The Salish Apocalypse

Posted by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams on June 03, 2024

Jared Qwustenuxun Williams

It’s hard to fully imagine what happened here, on Turtle Island when the Hwunitum* arrived. But, in order to understand the current state of Indigenous Cultures we must understand, not only where it comes from, but what it went through to survive. Any Indigenous culture that exists under colonialism has had to suffer and endure to still exist in any form today. As if germ warfare, directly stealing land, and gunboat diplomacy weren’t enough. Our cultures further endured over a hundred years of anti Indigenous ‘kill the Indian save the child’ education, a full on multi generational potlatch ban that outlawed Indigenous Culture, and generations of forced sterilization and torture at Indian Hospitals. But let’s not start that way, let’s start, where it all started, with the White Wings that pulled the giant canoes that carried the first hwunitum to Quw’utsun.

Quw’utsun was a thriving community with a multitude of villages along the river and the shoreline. Each village was a network of families and houses that worked together to gain resources and trade goods as a family. The people lived as they had for countless generations, speaking Hul’q’umi’num, utilizing complex food systems, living long and active lives. People travelled everywhere by canoe and hunted the abundant deer and fished the plentiful rivers. War came in small doses and suffering was much more minimal that other societies at the time. In fact many modern anthropologists use the phrase, “an upside down pear shape” to describe how Salish society was set up. You see there were basically three classes. A large portion of the population were respected landowners, each family with their own leadership. These are the upper class citizens. Just below them are the non land owners, some are freed slaves, people who’ve moved in from other families or tribes, or others who’ve somehow joined a house or village without direct connection to its families. The lowest class was the slave class. Slaves may have been viewed as property but they were treated with respect. It was also not uncommon for slaves to be freed for their actions and become non land owning citizens. Overall slaves made up a very small portion of the pre contact population.

The language was vastly different and reflected the land on which it was created. We had many words for how to beach a canoe, but no word or translation for the word sorry. It cannot be overstated how integral language is to societal norms, taboos, and culture. It’s as if language is the set of tools and measures that we use to build our perception of the world. Hul’q’umi’num is no different. Speaking Hul’q’umi’num connects people directly to the stories of how their families shaped, or were shaped by, the land around them.

In Kwa’mutsun, a village of Quw’utsun, the longhouses ran from the edge of the Cowichan river to the edge of Quamichan Lake. Villages with populations in the tens of thousands, living in hundreds of longhouses, and shorelines littered with more canoes that could be easily counted. Entire communities of people working together for the betterment of their families.

Even knowledge was treated differently. In our new world we feel we have a right to knowledge or information, this was the opposite in the precontact Salish world. Knowledge held great value and power and so was guarded very closely. In a world where all knowledge is passed down verbally all technological advancement that was made could easily be kept secret. If your family carver invented a paddle that made your canoes go faster, maybe they’d want to keep that advancement for the betterment of their family. Not all knowledge was kept sacred or secret, much base knowledge was shared between everyone, but in society there was a very conscious line between what’s common knowledge and what you don’t ask for.

The whole world operated on oral traditions, honour, reciprocity, and trade including lesser forms of currency and wealth like dentalia. Complete with a massive trade network that ran from Alaska to California to the plains of the Midwest. Quw’utsun was one of the most resource rich communities trading for Jade, Obsidian, and other precious goods. In the world that existed here Quw’utsun was one of the most powerful nations in the most populated regions of the west coast.

Then the hwunitum arrived on the coast and all of that changed, all of it. The arrival of the Colonists was the start of the Salish apocalypse. Elders say that a first wave of disease came through before the Naval Colonists arrived. It’s estimated that 30-50% of the population died of smallpox. To put that into perspective, think of your favorite 10 people, family, friends, whatever. Four of them just died. Then in 1868 A second wave of disease came and devastated the people of British Columbia. Before this smallpox outbreak our nation of Quw’utsun was estimated to have a population of 20,000+. Records show that after this outbreak our population was down to less than 300 people. That’s a 99% death rate, 99 of your favorite 100 people just died. If you read newspapers at the time most colonists just thought the Indains would all just die out, leaving the land free for the taking. A lot of it reads like a very dark manifest destiny.

Death is one thing, but the death of culture and language are another. Remember how certain knowledge was sacred or secret, and therefore wouldn’t be shared? Well when 99% of a population with no written history dies they take 99% of the sacred or secret knowledge. Without books knowledge disappears when elders die. Thus the saying, Every time an Elder dies a library burns. But really try and take a minute to think about that. In one generation the population goes from thriving, autonomous, powerful, and self governed, to a few survivors stuck onto Indian Reserves. In 1890 the local residential school opened on Kuper Island and started taking kids from the reserve. This school ran until 1975, all the while attempting to crush what remained of our language, our culture, and our spirituality.

In less than 7 generations the land, water, language and society are completely unrecognizable. What remains of the Salish world has been hard fought for and held onto like a lifespark. The Salish people who still live among us are the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, of the people who lived through the Salish apocalypse, or even survivors themselves. Do not deny these survivors the truth of how they found themselves in this situation. The drugs, the alcohol, the abuse, the neglect, and the poverty that we endure were all given to us as gifts of colonization. As ways to numb ourselves from the reality that our world was stolen from us and we can never get it back.

If your heart broke when you watched the fictional destruction of Alderaan or Planet Vulcan. Know that a real flesh and blood world was destroyed less than 150 years ago and many of us have no idea. So next time you see an Indigenous person speaking their language, wearing their regalia, or practising their culture, know it’s a miracle of the creator that we still exist. Maybe now you can better honour and understand how hard it is to walk in a world built on the ashes of our civilization, built on the ashes of the Salish Apocalypse.

*Hwunitum – Non Indigenous Person

About the Author

Jared “Qwustenuxun” Williams is a passionate traditional foods chef who works with elders and knowledge holders to keep traditional food practices alive. Jared spent much of his youth with his late grandmother, immersed in Salish culture. Raised in a world filled with smoke and fish Jared became familiar with many of the cooking methods and techniques used by his ancestors.

In 2001 Jared graduated from culinary arts and spent the next few years working in restaurants across Vancouver Island. After almost 10 years gaining western culinary experience in niche restaurants like Rebar Modern Food, Spinnakers Brew Pub, and Cherry Point Bistro, Jared decided moved back home to Quw’utsun (Cowichan) to blend his culinary experience with what he could remember of his traditional foods. Having spent his youth working with his family learning many traditional harvesting and preparation techniques it was no surprise when Jared became the kitchen manager at the Elder’s Building with Cowichan Tribes. After nearly a decade and a half of cooking for his communities elders Qwustenuxun now works as an indigenous foods educator, writer, and consultant. 

Most recently,  Qwustenuxun won a Canadian Online Publishing Award for best multicultural story. He was nominated for the 2022 BC Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Award. And helped FNHA complete their first smoked salmon project, proving that Salish smoked salmon is a safe and effective technique for food preservation. Qwustenuxun has also been a featured guest on APTN’s hit series Moosemeat and Marmalade, cooked indigenous foods on Flavours of the Westcoast television show, and has been featured on CBC radio many times for his efforts in first nation’s food sovereignty.

Qwustenuxun also maintains a very popular and active social media presence. From sharing language videos on TikTok and funny Indigenous memes on Instagram, to a full blown lasting impacts of colonization blog on Facebook. 

Find Qwustenuxun Online

Website: Qwustenuxun Consulting
Instagram: @qwustenuxun
TikTok: @qwustenuxun 

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