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The purpose of this story is to share knowledge of Squamish history of the surrounding lands of Vancouver and specifically what is now called Stanley Park, that is rich with legends, history and mysticism. In addition to sharing his cultural knowledge, Kwakwee hopes to further develop the story into a play and motion picture.
It was common after dinner and dark for all to sit around the campfire and listen to stories of bravery and adventure told to us by our elders. No matter how many times the children had heard the stories, the anticipation of characters and the way the story was told, captivate the audience with intrigue, mystery, and glee. This is one of those stories.
Here is an island in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, and once was a scene of bloody battle. This is where the fire flower grows, and where 200 warriors fell: the island of the dead or Dead Man’s Island. The Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) name is skwtsa7s, meaning simply the island of dead men. Have you ever been on it? I once prowled the length of it and nearly got lost more than once.
Yes, it’s pretty wild. Not much good for anything.
People seem to think it valuable. There’s a lot of litigation and fighting going on about it.
Ah, oh yeah. So it’s always been, always a fight over that place. Hundreds of years ago, they fought over it, our people. They say hundreds of years to come, everyone will still fight over. Never settled that place, who it belongs to, who has right to it. Dead Man’s Island always means a fight for someone.
So people fought amongst themselves over it?
Fought? Fought like lynx at close quarters! Fought, killed each other until the island ran with blood and the sea water was stained red. It was then, my people say, that the fire flower was first seen growing along this coast.
Is it a beautiful color? This fire flower?
It should be. A fine color. For it was born and grew from the hearts and blood of those very fine people. I have seldom looked upon anything more peaceful. We have no such men now. No fighters like those men. No hearts. No courage like theirs. But I’ll tell you the story. Now, just peace. Even Deadman’s spirit does not fight now. But a long time after it happened, those spirits fought.
And the legend?
Oh, yes, we call it skwtsa7s. The Legend of the Island of Dead Men.
There was war everywhere. Fierce tribes from the northern coast are tribesmen and savage tribes from the south all met here and battled, burned, tortured and killed their enemies. The force smoked with campfires, the narrows were choked with war canoes and the Creator — he who was a man of peace — turned his face away from his native children. About this island there was dispute and contention. The spirit men from the north claimed it as their chanting grounds. The men from the south laid equal claim to it. Each wanted as a stronghold of their witchcraft, their magic, using everything in their powers to drive their opponents away. The man of the north made their camp on the northern rim of the island. Those from the south settled along the southern edge. All factions danced, chanted, burned their magic powders, built their magic fires, but neither would give way and yet neither conquered. About the island, on the waters on the mainlands raged the warfare of the respective tribes. Oh, the Creator had forgotten his native children. After many months, the warriors on both sides weakened. They said that the actions of their rival spirit men were bewitching them, making their hearts like children’s and their arms as woman’s. So friend and foe, rose as one man and drove the medicine men from the island and banished them out to sea. Then the tribes once more fell upon each other in battle.
The warrior blood of the north will always conquer. We are the stronger, bolder, more keen. Our muscles are tougher, our endurance greater! Yes, the northern tribes will always conquer!
Ah, but the craft and the strategy of the southern tribes are hard things to battle against, as our arrows always find their mark.
While those of the north followed the medicine men farther out to sea to make sure of their banishment, those from the south returned undercover at night and seized the woman, children and old. They transported them all to the island of dead men and there, held them as captives. War canoes circled the island like a fortification, through which drifted the sobs of imprisoned women and aged men and children. Again and again the men of the north attacked the circles of canoes, and again and again were denied. The air was thick with poison arrows, the water stained with blood, and the floating of dead corpses. Day by day, the circle of southern counties grew thinner and thinner, as the northern arrows were truer of aim. Canoes drifted everywhere empty or, worse still, manned by dead men. The pick of the southern wars had already fallen when their greatest fighter mounted a large stump on the eastern shore. Brave and unmindful of 1,000 weapons aimed at his heart, he lifted his hand, palm outward: the signal for conference.
Oh, men of the upper coast! You are more numerous than we and your endurance greater. We are growing hungry. Our captives, your women, children and old have lessened our stores of food. Tomorrow we will kill all captives before your eyes for we can feed them no longer, or you can have them back by giving us one of your best and bravest warriors, one for each. If you refuse our terms, we will yet fight to the finish, who will consent to death in their stead? Speak! You have a choice.
In the northern canoes, scores and scores of young warriors stood up. The air was filled with happiness and shouts. The whole world seemed to ring with the voices of these young men who called out loudly and courageously the challenge of death. Take me but give me back my father! Take me, but spare my little sister! Take me, but release my wife and baby.
So the pact was made. Two hundred heroic young men paddle up to the island, broke through the fortifying circle of canoes and stepped ashore. Again, their women sob, their old men muttered, and their children wailed. But those young men never flinched, never faltered. The released captives were quickly surrounded by their people, but the flowers of the nation were in the hands of their enemy. Amongst them were war-tried warriors who had fought 50 battles and boys who were drawing a bowstring for the first time, but their hearts and their sacrifice were as one. Out before a long row of southern warriors, they stood. Their chins high, their eyes defiant. Each leaned forward and laid their weapons down laughing forth by challenge to death. 1,000 arrows rip the air for 200 gallant warriors gave a death cry. Then 200 fearless hearts ceased.
In the morning, the southern tribes searched and found the spot where the dead warriors fell, but their bodies disappeared. Where the blood spilled of those warriors, was replaced with a flaming fire flower that grew from the blood of those warriors. Dread, terror, seized upon the southern tribes, and they abandoned the island immediately. When night fell, they man their canoes, and slipped quietly through the narrows, turned their bow southward, never to be seen again.
Wow, what amazing men.
Yes, men. The way people call it Deadman’s Island, that is their way. But the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), we call it skwtsa7s, meaning the island of dead men.
One thing about Deadman’s Island is certain: its name, once marked by cedar box graves and simple headboards, its graves, none of which are visible today, contain Indigenous, early pioneers, suicides, infants, smallpox deaths, Canadian Pacific Railway construction casualties and people killed in the Great Fire of Vancouver, among others.
Chief Kwakwee Baker, artistic director, voice over, oral history researcher and producer
Cameron Peal, assistant writer, voice over, audio editor and engineer
Recorded at Soundscape Studios
Additional oral historic references: Chief Joe Mathias Capilino; Chief Gigimea Gigimea (Frank Baker); Chief Khatsilino; Frank Rivers, Squamish Nation Historian; Pauline Johnson, Legends of Vancouver
SAVAGE SOCIETY (Vancouver)
Darylina Powderface, community Engagement Coordinator
Cameron Peal, production coordination
Sherri Sadler, marketing & communications
Chelsea Carlson, production management
Safoura Rigi-Ladiz, copywriting and videography
Heather Cant, consulting (Indigenous Cities)