“Yes,” said my old tillicum,
“we Indians have lost many things. We
have lost our lands, our forests, our game, our fish;
we have lost our ancient religion, our ancient dress;
some of the younger people have even lost their fathers’
language and the legends and traditions of their ancestors.
We cannot call those old things back to us; they will
never come again. We may travel many days up
the mountain trails, and look in the silent places
for them. They are not there. We may paddle
many moons on the sea, but our canoes will never enter
the channel that leads to the yesterdays of the Indian
people. These things are lost, just like ‘The
Island of the North Arm.’ They may be somewhere
nearby, but no one can ever find them.”
“But there are many islands
up the North Arm,” I asserted.
“Not the island we Indian people
have sought for many tens of summers,” he replied
“Was it ever there?” I questioned.
“Yes, it was there,” he
said. “My grand-sires and my great-grandsires
saw it; but that was long ago. My father never
saw it, though he spent many days in many years searching,
always searching, for it. I am an old man myself,
and I have never seen it, though from my youth I, too,
have searched. Sometimes in the stillness of
the nights I have paddled up in my canoe.”
Then, lowering his voice: “Twice I have
seen its shadow: high rocky shores, reaching
as high as the tree tops on the mainland, then tall
pines and firs on its summit like a king’s crown.
As I paddled up the Arm one summer night, long ago,
the shadow of these rocks and firs fell across my
canoe, across my face, and across the waters beyond.
I turned rapidly to look. There was no island
there, nothing but a wide stretch of waters on both
sides of me, and the moon almost directly overhead.
Don’t say it was the shore that shadowed me,”
he hastened, catching my thought. “The
moon was above me; my canoe scarce made a shadow on
the still waters. No, it was not the shore.”
“Why do you search for it?”
I lamented, thinking of the old dreams in my own life
whose realization I have never attained.
“There is something on that
island that I want. I shall look for it until
I die, for it is there,” he affirmed.
There was a long silence between us
after that. I had learned to love silences when
with my old tillicum, for they always led to a legend.
After a time he began voluntarily:
“It was more than one hundred
years ago. This great city of Vancouver was
but the dream of the Sagalie Tyee (God) at that time.
The dream had not yet come to the white man; only
one great Indian medicine man knew that some day a
great camp for Palefaces would lie between False Creek
and the Inlet. This dream haunted him; it came
to him night and day when he was amid his
people laughing and feasting, or when he was alone
in the forest chanting his strange songs, beating his
hollow drum, or shaking his wooden witch-rattle to
gain more power to cure the sick and the dying of
his tribe. For years this dream followed him.
He grew to be an old, old man, yet always he could
hear voices, strong and loud, as when they first spoke
to him in his youth, and they would say: ’Between
the two narrow strips of salt water the white men will
camp many hundreds of them, many thousands
of them. The Indians will learn their ways,
will live as they do, will become as they are.
There will be no more great war dances, no more fights
with other powerful tribes; it will be as if the Indians
had lost all bravery, all courage, all confidence.’
He hated the voices, he hated the dream; but all his
power, all his big medicine, could not drive them away.
He was the strongest man on all the North Pacific
Coast. He was mighty and very tall, and his
muscles were as those of Leloo, the timber wolf, when
he is strongest to kill his prey. He could go
for many days without food; he could fight the largest
mountain lion; he could overthrow the fiercest grizzly
bear; he could paddle against the wildest winds and
ride the highest waves. He could meet his enemies
and kill whole tribes single-handed. His strength,
his courage, his power, his bravery, were those of
a giant. He knew no fear; nothing in the sea,
or in the forest, nothing in the earth or the sky,
could conquer him. He was fearless, fearless.
Only this haunting dream of the coming white man’s
camp he could not drive away; it was the one thing
in life he had tried to kill and failed. It
drove him from the feasting, drove him from the pleasant
lodges, the fires, the dancing, the story-telling
of his people in their camp by the water’s edge,
where the salmon thronged and the deer came down to
drink of the mountain streams. He left the Indian
village, chanting his wild songs as he went.
Up through the mighty forests he climbed, through
the trailless deep mosses and matted vines, up to
the summit of what the white men call Grouse Mountain.
For many days he camped there. He ate no food,
he drank no water, but sat and sang his medicine songs
through the dark hours and through the day.
Before him far beneath his feet lay
the narrow strip of land between the two salt waters.
Then the Sagalie Tyee gave him the power to see far
into the future. He looked across a hundred
years, just as he looked across what you call the Inlet,
and he saw mighty lodges built close together, hundreds
and thousands of them; lodges of stone and wood, and
long straight trails to divide them. He saw
these trails thronging with Palefaces; he heard the
sound of the white man’s paddle-dip on the waters,
for it is not silent like the Indian’s; he saw
the white man’s trading posts, saw the fishing
nets, heard his speech. Then the vision faded
as gradually as it came. The narrow strip of
land was his own forest once more.
“‘I am old,’ he
called, in his sorrow and his trouble for his people.
’I am old, oh, Sagalie Tyee! Soon I shall
die and go to the Happy Hunting Grounds of my fathers.
Let not my strength die with me. Keep living
for all time my courage, my bravery, my fearlessness.
Keep them for my people that they may be strong enough
to endure the white man’s rule. Keep my
strength living for them; hide it so that the Paleface
may never find or see it.’
“Then he came down from the
summit of Grouse Mountain. Still chanting his
medicine songs he entered his canoe, and paddled through
the colors of the setting sun far up the North Arm.
When night fell he came to an island with misty shores
of great grey rock; on its summit tall pines and firs
circled like a king’s crown. As he neared
it he felt all his strength, his courage, his fearlessness,
leaving him; he could see these things drift from
him on to the island. They were as the clouds
that rest on the mountains, grey-white and half transparent.
Weak as a woman he paddled back to the Indian village;
he told them to go and search for ‘The Island,’
where they would find all his courage, his fearlessness
and his strength, living, living forever. He
slept then, but in the morning he did not
awake. Since then our young men and our old
have searched for ‘The Island.’ It
is there somewhere, up some lost channel, but we cannot
find it. When we do, we will get back all the
courage and bravery we had before the white man came,
for the great medicine man said those things never
die they live for one’s children
His voice ceased. My whole heart
went out to him in his longing for the lost island.
I thought of all the splendid courage I knew him to
possess, so made answer: “But you say that
the shadow of this island has fallen upon you; is
it not so, tillicum?”
“Yes,” he said half mournfully.
“But only the shadow.”