Native American Legends
A Squamish Legend
Journeying toward the upper course of the Capilano River, about
a mile city-wards from the dam, you will pass a disused logger's
shack. Leave the trail at this point and strike through the undergrowth
for a few hundred yards and you will be on the rocky borders of
that purest, most restless river in all Canada. The stream is haunted
with tradition, teeming with a score of romances that vie with its
grandeur and loveliness, and of which its waters are perpetually
whispering. But I learned this legend from one whose voice was as
dulcet as the swirling rapids; but, unlike them, that voice is hushed
today, while the river still sings on -- sings on.
It was singing in very melodious tones through the long August
afternoon two summers ago, while we, the chief, his happy-hearted
wife and bright, young daughter, all lounged amongst the boulders
and watched the lazy clouds drift from peak to peak far above us.
It was one of his inspired days; legends crowded to his lips as
a whistle teases the mouth of a happy boy, his heart was brimming
with tales of the bygones, his eyes were dark with dreams and that
strange mournfulness that always haunted them when he spoke of long-ago
romances. There was not a tree, a boulder, a dash of rapid upon
which his glance fell that he had not some ancient superstition
to link with it. Then abruptly, in the very midst of his verbal
reveries, he turned and asked me if I were superstitious. Of course
I replied that I was.
"Do you think some happenings will bring trouble later on
-- will foretell evil?" he asked.
I made some evasive answer, which, however, seemed to satisfy him,
for he plunged into the strange tale of the recluse of the canyon
with more vigor than dreaminess; but first he asked me the question:
"What do your own tribes, those east of the great mountains
think of twin children?"
I shook my head.
"That is enough," he said before I could reply. "I
see, your people do not like them."
"Twin children are almost unknown with us," I hastened.
"They are rare, very rare, but it is true we do not welcome
"Why?" he asked abruptly.
I was a little uncertain about telling him. If I said the wrong
thing, the coming tale might die on his lips before it was born
to speech, but we understood each other so well that I finally ventured
"We Iroquois say that twin children are as rabbits,"
I explained. "The nation always nicknames the parents. 'Tow-wan-da-na-ga.'
That is the Mohawk for rabbit."
"Is that all?" he asked curiously.
"That is all. Is it not enough to render twin children unwelcome?"
He thought awhile, then with evident desire to learn how all races
regarded this occurrence, he said, "You have been much among
the Palefaces, what do they say of twins?"
"Oh! the Palefaces like them. They are -- they are -- oh!
well, they say they are very proud of having twins," I stammered.
Once again I was hardly sure of my ground. He looked most incredulous,
and I was led to enquire what his own people of the Squamish thought
of this discussed problem.
"It is no pride to us," he said, decidedly; "nor
yet is it disgrace of rabbits, but it is a fearsome thing -- a sign
of coming evil to the father, and, worse than that, of coming disaster
to the tribe."
Then I knew he held in his heart some strange incident that gave
substance to the superstition. "Won't you tell it to me?"
He leaned a little backward against a giant boulder, clasping his
thin, brown hands about his knees; his eyes roved up the galloping
river, then swept down the singing waters to where they crowded
past the sudden bend, and during the entire recital of the strange
legend his eyes never left that spot where the stream disappeared
in its hurrying journey to the sea. Without preamble he began:
"It was a gray morning when they told him of this disaster
that had befallen him. He was a great chief, and he ruled many tribes
on the North Pacific Coast; but what was his greatness now? His
young wife had borne him twins, and was sobbing out her anguish
in the little fir-bark lodge near the tidewater.
"Beyond the doorway gathered many old men and women -- old
in years, old in wisdom, old in the lore and learning of their nations.
Some of them wept, some chanted solemnly the dirge of their lost
hopes and happiness, which would never return because of this calamity;
others discussed in hushed voices this awesome thing, and for hours
their grave council was broken only by the infant cries of the two
boy-babies in the bark lodge, the hopeless sobs of the young mother,
the agonized moans of the stricken chief -- their father.
"'Something dire will happen to the tribe,' said the old men
"'Something dire will happen to him, my husband,' wept the
"'Something dire will happen to us all,' echoed the unhappy
"Then an ancient medicine man arose, lifting his arms, outstretching
his palms to hush the lamenting throng. His voice shook with the
weight of many winters, but his eyes were yet keen and mirrored
the clear thought and brain behind them, as the still trout pools
in the Capilano mirror the mountain tops. His words were masterful,
his gestures commanding, his shoulders erect and kindly. His was
a personality and an inspiration that no one dared dispute, and
his judgment was accepted as the words fell slowly, like a doom.
"'It is the olden law of the Squamish that lest evil befall
the tribe the sire of twin children must go afar and alone into
the mountain fastness, there by his isolation and his loneliness
to prove himself stronger than the threatened evil, and thus to
beat back the shadow that would otherwise follow him and all his
people. I, therefore, name for him the length of days that he must
spend alone fighting his invisible enemy. He will know by some great
sign in Nature the hour that the evil is conquered, the hour that
his race is saved. He must leave before this sun sets, taking with
him only his strongest bow, his fleetest arrows, and going up into
the mountain wilderness remain there ten days -- alone, alone.'
"The masterful voice ceased, the tribe wailed their assent,
the father arose speechless, his drawn face revealing great agony
over this seemingly brief banishment. He took leave of his sobbing
wife, of the two tiny souls that were his sons, grasped his favorite
bow and arrows, and faced the forest like a warrior. But at the
end of the ten days he did not return, nor yet ten weeks, nor yet
"'He is dead,' wept the mother into the baby ears of her two
boys. 'He could not battle against the evil that threatened; it
was stronger than he -- he so strong, so proud, so brave.'
