Myths & Legends



Pacific Coast: Deer Lake

Coast Salish peoples are a group of ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, living in British Columbia, Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the United States. They speak one of the Coast Salish languages.

The Coast Salish are a loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples spans from the northern limit of the Gulf of Georgia on the inside of Vancouver Island and covering most of southern Vancouver Island, all of the Lower Mainland and most of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula (except for territories of now-extinct Chemakum people). Their traditional territories coincide with modern major metropolitan areas, namely Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle.

The Coast Salish cultures differ considerably from those of their northern neighbours. It is one of the few indigenous cultures along the coast with a patrilineal rather than matrilineal kinship system, with inheritance and descent passed through the male line. The population of Coast Salish numbers at least 56,590 people, made up of 28,406 Status Indians registered to Coast Salish bands in British Columbia, and 28,284 enrolled members of federally recognized Coast Salish tribes in Washington State.

Emily Pauline Johnston was born in the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford, Ontario far from the lands of the coast Salish lands of Vancouver Island. In her day she was a famous ambassador for all things reconciliation between the British Crown and its native subjects. The story that follows is from her book Legends of Vancouver written at a time when she was living on Canada’s West Coast.

The telling of this story is in narrative form with her as the protagonist exploring the meaning and context of the legend that follows. The tale of the magic elk-bone spear, a Legend from the Salish
— Orly

Few white men ventured inland, a century ago, in the days of the first Chief Capilano, when the spoils of the mighty Fraser River poured into copper-colored hands, but did not find their way to the remotest corners of the earth, as in our times, when the gold from its sources, the salmon from its mouth, the timber from its shores are world-known riches.

The fisherman's craft, the hunter's cunning, were plied where now cities and industries, trade and commerce, buying and selling, hold sway. In those days the moccasined foot awoke no echo in the forest trails. Primitive weapons, arms, implements, and utensils were the only means of the Indians' food-getting. His livelihood depended upon his own personal prowess, his skill in woodcraft and water lore. And, as this is a story of an elk-bone spear, the reader must first be in sympathy with the fact that this rude instrument, most deftly fashioned, was of priceless value to the first Capilano, to whom it had come through three generations of ancestors, all of whom had been experienced hunters and dexterous fishermen.

Capilano himself was without a rival as a spearman. He knew the moods of the Fraser River, the habits of its thronging tenants, as no other man has ever known them before or since. He knew every isle and inlet along the coast, every boulder, the sand-bars, the still pools, the temper of the tides. He knew the spawning-grounds, the secret streams that fed the larger rivers, the outlets of rock-bound lakes, the turns and tricks of swirling rapids. He knew the haunts of bird and beast and fish and fowl, and was master of the arts and artifice that man must use when matching his brain against the eluding wiles of the untamed creatures of the wilderness.

Once only did his cunning fail him, once only did Nature baffle him with her mysterious fabric of waterways and land-lures. It was when he was led to the mouth of the unknown river, which has evaded discovery through all the centuries, but which—so say the Indians—still sings on its way through some buried channel that leads from the lake to the sea.

He had been sealing along the shores of what is now known as Point Grey. His canoe had gradually crept inland, skirting up the coast to the mouth of False Creek. Here he encountered a very king of seals, a colossal creature that gladdened the hunter's eyes as game worthy of his skill. For this particular prize he would cast the elk-bone spear. It had never failed his sire, his grandsire, his great-grandsire. He knew it would not fail him now. A long, pliable, cedar-fibre rope lay in his canoe. Many expert fingers had woven and plaited the rope, had beaten and oiled it until it was soft and flexible as a serpent. This he attached to the spearhead, and with deft, unerring aim cast it at the king seal. The weapon struck home. The gigantic creature shuddered, and, with a cry like a hurt child, it plunged down into the sea. With the rapidity and strength of a giant fish it scudded inland with the rising tide, while Capilano paid out the rope its entire length, and, as it stretched taut, felt the canoe leap forward, propelled by the mighty strength of the creature which lashed the waters into whirlpools, as though it was possessed with the power and properties of a whale.

