H?amatsap, huuh?takšiih?, quu?as

To Get to Know & to Learn From the Ahousaht*

*(whose language includes ?’s as a gottal consonant)
Striped hoomis on Flores Island

I. Hoomis

For the Nuu-chah-nulth, only one wood would do for their canoes: hoomis or Western redcedar. Rot-resistant, strong, and easily split, the wood was invaluable. Folks used it for coffins and bent-wood boxes, lodges and salmon-drying racks. They continue to use the redcedar for both traditional and contemporary purposes. Many communities, such as the Ahousaht, strip the bark. The outer bark provides roofing material but the focus is the inner bark, ideal for sewing and rope-making. With it, folks weave baskets and hats and fishing materials. Traditionally, they used the inner bark for everything from diapers to towels, tinder to torches, aprons to drummers’ gloves, headbands to ceremonial costuming. When they needed cedar, a grandmother and a granddaughter would go search for days, in search of the right tree. They strip carefully and selectively, so as not to kill the trees.

On Vancouver Island we saw extensive logging — how whitemen use trees. We saw clearcuts, distant denuded slopes, and large crowds of tourists gaping at the last few giant, ancient trees, preserved in a tiny spot in the middle of the Island.

Sign at Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island, home of some of the oldest and largest trees remaining on the Island

We found the stripped redcedar deep in the forest, on the second day of a backpacking trip on Flores Island, an island in Clayoquot Sound off the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Encountering obvious human use deep in the backcountry helps challenge the strange surrealism of separating people and nature… as if nature only exists in essence, pure in wild, protected areas and irrelevant elsewhere. Usually, we outdoors folk accept only the trail, the functional signage, the odd camping platform. Maybe we’ll allow a pit toilet, but once we leave the car, we want the outdoors to feel natural. Our mysticism requires absence of human intrusion. These trees shook that… oh yeah, you can use nature, be a part of it, that makes sense…

The idea is simple and obvious and surprisingly visceral when it confronts you deep in the woods. Suddenly, you feel like a visitor, enjoying nature for a moment and then going back to your detached, modern life. These folks still know how to live in between. They didn’t have to leave. They probably chuckle at the myth of Eden.

Community in Clayoquot Sound

II. Himw?ica

Visiting First Nations communities invites constant reflection on whiteman cultural oddities. It offers alternative conceptions of community, nature, and going outside, all set in a similar context: North America. For example, you can take a $225 private water taxi to Flores Island, or join the Ahousaht on their $20 bus-ferry. When you get off the ferry, children cheer and holler from docks and piers and joke with you. Village dogs hunt for fish along the shore. Others follow you up the trail. Nearby, whiteman areas prohibit dogs due to danger from wolves and bears. We were stuck with our dog and feared we wouldn’t be allowed to take him with us. When we got to the ferry and asked an Ahousaht man, Paul, he laughed and told us just keep the dog close. You better let him sleep in your tent too.

Downtown Ahousaht

Along the trails, signs do not declare rules or provide functional information. Instead of this far, that way, this allowed, this not, their signs read:

“SITKA CROSSING
A 250 YEAR OLD SITKA SPRUCE IS SACRIFICED FOR A BRIDGE”
“TL’HITL’AA
RED-HEAD GIRL
‘RED-COLOURED ROCKS’
HOW THE ROCKS BECAME RED”
Photo by David Crerar
“WO’AIHSI
‘KELTSOMAHT WAR CHIEF TL’IHISIM, A MAN
NAMED WIITTLAAKINISH AND A MAN NAMED
7AYA7AKTL’ WOUNDED AN OTSOSAHT SHARP
SHOOTER ‘TLIHUUMALHNI’ ”

The signs reference traditional stories through Ahousaht designs carved by Qwaya Stanley Sam, an elder, and painted by his son, Hutch Sam. They show the trail as a site of cultural significance, as a place where things happened. The Wo’aihsi sign stands at a stream where an archer tormented folks trying to cross. It marks an important site of the 14-year Ahousaht-Otosaht war during the early 19th century. The war saw the Vargas Island-dwelling Ahousaht take over Flores island from its previous residents, the Otosaht.

