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I’d like to continue the journey into the characters of Salish folklore with the tale of Sheshuq’um. I’ve talked of many heroes of the legends of yesteryear, so now let’s talk about one of the villains. Perhaps the word villain is too sharp of a title; perhaps Sheshuq’um is just a misunderstood character, an untamable animal, a force of nature. Either way the stories say that it killed many unfortunate travellers. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
On the ocean the water moves in great swells and tides. If you know the islands and the narrow passages between them, you can predict which way a tide will pull on your canoe. We call these narrow passages sqtheq. Now, the sqtheq known as Sansum Narrows is especially potent when the tide changes. On the edge of this churning bottleneck of tidal pressure lived a great legendary creature known as Sheshuq’um. An enormous head with a large toothed mouth and a long unfurling tongue, some elders even translate the name to mean “open mouth.” It is said that anyone who travelled too close to Sheshuq’um would be pulled under the water and eaten or drowned, leaving only the shattered remains of their canoes. Meaning the creature effectively cut off a major trade route between Hwutlupnets and Tl’ulpalus.
The protagonist of our story is a legendary man known as Smakw’uts, said to be one of the strongest men ever to live. Smakw’uts lived at what is now known as Point Roberts, in Washington State, but the hwulmuhw named this place after Smakw’uts. In one version of the story, Smakw’uts was said to have heard of a man named Xeel’s who was going around changing people, and turning others to stone, and he did not like that. So Smukw’uts vowed to kill Xeel’s. A messenger arrived one day and told Smakw’uts that Xeel’s was travelling near Hwtl’upnets. So Smakw’uts took off his cape and used it for a sling and threw great stones in the direction of Hwtl’upnets.
In another version, a great chief who was tired of the death and suffering sent a messenger to Smakw’uts to plead for the great strong man to kill Sheshuq’um and save the people. It was said that the messenger paddled from Hwtlup’nets to Xwaaqw’um then walked to the southernmost point on Salt Spring Island where he was given a canoe. From there he paddled through the island and to the village of Smakw’uts. Once there he easily found the renowned strong man and pleaded for his help. Agreeing to help, Smakw’uts took off his sash and began throwing stones in the direction of the beast Sheshuq’um.
The first stone he threw is said to have landed in Ladysmith. The second landed near Mayne Island, just inside Active Pass — if you come from Vancouver on the ferry you can see where it landed. The third stone landed in Hwtl’upnets and is now called Paddy’s Milestone. Then Smakw’uts stopped and looked at the messenger and said, “The mountain is in my way, I must ask it to lie down.” And so he called to the spirit of the mountain, now known as Mount Maxwell, and asked it to hunch down so he could kill Sheshuq’um. After seeing so many people be killed by Sheshuq’um, the mountain was happy to oblige. This mountain’s name in our language reflects this story. Mount Maxwell is named Hwmet’utsum, meaning bent-down place.
With the mountain out of the way, Smakw’uts threw his last stone and broke the mouth of Sheshuq’um, leaving the creature alive but unable to harm anyone again. The story concludes with Xeel’s appearing not long after Sheshuq’um was defeated and turning it’s semi-living remains into stone to serve as a reminder to all who pass of the monster that once lived there.
It cannot be overstated how connected our people, and our stories, are to this land. In this story alone you learn the name of a village at Point Roberts (Smakw’uts) and the name of Mount Maxwell (Hwmet’utsum). Not only that but you learn who they were, why they are named that, and about the people who lived there. It’s akin to living in Greece and visiting Mount Olympus, or visiting the Garden of Eden.
Our home is as mythical as it is real and I am honoured to share the stories, as these are the stories of the Quw’utsun and Salish people.
Versions of these stories can be found in Beryl Cryer’s book, Two Houses Half Buried in Sand, and in When the Rains Came: And Other Legends of the Salish People, as told to Dolby Turner.
Stay tuned for my next instalment, in which we’ll learn more about Xeel’s, a great figure of Salish folklore. Sign up for The Discourse Cowichan’s newsletters and you’ll get it straight to your inbox.
Huy tseep q’u siem nu siiye’yu, huy tseep q’u.
Thank you my respected friends, thank you.
Jared Qwustenuxun Williams,
grandson of Qwustaanulwut [end]
- Sheshuq’um – The monster at Octopus Point
- sqtheq – a narrows
- Smakw’uts – Name of the Strong Man, also the name of the village at Point Roberts
- Xwaaqw’um – Burgoyne Bay, Salt Spring Island
- Xeel’s – The Transformer
- Hwtl’upnets – Maple Bay
- Hwmet’utsum – Mount Maxwell
- hwulmuhw – First Nations people
- Tl’ulpalus – Cowichan Bay
- Quw’utsun – Cowichan