(The original article appeared in the Vancouver Sun Thursday, August 21, 2008. White anthropologists argue about the Hamatsa tradition, some of them claiming that the wolfman ate human flesh or his own; but in the native view it indicates a sacred fusion of the human and the animal, mythic and historic time, the vision and the quest. The transformation was above all spiritual, and the Earth itself was sacred -- not to be bought, sold or pillaged -- as an immemorial place of worshipful practice, with which one must be in right relationship. The potlatch is communion: human re-enactment of the gift cycle between the creator, spirits that bring dances, visions and food, and every living being).
Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla, my name of chiefly rank, has been handed down to those worthy of it for thousands of years. It is from the Potlatch that my name came. My white name, Bill Wilson, plain and common as it is, has no meaning to my people.
My people are the Kwawkgewlth. We have always lived in northern Vancouver Island along the inside passage, the Broughton Archipelago and the mainland inlets. Our home was the sea. Land was a place to build our Big Houses and to tie up our canoes.
My people were a warrior tribe, like the Haida, who roamed the coast at will. Thousands of years before the first white man stumbled ashore, my people had a complex society based on the Potlatch, our form of government. Worthy men who have proven themselves by accomplishment receive the name as recognition of their right to be a Hamatsa and a Chief in our tribe.
My grandfather, also Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla, was the last real Hamatsa. After being nurtured with special foods, training and care, he was sent into the wilderness to become one with nature. It was not enough that he had received the best training that humans could provide. He had to be imbued with nature's lessons before he was qualified to be a Chief and a leader of his people. Our gods were everywhere, he said, in the air, the sea, the mountains and the land.
"Oombly", as we called him, was gone in the wilderness for four years without any human contact. He was adopted by wolves and taught to be one with nature. He was told when he left the village that he would receive a sign when he was worthy to come back to lead his people.
The vision quest
The sign came in the form of a huge creature with green eyes who appeared on top of a dead-fall under which Oombly was sleeping. The creature jumped down and landed on Oombly's chest without hurting him in any way. The creature signaled to Oombly to follow him. They ran and swam back to his village where the Potlatch had been prepared for his return and initiation as a Hamatsa.
The creature stood with him on the rock ridge above the big house where the Potlatch had begun. The creature jumped to the roof of the big houseand then disappeared through the smoke hole into the fire. Hearing human voices for the first time in four years, Oombly started to feel as a human. He was afraid that he would break his legs if he jumped the long distance to the Big House roof. Just then the creature re-appeared at his side and took him by the arm. Together they jumped to the Big House roof and through the smoke-hole into the fire. He was back. His brothers and other handlers pulled him from the fire and in a series of four (sacred worship and initiation) dances he was tamed and became the half human, half animal Chief now fully worthy of leadership. Oombly was now HEMAS KLA-LEE-LEE-KLA.
I remember my grandfather. I was about six years old when he died. It would have been 1950 when he passed away at 89. Just think, he had been born (in 1861) only three years after British Columbia was named, some ten years before we became a province. In an arranged marriage, he had taken a bride. The marriage was sanctified in a Potlatch. His wife, Adama, was a full-grown woman before she even saw her first white man, such was the isolation of the land and sea that my people called home. But the paradise we called home was soon to be spoiled.
Invitation to a potlatch (by Lazare and Parker/National Wildlife Federation)
The potlatch was outlawed by the missionaries and government (Wikipedia, see also illustrated Canadian Encyclopedia)
The first white men were the missionaries. My grandfather had the Potlatch as his religion and was just amused by the Christians. When I was about five years old (1949) , I was seated on Oombly's lap watching some of the people in Kingcome march to the little church at the other end of the village. I guess it was a Sunday but I didn't know or care. I sat on my grandfather's lap, being serviced by his slaves, content in the knowledge that because of him I was protected, well-fed, warm and happy.
My grandfather explained Christianity to me. He said that the white man had only one god while our people had many gods because of all the work that needed to be done. He said that the white man's god must be a very angry one because they kept him locked up in that little white house andonly visited him once in a while. Our gods were everywhere, he said, in the air, the sea, the mountains and the land.
I loved sitting in Oombly's lap. He always smelled of smoke even though he didn't use tobacco. He smelt of smoke because he always tended the smoke house which he did not trust to his slaves. He was the "expert" at smoking salmon and he did not want his people to receive anything but the best. That was the nature of his chieftainship. Despite his highrank, he was the poorest person in the village. It was his job to provide for his people. Only after they had taken their share could he take his. Service to his people was his purpose in life.
Hemas means"the Chief who is always there to help". Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla means "the first rank among the eagles". It is from Oombly that my family and I are descended. We did not need the Indian Act or any white recognition to know who we were.
The Potlatch, our system of government, was outlawed by the Canadian government in 1880. The Christians were not doing well in our and otherareas. The John A. Macdonald government passed the law to outlaw the Potlatch in an effort to make Indians Christians. This law was applied in our area with little effect. It served only to drive the Potlatch underground and as "a forbidden fruit" it became more attractive to my people.
