Salt Spring Island is famous for many things— the Saturday market, the scenery, the cheese, the beer and a woman who tried to abduct children and eat them. Many years ago at the north end of the island there was a small village at P’q’unup (“white shell ground”) with a healthy population of young children. One summer day while they were playing on the beach a tall female stl’eluqum, (“dangerous, fierce, powerful being”) emerged from the water and strode toward them. “Tsuhatluts thu snes”, she shrieked “I am Tsuhatluts (Tzu-HAT-luts) of whom your mothers have spoken.” They all knew the history of Tsuhatlutz, who abducted the young, smeared their eyes with pitch and carried them away from their families to be cooked in her great earth oven in the woods. Until now she was only a story. The children were transfixed with fear at her sudden appearance. She easily picked them up one by one and, before placing them in her great basket, she dabbed pitch on their eyes to seal them shut. Securing the basket to her back with a tumpline she strode off into the woods for a cannibal feast.
Tsuhatlutz carried the children to a clearing in the ground— a great earth oven where her sister Kwamutsun awaited—another “evil- looking” woman with a physical deformity but with quite a different personality. Tsuhatlutz announced her plans and ordered Kwamutsun to fire up the oven, a three meter wide pit filled with fire cracked rock. Using a lattice work of dry sticks and rock the fire was started. The wood was burned and soon the rocks glowed with heat perfect for roasting. Tsuhatlutz overcome with the selfish ecstasy of her power over the innocent began to dance around the roaring fire. She stumbled and fell into the rock lined pit of rocks and called on her sister for help. Kwamutsun grabbed a stick and shouted, “I will use this stick to help you.” But instead of helping her Kwamutsun used the stick to hold Tsuhatlutz against the red hot rocks where she was soon reduced to ashes. A wind came up and carried her ashes skyward where they turned into birds.
Because the children’s eyes were glued shut by the pitch, Kwamutsun had them join hands as she led them back to the village. The people were overjoyed when they saw their children emerge from the woods but extremely wary of Kwamutsun’s physical appearance. But, as the parents removed the pitch from the children’s eyes the little one’s spoke one after another in praise of Kwamutsun and how she had saved them from her own sister. Collectively they embraced her.
As in all such narratives of stl’eluqum, these iconic sxwi’em’ (stories) describe “reality”—a world filled with peace and creativity, war and destruction. This reality is portrayed in the narratives through metaphor, a figure of speech in which the object is not literal. In this story the pitch placed over the eyes of the children symbolizes the loss of cultural traditions and the susceptibility to destructive forces whatever they might be—people, habits, values. It is up to the listener to fit it in with what they know. These are not events that have come and gone but exist in the present wherever the naïve and innocent are preyed upon. Negotiating reality is complex and requires uneasy alliances, cooperation and respect. The villagers of P’q’unup were at first horrified at Kwamutsun’s physical appearance but her actions conveyed her inner self— a being dedicated to restoring the collective through selfless actions. Tsuhatlutz, on the other hand, filled with a single minded purpose of death and destruction, perished to be transformed into a flock of pine siskins who every winter dart her shape across the Salt Spring skies not as harbingers of Tsuhatlutz but as a reminder that evil co-exists with good and we must be ever vigilant.
Christopher Anderson Arnett, PhD
Department of Anthropology
University of British Columbia