Rather than telling you to continue on to where you’re going, the signs tell stories of where you’re standing.

In his guide to the trail, Qwaya Stanley Sam begins:

“I asked my grandfather: ‘Why do you teach me all these stories?’
‘It’s the discipline of your life,’ he said.”
Flores Island vista

III. Tl’hitl’aa

In the Golden Spruce, John Valiant describes how:

“On the Northwest Coast, stories are considered property, just as land or automobiles are in Euro-American culture, or as guitar tunings are in some Hawaiian families. Some stories are held in common while others belong to a specific clan, or family, who are entitled to tell it…”

Such positions may startle the digital denizen. In this age of instant, endless information, folks argue for access to stories, ideas, and data as almost a fundamental human right. In the borderless Internet, propriety and permissions fade away, cultural appropriation becomes common. Stories are for anyone and everyone.

Valiant notes how First Nations stories function similarly to old stories across the world, from indigenous communities all over to those in the Bible (and תּוֹרָה and القرآن‎‎). Some stories are creation myths, others record family and tribal lineages. Some stories document histories of a region or important events, others prophesize. And some stories “are told to instruct the young and remind the old.” They are parables.

Delicious t’ucup

A sign marks the red-coloured rocks for they are a traditional, intertidal foraging ground. The sign notes not only the rocks’ significance in supporting the community but also a sense of appreciation.

Tl’hitl’aa was a young woman with beautiful red hair. Her husband was a fisherman. One day, he went to sea to hunt whales. Knowing the danger, Tl’hitl’aa came to the beach to await his return. Her husband never returned and she continued to wait. His spirit saw her suffering and asked Naas (the Creator):

Please, let my wife know I will not return. She can abandon her vigil.

Naas sent a great wind as a message but Tl’hitl’aa waited on, undeterred. The wind blew stronger and stronger, but she would not move. Finally, the gusts grew so great that they blew her red hair all over the rocks, turning them red forever.

??uc’im bed

While much of Flores Island faces into the relative calm of Clayoquot Sound, the red rocks face open ocean. Science says that the wave fetch, ranging uninterrupted thousands of miles (all the way from Japan), brings local abundance. Great, twelve-meter winter swells, especially, foster a fecund intertidal zone.

At low tide, one can collect all sorts of food, including ??uc’im (mussels), heix or t’ucup (urchins), Ca?inwa or tsa-inwa (gooseneck barnacles), and hupasii (horse clams). During spawning season kw’aqmis (herring eggs) become available too. The story of Tl’hitl’aa tells that it was her devotion, faith, and sacrifice that brings such abundance to these rocks.

One story provides useful, practical information: look on exposed shorelines for shellfish. The other story offers magic, mores, and gratitude. As the digital age brings a focus on data and information, it risks missing the value of stories. One may need to know less about how many mussels are on the rocks and more about how best to relate to those mussels.

Stories guiding human-animal relations may seem of little import when regarding shellfish. What of sea wolves?

Surf scoter enjoying a mussel. They swallow the mollusc, digest the shell, then help add a blue tint to the island sands.

IV. q?ayac?iik

Flores Island has an active population of sea wolves, named for their mostly marine diet. The wolves swim between Flores and nearby islands. While most people in North America decided wolves were too dangerous to co-exist with, and eradicated them and continue to fight the wolves’ return, the Ahousaht share their tiny island (155 km²) with a pack of wolves.

I had trouble sharing for a few days. On the ferry ride over, a fellow passenger told us that wolves took half a dozen dogs last year. He warned us to keep our dog close but he did not speak ill of the wolves. He just spoke of them with respect.

Zephyr dealing with backpacking in sea wolf country

Neither my dog nor I enjoy having him on a leash. The leash makes the power and control of pet ownership tangible. It gives it away. Zephyr’s annoying on leash, often halting in protest.

Leashes make sense in a land of cars and property and permission. In the woods, they bother me. I love watching well-behaved sheepdogs plod behind their owners on city streets. I do not enjoy passing dogs tethered to their owners while running in the forest.

Backpacking on an island with wolves, we kept Zephyr tied to our waist.

Any other time we’re outside together, he’s sighthounding away — running off at ridiculous speeds, disappearing into the bush, falling behind then passing us in a flash. He’s so fast, we never worry. Zephyr could escape anything except a cheetah.

