Gulf Islands

Exploring Gulf Islands National Park with a Salish Elder

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by Maureen Gordon

Darkness came to the edge of the Salish Sea, and elder Florence James, on an ancient midden on a small Gulf Island, sang in Hul’qumi’num about coaxing a snail out of its shell to dance.

Moments before, the autumn sunset had melted into Vancouver Island across the sea, and extinguished, while the captain of our schooner lit a bonfire on the sand. The fire flashed against Florence, her drum, and the other passengers from the small ship cruise we were on. Florence’s low voice washed the island, Pune’luxutth’ Island, in the sounds that, with only a brief, violent interruption, have fallen on this earth for thousands of years.

We had come here, as invited guests, to Hwlumeelh’tse’, one of three village sites on the island, on a 5-night trip through the lesser-known Gulf Islands and the National Park Reserve aboard the Maple Leaf.

Before arriving, we’d spent days on the outer coast. We’d communed with sea lions, and stood on a bluff where vultures soared below us and green-gold islands spread like a map on the sea. We were a group of guests, approximately 50 to 60 in age, initially strangers: a nurse, a businessman, pharmacy owners, a manager, a farmer and a writer.  We’d signed on to have sights and experiences that cannot be gotten by road, ferry, or guide-book.

That morning the Maple Leaf had met Florence in Chemainus (real name: Shts’umi’nus, for the breast bone that an old chief, saved by the creator, had lost to a shaman). Later, on Pune’luxutth’ Island, we turned from a settlers’ church and gravestones by a creek when our naturalist pointed out that the 120-foot-wide meadow we walked on contained shells. Tests have shown it’s a midden probably at least 2 metres deep. The sites of 10 big houses once stretched from one side of the cove to the other. At one point is a special place where the geology allows you to hear sounds of people talking from far away.

These islands are a many-layered world, where farms spread over native wildflower meadows and marine mammals practise ancient traditions near cities connected by satellites. On this trip, we peeled back layers by visiting still-natural islands. And we saw a bit through a Salish elder’s eyes.

The morning after the bonfire, Florence sat with us in the Maple Leaf’s zodiacs off Dionisio Point, Galiano Island, where Polier Pass runs into Georgia Strait. It’s an ancient settlement site, and she’d live there as a child.

“This Galiano Island was called Spi’qw – that’s meaning ‘the stone’ – beside the Outside Water, S’utlquluts (Georgia Strait)” she says. “It’s where the people used to come and stay, so they could watch the weather in order to cross over to Fraser River, called Shnuwiilh.”

Unlike many First Nations people of her age, Florence was educated at home and public school, not at residential school. As a child, she was chosen to be a keeper of her people’s stories. She speaks Hul’qumi’num fluently, and was taught her history in great detail.

Her family’s origin dates to the ancient time of a great flood, when they tied their canoe to the rock on top of Syaalutsa’  (Mt. Prevost). She knows that you get three canoes from a canoe tree, and that you start to tend the tree 8 generations before you need the boats. She can tell you about the great war between northern and southern peoples near Maple Bay. And she’ll explain that for balance, you need to practice more than spiritual belief. You must physically act out your culture, not just talk about it: make a canoe, make the food, learn how to harvest.

“There’s so much you could learn in a lifetime and still not know it all,” reflects Kevin Sheppard, a businessman from Victoria, after travelling with Florence. “This should be part of our education, given out here, in the islands.”

It may not be what she intended when she sang about coaxing the snail from its shell to dance, but Florence and the crew of the Maple Leaf had conjured up hidden worlds from the Gulf Islands. And the worlds were dancing, still, in our brains.

If You Go:

Victoria-based Maple Leaf Adventures has operated expedition cruises since 1986 in Haida Gwaii, the Great Bear Rainforest, Alaska and other coastal locations. For information and other schedules, visit Maple Leaf’s Gulf Islands, BC, Sailing Cruise webpage or call 1-888-599-5323.

Note: The land at Hwlumeelh’tse’ on Pune’luxutth’ Island is private property and Maple Leaf visited with permission of the owners.



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