Sticks sticking out of the sea, a disturbing sight |
for Tsaxawasip the Harpooner, and Nanaimis,
two Mooachaht aristocrats out for a stroll
along the beach south of Yuquot village.
They are talking casually and looking out to sea
for the blow-spouts of whales, Taxawasip
itching to rush right out on a whale hunt
to impress his colleague, but instead they witness
a strange occurrence: bare trees sticking up
from the sea. They have seen trees floating
on the water before, but these trees are vertical
and have small clouds caught in their branches.
What is happening? Perhaps
a new island is appearing in the sound.
Some of the others have seen it too,
and now there is an uproar in the village.
Something very mysterious and frightening
is occurring, an island moving on the waves
here now in front of their eyes. Everyone
is talking, offering a different explanation.
Surely Quaots is moving the magic island
as he moves the tides and winds. No,
it is not an island but something
on the back of Haietlik the magic snake.
The thing grows larger and larger. Now
Towik, a man who commands some respect
(having killed in battle more than ten men)
suggests they hide their belongings,
segregate the women and abstain
from sex for ten months, but no one
responds. No one knows which voices
to listen to, or what to do. No one knows
which rules apply in a case like this.
Finally, Hahatsaik, a woman doctor
who has a special connection with salmon,
decides that someone must do something
soon, so she takes a whale-bone rattle
in each hand, puts on her red cedar-bark
apron and cap, paints her face
with red ochre, sprinkles eagle down
over her head, and goes out
to meet the floating island. Three
brave young men paddle her out,
with Hahatsaik singing, dancing
on the platform on the bow of the canoe,
and because she sees figures
standing on it with hooked noses
and humped backs and red faces
she concludes they must be
salmon-become-people, and addresses
them in appropriate fashion, chanting
Hello! You Spring Salmon! Hello! You
Dog Salmon! Hello! You Coho Salmon!
And when the others see no harm
comes to Hahatsaik, some of them
venture out in her wake, Wiwai
another doctor, chanting his power song,
shaking his rattles, blowing his whistle,
putting the ornate raven mask to his face,
and as his canoe slowly circles
whatever this astonishing thing may be,
Wiwai witnesses figures climbing
on thick strands stretched between
branches of trees rising from the thing,
and in those webs are round objects
that appear to be human skulls,
and Wiwai concludes they must be
Nanaimus is out with his largest canoe,
a crew of forty men paddling in unison,
singing his song, and as they approach
the object that is occurring there
they see figures that look like men,
but men who have fire inside their heads,
for Nanaimus can see smoke issuing
from their lips, and now Tsaxawasip,
not to be outdone, goes out with his
two largest canoes, his men in their turn
singing his best song, stroking the water,
and beating out the song's precise rhythm
with their paddles on the sides
of the canoes, the aliens gesturing,
friendly, offering them objects
made of metal, knives, this is interesting,
this is very tempting, this is perhaps
worth some grand and eloquent gesture,
and so Tsaxawasip, the man
who will soon be called King Maquinna,
stands in his canoe and makes a speech
welcoming the strangers, and inviting them
to the harbour in front of Yuquot village
where his people on shore will perform
the wolf dance. And in a short time
he has given the chief of the aliens
his royal sea otter cloak, and received
a blue gold-braided cap in return. This
is the beginning. From this point
nothing will be the same. Supposedly
it is 1774 or 1778, but these calculations
imposed in a later and different context
are meaningless at this moment.
And I too find myself here at the edge of the continent, an expression of
genes that have drifted westward through generations.
I am the newcomer encountering those others who have
been here all the time or have come in the other direction.
What does it mean?
What is going to happen?
What has been happening since we started to arrive?
The evidence is there somewhere, the testimony
written down or remembered and spoken,
words that I search out and record and fashion
again into this text which you have
somehow stumbled upon, as you sometimes
stumble upon a curious piece of wreckage
washed up on the beach.
John Webber sketch,
Nootka Sound, 1778.
Nootka Sound: Cook Collection.
Jose Cardero sketch.