spring, people from a score of tribes came up to the Fraser for the salmon-run. They came great distances–from the mountains, the lakes, the far-off dry lands, but not one fish entered the vast rivers of the Pacific Coast. The people had made their choice. They had forgotten the honour that a mother-child would have brought them. They were bereft of their food. They were stricken with poverty. Through the long winter that followed they endured hunger and starvation. Since then our tribe has always welcomed girl-children–we want no more lost runs."
The klootchman lifted her arms from her paddle as she concluded; her eyes left the irregular outline of the violet mountains. She had come back to this year of grace–her Legend Land had vanished.
"So," she added, "you see now, maybe, why I am glad my grandchild is girl; it means big salmon-run next year."
"It is a beautiful story, klootchman," I said, "and I feel a cruel delight that your men of magic punished the people for their ill choice."
"That because you girl-child yourself," she laughed.
There was the slightest whisper of a step behind me. I turned to find Maarda almost at my elbow. The rising tide was unbeaching the canoe, and as Maarda stepped in and the klootchman slipped astern, it drifted afloat.
"Kla-how-ya," nodded the klootchman as she dipped her paddle-blade in exquisite silence.
"Kla-how-ya," smiled Maarda.
"Kla-how-ya, tillicums," I replied, and watched for many moments as they slipped away into the blurred distance, until the canoe merged into the violet and grey of the farther shore.