An important part of snuw’uyulh (putting the thought in the child’s head/cultural teachings) is sxwi’em’ (“sh-why-m” approximately)— a great Hul’q’umi’num’/Sencotlen word that describes ancient times, places in the landscape, and narratives. The root of the word is “change” or “transformation” —the only constant thing in the universe. These stories are connected to landscapes that by their form reflect aspects of the story. The narratives associated with these places do not explain the landscapes— rather the landscapes explain the narratives. The stories are not a projection by people onto landscape but encode 4 millenia of intergenerational experience. There are variations of sxwi’em’ according to different families, but the fundamental structure of each narrative is the same. It is up to the listener to bring what they know already—prior knowledge of time and place —or a willingness to go there. Salt Spring Island has sxwi’em’ manifest in certain landscapes that serve as visible permanent reminder of the teachings. Sxwi’em and snuw’uyulh (cultural teachings) are part and parcel.
The geomorphology of Mount Maxwell is easily the most iconic landscape on the island and the same was true years ago when the mountain was better known as Hwumet’utsum (Hwuh/MATE/utsum) “the condition of /bending over/ the mountain ridge, back of something,” the shape of the mountain from certain vistas suggests the name —and most importantly reminds us of its crucial role in disabling a dangerous cannibal monster that killed people on Sansum Narrows.
This story is well known and several versions have been recorded from Hul’qumi’num’ story tellers and published over the years. As in all sxwi’em’ anything and everything is an actor in temuhw (tu-MUHw approximately)— another very important Salish word that means “land” but more so “the world and everything in it”. A reminder that humans are just one of many in a creation of equals where there is no hierarchy but a constant struggle between the dark forces of destruction and the creative forces of light.
On the Vancouver Island side of Sansum Narrows at Octupus Point lived Sheshuqun— a large head at the water’s edge. When canoes passed by he would open his mouth, which was at the water line,— canoes and people would flow in to be devoured. In other accounts he seizes people in canoes further away by shooting out a great tongue that wrapped around the canoes and their terrified occupants.
Now the story changes according to the storyteller’s origin. In the Cowichan version a council is held at Maple Bay to decide what should be done. After much discussion a young man offers to seek the help of Smokwuts, the first man to live at Point Roberts. Smokwuts has a slingshot to throw giant boulders across the land. The young man knew that only he could help the people so he travels across Sansum narrows to Salt Spirng, climbs Mount Maxwell, finds a canoe on the other side that he takes toPOint Roberts. Smokwets agrees to help and goes down to the beach where he picks up a giant rock and begins to swing it around his head letting it go with a crack towards the East Coast of Vancouver Island. The rock falls short at Pqols (Gossip Island). The next rock bounces off Mount Maxwell and lands in Ladysmith . He fires another rock that bounces off Mount Maxwell and lands at the south entrance of Maple Bay.
Smokwets calls on the mountain to bend over that he may have a good shot. A penelukut version says that he drummed and sang asking the mountain to help. The mountain having witnessed the slaughter of people by Sheshequn bent down. This gave Smokwuts a good dropping shot that struck Sheshequn in the face knocking off his lower jaw sothat he could never open his mouth to swallow canoes and people.
An older Penealkut version of the story has Smokwuts firing rocks at Xeel’s in the shwiem theme of resistance to change and inavdvertently siabling the monster. As Xeel’s appears upon the scene and turned the face to rock where it is may be seen today—another visible reminder of shwiem.
The above is a sad english truncation of the original tale which the storyteller would embelish with the detail of their art—a performance that could take hours. There are many layers to this story. You have to study it. One lesson is that destructive forces (evil) may be overcome by cooperative (good) will— but there is never a utopia only reality. Even today Hulquminym people regard the water around Sheshequm with respect. He is still there you can see his image in the living rock—powerless for now.
Christopher Anderson Arnett
Department of Anthropology
University of British Columbia