The Potlatch flourished until my people were "sold out" by two weaklings who accepted government money to trap the real Chiefs. With the dirty money provided by the federal government, my grandfather and other Chiefs were arrested on Village Island (in 1921) for participating in a Potlatch. Oombly spent six months behind bars at the Oakalla Prison Farm. He andhis people refused to eat the White man's food. My people paddled from Kingcome Inlet with canoes full of "Indian food" to feed our Chiefs.They paddled down the coast to the Fraser River, upstream to a place near Oakalla and then they walked over the hill to the prison farm. There they would feed our Chiefs through the metal fence before goingh ome for more food.
My mother, Puugladee, was the oldest child of Oombly and Adana. Two girls followed causing Oombly to deem my mother a man in order for her to inherit and pass on his songs, dances, names, regalia and traditions. She was treated by our people as a person of high rank in the Potlatch. She always said that the Potlatch was her life and she proved it by hosting at least six of these expensive gatherings. Even after moving tothe Comox Valley, she participated in every Potlatch in every village.
Ethel was my mother's white name. Everyone called her "Effery". She had inherited her father's strength and dignity. She was fluent in Kwawkwala(our language) and English, having read every book that she could get herhands on. Mom raised at least seventeen kids, five from my father's first marriage to a Lummi Indian lady, six of her own and half a dozen adopted cousins. I was the youngest of the lot and like my grandfather I was raised to be a Chief.
Dad and the Englishman
My father, Charlie Wilson, was born (ca 1910) and raised just north of Seymour Narrows (on the Fraser River, site of the famous Ripple Rock detonation in 1958). His father died when he was only twelve and as the eldest child of six he had to build a home for his mother and family. Work occupied all of his life.He never smoked or drank despite the fact that he had lots of money andcould do anything that he wanted. When asked why he never drank, Charlie replied that he was always too busy working. As a "commoner" that was his life.
He provided well for his huge collected family and his wife's Potlatches. He died from the complications of diabetes at 62. Dad told me a story about the early days of Vancouver Island. He had gone to Vancouver to pick up his new car, there being no car dealership on the island. On the ferry back to Nanaimo he met a young fellow who asked him where Comox was.
They were outside on the back deck, the only place that Indians were allowed above the car deck in those days. It turned out that the young fellow was on his way from England to settle with his uncle in the Comox Valley. My father knew and even employed the young fellow's uncle who owned a tugboat. My dad offered to drive the young fellow to Comox in his new car.
On the way up the island the young fellow kept looking around every time they came to a clearing or meadow. My dad asked him what he was looking for. "Indians," he said excitedly. "What do you think I am?" my dad asked. "Perhaps a Chinese or Japanese", the Englishman said. "No, I am a full-blooded native Indian," my dad said. This drove the young fellow to the passenger side window where he stayed until they got to Comox. My dad dropped the young fellow at his uncle's place. After thanking my dad the young Englishman said in his heavy British accent, "My god, who ever heard of an Indian driving a motor car!"
Dad paid cash for a beautiful home on four and a half acres of property adjacent to the golf course in 1944, the year that I was born. The property came with two indentured servants who my dad freed immediately. We were the first Indian family in the Comox Valley to live off the reserve. My older brothers and sisters suffered the blatant racism extant in the province at the time. My father's money bought ustolerance and we eventually earned respect by our accomplishments in school and athletics. By the time that I got to high school in Courtenay, we were accepted if only as curiosities.
My brother Calvin, who went on to be an ironworker for 33 years, told me that when they moved to Courtenay about two years before I was born, hehad to fight his way to school every day. He literally had to beat people up to survive. He was mad when they moved to Comox because, in his words, he "had to beat up a whole new crop of racists". But that was 1944, and things could only get better with the war soon ending and people with new experiences coming home to help build a new province.
My mother "Effery" was the cultural strength of our family. She raised us to be Indians in a white man's world. The Potlatch was her bible and,even though she exposed us to the Anglican Church, she taught us the real laws of our tribe. I became a Hamatsa and earned my grandfather's name. I did not spend four years in the forest but I did enough to satisfy my mother and the Elders that I was fit to become Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla.
Now at 63, with my father and mother and all but two of my immediate family dead, I look back on the last 150 years since B.C. was named. For my people it has been a constant struggle which continues today. My people and other tribes built this province despite being marginalized, ignored, trampled upon, incarcerated, abused and even killed.
My reminiscences do not leave me angry even though I have cried to myself in recounting them. Instead, I am proud of my family and their accomplishments. I have one of the highest ranking names in our Potlatch. In March of 1983, I helped draft and successfully argue for the entrenchment of the first and only (aboriginal rights) amendment of Canada's new Constitution. We have 18 university degrees in our family and best of all I have five granddaughters who by their strength and breeding will continue to make this province and this country a better place for all of us.