Power and Lightning on the Mountain - The Indigenous Story of Mount Tuam

Dominating the southwest end of Salt Spring Island is Mount Tuam, another distinctive iconic island landscape and the only local placename to retain a semblance of the original SENCOTLEN and Hul’q’umi’num’ word—CUAN or Ts’uween (pronounced “ts – uWHlAN” approximately). The word is descriptive and refers to the steep terrain that seems to come straight down to the water’s edge. The current name Tuam is an English corruption of the original, and ancient, place-name. An earlier version of the word— Chuan—was applied to the whole island in 1852 after the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, made his first trip by canoe from Victoria to Nanaimo. As he passed Swartz Bay and Salt Spring loomed in the distance, he asked his guide the name of the place. The guide, thinking Douglas was referring to Mount Tuam, gave him the indigenous name which Douglas transcribed as Chuan. He made a crude map of the trip and used the placename to refer to the entire island as Chuan Island.

Knowledgeable elders, when interviewed about Mount Tuam, will rarely offer information— which, far from ignorance, is always a sign that the place is very significant in terms of physical and spiritual power. Such sacred places and practices are never discussed candidly. Those who do volunteer information offer an abbreviated story of Sxeleken (s-HAY-lu-kun) a man who received incredible power from S-hwu-hwa’us (thunderbird) only to abuse it leading to his downfall and transformation into a stl’eluqum (dangerous being that facilitates the acquisition of power) whose essence still haunts the place. A pool somewhere on the mountain bears his name. Because of this history the mountain is understood as place where shne’um (‘shamans”) did their hwun-um’thut (special training to become shne’um).

Hwun-um’thut was a more rigorous version of the physical and spiritual training undergone by all Coast Salish people at the time of puberty. Kwayuthut (spiritual/physical cleansing) as part of the process to acquire (s-uy-lu) a guardian spirit power with s-yuwun (song). This quest was usually done in remote areas with old growth forest, meadows, creeks, and bluffs where people practiced until they acquired spiritual powers that would guide and protect them through life. These powers were private and never discussed publically lest they cause derangement to the speaker. Such things are not explicable in language. Those who had it knew it— they danced it, sang it, and used it (in practice, i.e. art, doctoring)—this was the most important (and prudent) thing.

There are several published and unpublished versions of the Sxeleken story, recorded from Saanich and Hul’qumi’num’ elders over the past century. The story is also well-known amongst knowledgeable community members. The following is only the barest outlines of a narrative that may have taken many hours to narrate in the old days when told by a native historian.

There was a boy who had bad social skills that embarrassed the family. His sister and uncles decided that the best thing for him would be to train for power— undergo Hwun-um’thut. The story discusses some extreme practices for example forcing hummingbird beaks and fir bark dust into the eyes of the youth before he is sent into the woods. These descriptions may be real or literal in the sense of highlighting the “difficulty” of the process. Not everyone can be (or wants to be) shne’um because of the heavy responsibilities of the position.

He wanders for a while and falls asleep only to re-awake in the midst of a thunder and lightning storm, in the presence of the thunderbird who plucks out the boy’s eyes and replaces them with the eyes of the lightning serpent carried in its talons. When he opens his eyes, lightning flashes out and he assumes a new name Sxeleken (“the lightning-eyed”).

People who have lightning flashing from their eyes can kill others easily. When he returns to his people he abuses his power and eventually orders the people to build him a house on top of Mount Tuam. He called the house “Sliquis”—an old term for some sort of “reeds.” Sxeleken began to treat the surrounding people with further disrespect forcing them to bring the shell from clam shell beaches to the top of the mountain. He also wanted many wives. He was eventually killed by his uncles who brought him a seal which they roasted on a fire until it was puffed up like a giant sausage filled with hot oil. Pretending to serve him they dropped the seal over his head, the hot searing fat covering his eyes as they stabbed him to death with elk horn blades.

Like the stl’eluqum Sheshuqun of Octupus point, Sxeleken is there on Mount Tuam to facilitate power but the task is never to be taken lightly lest lightning strike twice.

Christopher Anderson Arnett, PhD
Department of Anthropology
University of British Columbia

Salt Spring - Mount Tuam - Sunset

May 3, 2016 9:57 AM