Siwash Rock according to Pauline


What would Chief Joe Capilano say? And what about Pauline Johnson?

In what is intended to be a gesture of reconciliation, the Vancouver Park Board has voted to engage with three Coast Salish nations to determine if Siwash Rock should be renamed. The motion was the brainchild of commissioner Catherine Evans, who made her position clear on how the three nations should proceed, calling the name “an ongoing symbol of disrespect” toward their people.

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The national media have parroted her line, reporting as a statement of fact that Siwash is a Chinook word derived from the French word sauvage and is a “derogatory term for Indigenous people.” Vancouver historian Jean Barman says that’s simply not true. “In Chinook, Siwash just means an Indigenous person,” Barman recently told the Vancouver Courier. She would like to see the name preserved to honour the historical reality of Chinook, a jargon that enabled cross-cultural communication “and brought people together for a long time.”

If the “derogatory” line carries the day and the name Siwash Rock becomes verboten, one of the obvious casualties will be Pauline Johnson’s beautiful tale, “The Siwash Rock,” the second story in her groundbreaking 1911 collection, Legends of Vancouver. Like most of the ancient Squamish stories in the book, it was given to her by Chief Joe Capilano. That in itself was a revolutionary act of inclusion by the chief, since he knew the celebrated Mohawk poet would share the stories with the people of the Dominion.

Pauline begins the story with the image of “a symmetrical column of solid grey stone,” standing in isolation “as if dropped from another sphere.” The chief then provides the key to the mystery – an old custom demanding that “the parents of a coming child must swim until their flesh is so clear and clean that a wild animal cannot scent their proximity.” Thus the child would “have the chance to live its own clean life.”

It happened thousands of years ago. With his wife about to give birth, a young chief swims into the Narrows, crossing directly in the path of a canoe bearing four giant men – emissaries of the Great Tyee. Seeing his approach, they order him out of their way. But he defies them. No human being had ever done that. “My child must be born to a spotless life,” he tells them. Astounded that he would put his child’s future “before all things,” the four men lift their paddles and make him immortal, transforming him into “an indestructible monument to Clean Fatherhood.”

“Clean fatherhood.” That’s what Chief Capilano said Siwash Rock is all about, according to Pauline. I can just see modern heads exploding.

He told her the story in a mix of Chinook and English. There is no indication that the venerable chief considered Siwash “derogatory” – or Pauline wouldn’t have used it.

Does a Vancouver Park Board commissioner really know better?

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