Up the stretch of False Creek the man and monster drove their course, where a century hence great city bridges were to over-arch the waters. They strove and struggled each for the mastery; neither of them weakened, neither of them faltered—the one dragging, the other driving. In the end it was to be a matching of brute and human wits, not forces. As they neared the point where now Main Street bridge flings its shadow across the waters, the brute leaped high into the air, then plunged headlong into the depths. The impact ripped the rope from Capilano's hands. It rattled across the gunwale. He stood staring at the spot where it had disappeared—the brute had been victorious. At low tide the Indian made search. No trace of his game, of his precious elk-bone spear, of his cedar-fibre rope, could be found. With the loss of the latter he firmly believed his luck as a hunter would be gone. So he patrolled the mouth of False Creek for many moons. His graceful, high-bowed canoe rarely touched other waters, but the seal king had disappeared. Often he thought long strands of drifting sea grasses were his lost cedar-fibre rope. With other spears, with other cedar-fibres, with paddle-blade and cunning traps he dislodged the weeds from their moorings, but they slipped their slimy lengths through his eager hands: his best spear with its attendant coil was gone.

The following year he was sealing again off the coast of Point Grey, and one night, after sunset, he observed the red reflection from the west, which seemed to transfer itself to the eastern skies. Far into the night dashes of flaming scarlet pulsed far beyond the head of False Creek. The color rose and fell like a beckoning hand, and, Indian-like, he immediately attached some portentous meaning to the unusual sight. That it was some omen he never doubted, so he paddled inland, beached his canoe, and took the trail towards the little group of lakes that crowd themselves into the area that lies between the present cities of Vancouver and New Westminster. But long before he reached the shores of Deer Lake he discovered that the beckoning hand was in reality flame. The little body of water was surrounded by forest fires. One avenue alone stood open. It was a group of giant trees that as yet the flames had not reached. As he neared the point he saw a great moving mass of living things leaving the lake and hurrying northward through this one egress. He stood, listening, intently watching with alert eyes; the zwirr of myriads of little travelling feet caught his quick ear—the moving mass was an immense colony of beaver. Thousands upon thousands of them. Scores of baby beavers staggered along, following their mothers; scores of older beavers that had felled trees and built dams through many seasons; a countless army of trekking fur-bearers, all under the generalship of a wise old leader, who, as king of the colony, advanced some few yards ahead of his battalions. Out of the waters through the forest towards the country to the north they journeyed. Wandering hunters said they saw them cross Burrard Inlet at the Second Narrows, heading inland as they reached the farther shore. But where that mighty army of royal little Canadians set up their new colony no man knows. Not even the astuteness of the first Capilano ever discovered their destination. Only one thing was certain: Deer Lake knew them no more.

After their passing the Indian retraced their trail to the water's edge. In the red glare of the encircling fires he saw what he at first thought was some dead and dethroned king beaver on the shore. A huge carcass lay half in, half out, of the lake. Approaching it, he saw the wasted body of a giant seal. There could never be two seals of that marvellous size. His intuition now grasped the meaning of the omen of the beckoning flame that had called him from the far coasts of Point Grey. He stooped above his dead conqueror and found, embedded in its decaying flesh, the elk-bone spear of his forefathers, and, trailing away at the water's rim, was a long, flexible, cedar-fibre rope.

As he extracted this treasured heirloom he felt the "power," that men of magic possess, creep up his sinewy arms. It entered his heart, his blood, his brain. For a long time he sat and chanted songs that only great medicine-men may sing, and, as the hours drifted by, the heat of the forest fires subsided, the flames diminished into smouldering blackness. At daybreak the forest fire was dead, but its beckoning fingers had served their purpose. The magic elk-bone spear had come back to its own.

Until the day of his death the first Capilano searched for the unknown river up which the seal travelled from False Creek to Deer Lake; but its channel is a secret that even Indian eyes have not seen.

But although those of the Squamish tribe tell and believe that the river still sings through its hidden trail that leads from Deer Lake to the sea, its course is as unknown, its channel is as hopelessly lost as the brave little army of beavers that a century ago marshalled their forces and travelled up into the great lone north.


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