Words by Eliot White-Hill
In our tradition, before any work is done, we recognize where the knowledge comes from; where our roots lie. I want to acknowledge our elders and their efforts to preserve Coast Salish oral tradition and history. The stories that I refer to come from them, both living and gone, who have taken it upon themselves to do the work that is imperative to continuing our traditional ways of life; preserving what we have so that it can be handed down to future generations. These elders are Albert Wesley, Xalanamut (Mary Rice), Tsa’tass’aya (Jenny Wyse), Kwulasulwut (Dr. Ellen White), Xul’simalt (Gary Manson), and Tsa’tass’aya (Geraldine Manson). Huy ch qu si:em.
Saysutshun is a sacred space that is highly significant to us as Snuneymuxw people. When we think of it, we think of a place of healing, a place of preparation, a place of transformation. We think of home. It is a place of safety. It has borne a wealth of legends and teachings in our oral tradition, ranging from creation stories to familial lore; some still existing within living memory. It is a place where Xeel’s, the Transformer, walked and left his mark. It is a place where we can connect with our ancestors.
The name “Saysutshun” refers specifically to the island’s use as a place of preparation; how our ancestors used it to train, bathe, and prepare themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. They ran the trails on the island and bathed in the water. Bathing is a sacred act for us, there is a strict process and it can only be done in certain locations; those places carry great spiritual significance. It cleanses us, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. It is a way for us to tap into the natural energies of the world. It is an act of prayer, we beg the water and the air and the ground beneath our feet to help us, to help those who stand and walk with us, and those who are important to us elsewhere in the world. A person would be required to bathe daily for extended periods of time before ceremonial events or going on a hunt or other such undertakings. To prepare oneself properly as such is crucial to the success of the work being done, and Saysutshun is one of the unique places where that can be achieved.
There are many stories from the days when Xeel’s walked the land and spread teachings, helping those who needed help, changing things into the way they are today. One story tells of a sea monster at Thlap’qwum which looked like a giant skate fish. It lived in the channel between Saysutshun and where Stewart Avenue is today. In a case of forbidden romance, a young couple lived across the channel from each other, but were not allowed to be together. One day, the young man finally decided to swim across the channel to be with his loved one, but the water began to bubble and churn as though it were boiling, and the monster surfaced, swallowing him whole. Through the collective work of the community they managed to spear the monster using a trap of clams to free the person, who was unharmed. In one version, this is the origin story for the species of clams and our clam beds in the area, in another version Xeel’s pulls the monster out of the water and throws it through the air out into the Salish Sea. Another example talks about Hamatsa Rock, which is past Kanaka Bay. This rock was once a person. Xeel’s turned many people into stone, people who misbehaved. It is closely connected to a similar rock on Tle:ltxw (Gabriola Island) called Xuw’t’luqs, who was also turned into stone.
Other stories come from living memory, certain individuals were sent to Saysutshun for teachings, teachings about healing, about our traditions and history. This was, and remains to be, a place where sacred knowledge and teachings are shared.
Uncle Gary told a story of his father and uncle’s experience in residential school. His uncle died there, as a boy. When that happened, his grandmother took his father and hid him on Saysutshun in the old herring saltery. By hiding there, he escaped. This is a place where, in historical times, we would send our families when our villages came under attack. But evidently it isn’t only in historical times that it has had to be used as such. Even as recently as within the past hundred years we have had to bring our people, our children, here to protect not only their wellbeing, but their lives.
Saysutshun is a place of protection, and healing too. It offers many different plants and herbs good for medicine, which our ancestors would gather. The island itself acts as a breakwater, calming the inner waters making for safe travel.
It is also a place of transformation, which is, in essence, the nature of creation itself. The preparation, the healing, the desired outcome of these practices and the work that is done here is transformation. A change of state. To continue to move with the flow of time and step forward within it. To allow ourselves to continue to better ourselves—which is a fundamental aspect of our traditional teachings, our snuw’uyulh, to constantly search to better ourselves as people. When we become stuck, we suffer, we become sick. Our ancestors lived a life of change and transformation, they moved with the world, the food that sustained them through the changing seasons. Though we do not live nomadically as before, it is important to take part in the world as it changes, to step outside and experience it; to step outside the city and onto Saysutshun.
These are things which we hold dearly. It is who we are. Our history, culture, and very beings are intrinsically tied to our territory—our home—which Saysutshun is a significant part of. When we think of who we are, we think of these places and what has happened there. Because of this, it is of utmost importance to us to maintain, protect, and uphold Saysutshun and what it represents. In doing so, we can take the teachings that our ancestors left us, the territory and natural beauty, and share them with future generations, and not only future generations of Snuneymuxw, but future generations of the world. By sharing this place with our guests, we not only reaffirm our traditions, we create a space in which visitors can be educated about who we are, where we come from, and why this place is so special to us. A space in which the potential of reconciliation can be realized through shared experience.
Through the development of our cultural tourism, we work to bring Saysutshun into the daily lives of the people of Nanaimo, and with it that realization of reconciliation. We welcome our guests to come and share the experiences of our ancestors, to experience Saysutshun as it is meant to be: a place of healing, a place of preparation, a place of transformation. To bring the beauty and wealth of nature into their lives; to find spaces of solitude away from the city, space for contemplation, but also to find shared spaces where we can meet and be merry, where we can celebrate and spend time with one another. To experience the healing that these spaces can provide. To draw upon the transformative change of this place.
Whether you are a new visitor to our territory or an old, we hope that you will come experience Saysutshun. Walk the paths of our ancestors, with us.