"'He is dead,' echoed the tribesmen and the tribeswomen. 'Our
strong, brave chief, he is dead.' So they mourned the long year
through, but their chants and their tears but renewed their grief;
he did not return to them.
"Meanwhile, far up the Capilano the banished chief had built
his solitary home; for who can tell what fatal trick of sound, what
current of air, what faltering note in the voice of the Medicine
Man had deceived his alert Indian ears? But some unhappy fate had
led him to understand that his solitude must be of ten years' duration,
not ten days, and he had accepted the mandate with the heroism of
a stoic. For if he had refused to do so his belief was that although
the threatened disaster would be spared him, the evil would fall
upon his tribe. This was one more added to the long list of self-forgetting
souls whose creed has been, 'It is fitting that one should suffer
for the people.' It was the world-old heroism of vicarious sacrifice.
"With his hunting-knife the banished Squamish chief stripped
the bark from the firs and cedars, building for himself a lodge
beside the Capilano River, where leaping trout and salmon could
be speared by arrow-heads fastened to deftly shaped, long handles.
All through the salmon run he smoked and dried the fish with the
care of a housewife. The mountain sheep and goats, and even huge
black and cinnamon bears, fell before his unerring arrows; the fleet-footed
deer never returned to their haunts from their evening drinking
at the edge of the stream -- their wild hearts, their agile bodies
were stilled when he took aim. Smoked hams and saddles hung in rows
from the cross poles of his bark lodge, and the magnificent pelts
of animals carpeted his floors, padded his couch and clothed his
body. He tanned the soft doe hides, making leggings, moccasins and
shirts, stitching them together with deer sinew as he had seen his
mother do in the long-ago. He gathered the juicy salmonberries,
their acid flavor being a gratifying change from meat and fish.
Month by month and year by year he sat beside his lonely camp-fire,
waiting for his long term of solitude to end. One comfort alone
was his-he was enduring the disaster, fighting the evil, that his
tribe might go unscathed, that his people be saved from calamity.
Slowly, laboriously the tenth year dawned; day by day it dragged
its long weeks across his waiting heart, for Nature had not yet
given the sign that his long probation was over.
"Then one hot summer day the Thunder Bird came crashing through
the mountains about him. Up from the arms of the Pacific rolled
the storm cloud, and the Thunder Bird, with its eyes of flashing
light, beat its huge vibrating wings on crag and canyon.
"Upstream, a tall shaft of granite rears its needle-like length.
It is named 'Thunder Rock,' and wise men of the Paleface people
say it is rich in ore -- copper, silver and gold. At the base of
this shaft the Squamish chief crouched when the storm cloud broke
and bellowed through the ranges, and on its summit the Thunder Bird
perched, its gigantic wings threshing the air into booming sounds,
into splitting terrors, like the crash of a giant cedar hurtling
down the mountain side.
"But when the beating of those black pinions ceased and the
echo of their thunder waves died down the depths of the canyon,
the Squamish chief arose as a new man. The shadow on his soul had
lifted, the fears of evil were cowed and conquered. In his brain,
his blood, his veins, his sinews, he felt that the poison of melancholy
dwelt no more. He had redeemed his fault of fathering twin children;
he had fulfilled the demands of the law of his tribe.
"As he heard the last beat of the Thunder Bird's wings dying
slowly, slowly, faintly, faintly, among the crags, he knew that
the bird, too, was dying, for its soul was leaving its monster black
body, and presently that soul appeared in the sky. He could see
it arching overhead, before it took its long journey to the Happy
Hunting Grounds, for the soul of the Thunder Bird was a radiant
half-circle of glorious color spanning from peak to peak. He lifted
his head then, for he knew it was the sign the ancient Medicine
Man had told him to wait for -- the sign that his long banishment
"And all these years, down in the tidewater country, the little
brown-faced twins were asking child-wise, 'Where is our father?
Why have we no father like other boys?' To be met only with the
oft-repeated reply, 'Your father is no more. Your father, the great
chief, is dead.'
"But some strange filial intuition told the boys that their
sire would some day return. Often they voiced this feeling to their
mother, but she would only weep and say that not even the witchcraft
of the great Medicine Man could bring him to them. But when they
were ten years old the two children came to their mother, hand within
hand. They were armed with their little hunting-knives, their salmon
spears, their tiny bows and arrows.
"'We go to find our father,' they said.
"'Oh! useless quest,' wailed the mother.
"'Oh! useless quest,' echoed the tribes-people.
"But the great Medicine Man said, 'The heart of a child has
invisible eyes, perhaps the child-eyes see him. The heart of a child
has invisible ears, perhaps the child-ears hear him call. Let them
go.' So the little children went forth into the forest; their young
feet flew as though shod with wings, their young hearts pointed
to the north as does the white man's compass. Day after day they
journeyed up-stream, until rounding a sudden bend they beheld a
bark lodge with a thin blue curl of smoke drifting from its roof.
"'It is our father's lodge,' they told each other, for their
childish hearts were unerring in response to the call of kinship.
Hand-inhand they approached, and entering the lodge, said the one
"The great Squamish chief outstretched his arms towards them,
then towards the laughing river, then towards the mountains.
"'Welcome, my sons!' he said. 'And goodbye, my mountains,
my brothers, my crags and my canyons!' And with a child clinging
to each hand he faced once more the country of the tidewater."
The legend was ended.
For a long time he sat in silence. He had removed his gaze from
the bend in the river, around which the two children had come and
where the eyes of the recluse had first rested on them after ten
years of solitude.
The chief spoke again, "It was here, on this spot we are sitting,
that he built his lodge: here he dwelt those ten years alone, alone."
I nodded silently. The legend was too beautiful to mar with comments,
and as the twilight fell, we threaded our way through the underbrush,
past the disused logger's camp and into the trail that leads city-wards.
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