On this trip, he was as confused as I was. Why am I stuck to you on this endless, empty beach? Why can’t I go sniff that? What is going on?

He did not like it.

After we’d set up camp, and I’d disappear on a long bird-wolf-whale walk, Noal would stow him away in the tent. When I got back, I’d cautiously let him out. Whenever we got distracted cooking, chatting, or with general camp chores, we’d both suddenly start, and ask “Where’s Zephyr!?!?”

“?”

We’d call him over when he tried to rest on the edge of the forest, in the shade, or out of sight. We were scared. Wolves are so smart, so strong, so crafty… we could imagine anything. Can they rip through the tent? Could they just grab him? Would we even know? Zephyr’s fast, but could be outrun them? Would he know to try?

I cherish wolves. I support their conservation and reintroduction. But I didn’t know what it’s like to be among them.

Everything changes.

Flores at dusk

Wolf goes from abstract, environmental ideal to constant concern, dark presence, pit in the stomach. They are not easy companions, even for their biggest fans. Wolves are easier over there, not right here.

At one point, we arrived at the end of our backpack: Cow Bay. The area’s famous for the grey whales that come to feed and rest their calves in the bay’s waters. Sometimes you can see a dozen whales at once. I didn’t know this at the time. When we arrived at the bay, we ate lunch then split up. Noal crashed in a hammock she’d found, her uncle Wahib and his partner Loeiza (our companions on the trip), wandered off too.

I was sitting on a driftwood log, Zephyr sleeping in its shade, when I saw a spray of air.

In an instant, I was at a dead sprint, long lens in hand.

For the next half hour I watched (confused) as a grey whale and calf swam into the bay, an orca followed, splashes ensued, and then it all stopped. Wahib saw me running, ran to get Loeiza, and yelled out to Noal. We all forgot about Zephyr.

Halfway through my whale-watching, my stomach dropped. The wolves! My dog! This is how it happens! You only stop paying attention for a second and it’s over.

I whistled in panic.

Zephyr sauntered over and passed out on the sand.

Sea Wolf nearby on Meares Island mudflats in Clayoquot Sound | Photo © Sander Jain (we saw only big pawprints)

V. H?amatsap or mamalni huhši?

This summer the sea wolves are once again under threat.

Sea wolves find most of their food by the sea. That food now includes items brought by humans. Sometimes its poorly secured campsites, other times its scraps and discarded trash. Either way, the wolves learn to associate humans and food. They become habituated. Problems arise. In 2000, a wolf attacked a boat skipper on Vargas Island, prompting BC Parks officers to shoot the conflict wolves. The sea wolves swim between the islands. They learn to eat kayaker food on Vargas, village dogs on Ahousaht, trash near Tofino. Then their behavior blurs across communities. As wolf-human interactions increase, BC Parks becomes increasingly concerned, e.g. warning:

Due to the high frequency of wolves coming into campsites during the night, BC Parks is advising against campers sleeping outside their tents and in the open.

Some folks fear a wolf cull. Conservationists began a petition leading with the Ahousaht’s example. The Ahousaht declare the wolves sacred and demand a No Kill Policy.

Ironically, the Ahousaht live closest to these wolves. Everyone else just visits the wolves’ territory as tourists. And the Ahousaht appear the most accepting.

They are aware of the danger. They do not like losing dogs. They may think a dog’s life should be free, and the risk is worth it. They may not think the same for their children (who played free in giggling groups when we visited).

I am not sure what they make of all of this. I look forward to returning and chatting about it all more explicitly. For now, I continue to learn from whatever Ahousaht knowledge I can stir up online, be it about nature or otherwise. I reflect on their enchanting isle. I ponder their strange trail, as much through myth as through nature, and I worry and wonder about the Ahousaht kids (free, frolicking, and at risk outside?; trapped, bored, and safe inside?), the sea wolves, and those rambling village dogs.

Village dog in Ahousaht

Thanks to the Ahousaht First Nation for welcoming us & sharing the Wild Side of their island; Thanks to Wahib and Loeïza for joining us; & Thanks to Noal

Flores Island