Texts by and about Natives: Texts

3. Jarold Ramsey, Four Accounts of Simon Fraser's Canoe

Jarold Ramsey, “Simon Fraser’s Canoe; or, Capsizing the Myth,” in Reading the Fire: The Traditional Indian Literatures of America, rev.ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 159-69.

HOW DO MYTHS ORIGINATE? HOW, THAT IS, BEFORE the self-transmogrifying process through which, according to structuralist theory, motives, episodes, and characters combine and recombine and evolve with an almost geometrical thoroughness? What must happen for the growth of what formalists call “motifemes” (stock patterns of complication, like “taboo/violation”) into a complex myth-narrative? For that matter, how do “motifs” (stock incidents) grow into motifemes?

The question of myth-origin is only slightly less quixotic than John Donne’s “who cleft the devil’s foot,” and I do not propose to “ride ten thousand days and nights” in pursuit of it, leaving that endless journey to the solar-myth theorists, the ritualists, the literal euhemerists, and other speculative travelers. I am convinced, let me say, that the really memorable myth texts from Western Indian cultures have gotten much of their imaginative power and resonance from individuals, men and women (and no doubt children) whose dreams and inventions were too remarkable and apt, too expressively verbalized, to be forgotten. But if this is so, and if there is in fact a significant element of conscious individual artistry in myth, then

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it must be admitted that such artistry may have figured late in the history of a given myth, in terms of idiosyncratic tellings, rather than at the beginning, and that whether it comes into play early or late, the energy of such creative imaginations would presumably work within the conventions of the tribal mythology. For a traditional Chinookan or Sahaptin storymaker, say, to undertake to invent ab ovum female trickster called “Magpie” who goes downriver rather than up, and then attach this figure and its stories to the myth, would be most unlikely, I think: such an invention would not “compute.” The only identifiably individualized imaginings we have from the traditional cultures are autobiographical accounts of what spiritualism calls “out-of-body travel” during comas and trances; and, although interesting and worth of study, most of these texts are strikingly conventional both in content and in form.

That certain myth “sets” in the West are very old, possibly thousands of years old, is not to be doubted, given their wide distribution; and in the case of a special category of narratives, one wonders if they did not originate as oral records of prehistoric natural events. It is known, for example, that Indians were living in the Oregon High Desert at the time of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Mazama seven thousand years ago, leading to the formation of Crater Lake—and there is a theme in Northern Paiute mythology of eruptions, world conflagrations, and the like that might derive from the blowup of Mount Mazama, or from other eruptions in the area before or after it. Certainly the widespread story among the Northwest tribes about how several heroes fought over one beautiful girl and were eventually transformed into active volcanoes in the Cascade Range (with the girl as Mount St. Helens) points to the translation of the “news” of eruptions into narrative well before the coming of the whites. . . . And the presence in several Paiute stories of odd details about impassable “walls of ice” even raises the possibility, admittedly pretty remote, that such details refer back to the last period of heavy glaciation in the Northwest some seven to ten thousand years ago!

What is certain is that in historic times, Western Indian mythologies have been augmented by adaptive contact with whites, their stories and their doings; such augmentation is, of course, only like a creative eddy against the general flood of Anglo influence that inundated the traditional Indian way in the nineteenth century. But by studying the process of this “eddy” we may be able to catch some glimpses of how myths are originally

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engendered; and certainly we can come to a better understanding of how mythology “works” for those whose apprehension of reality depends on it as, in Malinowski’s phrase, “a hard-working active force.”

Myth is, I believe, an essentially conservative way of grasping and ordering reality, for all of its apparent imaginative wildness. Once it acquires (through processes yet to be fully understood) a system, a “grammar” of characters, motives, and events, it seems to want to assimilate all new “real events”—what we might call “News”—according to this grammar, extending and confirming its elements thereby, but not changing or contradicting or canceling them. Which is only to say that so long as they are viable to their adherents’ way of life, chartering their collective identity as peoples and serving to mediate between this collectivity and individual life, mythologies are dynamic entities, growing by accretion, adaptation, assimilation, and synthesis. In the nineteenth century, all the Western tribes were sooner or later confronted by the “News” of Anglo expeditions and arrivals, in most cases not without some advance notice, but in a few instances, it appears, without rumor or warning—as shocking as an interplanetary arrival would be to us. In such confrontations, it must have been in Native American terms essentially Mythology versus News, and while News eventually wins out, so to speak, in the historical sense, Myth can be seen as triumphing in an imaginative and literary sense, making accountable Native meaning, that is, of intrusive and unaccountable happenings.

Several Salish-speaking Indian tribes of interior British Columbia have oral-historical records of their apparently unanticipated encounters with Simon Fraser’s canoe expedition as it struggled down the rugged Fraser River toward its Pacific mouth in the summer of 1808. (Fraser, an official of the North West Company, was in the company of John Stuart, Jules Quesnel, nineteen voyageurs, including one named D’Alaire, and an uncertain number of Native guides and canoes.) One of these stories, from the Lillooet tribe, gives a quite detailed and literal account of “the drifters,” as the Lillooets nicknamed the visitors who suddenly appeared on their stretch of the river, literal, that is, except for one gnomic detail. The expedition’s headman, presumably Fraser, is said to have had “a tattoo of the sun on his forehead and a tattoo of the moon on his chest.”

Now there is no reason to suppose that Fraser was so ornamented (the Lillooets did practice tattooing themselves), yet he is vividly identified

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with the sun and the moon in the oral tradition of another group, the Thompson River Indians (or Nlaka’pamux). When the party reached the Thompsons’ country immediately above the Lillooets, they suffered a spectacular canoe-capsizing some miles below the present-day town of Lytton, and when James Teit transcribed the Thompsons’ oral literature for Franz Boas a full century later, he recorded the three accounts of the accident given below. Taken together with Simon Fraser’s own journal narrative of the event, they offer a rare illustration, a paradigm in fact, of the working process of adaptive myth-making.

A. Simon Fraser’s Account of the Accident, Wednesday, June 21, 1808

Early in the morning the men made a trip with two of the canoes and part of the things which they carried more than a mile and returned for the rest. I sent Mr. Quesnel to take charge of the baggage in the absence of the men. About this time Indians appeared on the opposite bank. Our guides harangued them from our side, and all were singing and dancing.

After breakfast the men renewed their work, and Mr. Stuart and I remained in the tent writing. Soon after we were alarmed by the loud bawling of our guides, whom upon looking out we observed running full speed towards where we were, making signs that our people were lost in the rapids. As we could not account for this misfortune we immediately ran over to the baggages where we found Mr. Quesnel all alone. We inquired of him about the men, and at the same time we discovered that three of the canoes were missing, but he had seen none of them nor did he know where they were. On casting our view across the river, we remarked one of the canoes and some of the men ashore there. From this incident we had reason to believe that the others were either ahead or perished, and with increased anxiety we directed our speed to the lower end of the rapids.

At the distance of 4 miles or so, we found one of our men, La Chapelle, who had carried two loads of his own share [of the baggage] that far; he could give us no account of the others, but supposed they were following him with their proportions. We still continued; at last growing fatigued and seeing no appearance of the canoes of which we were in search, we considered it advisable to return and keep along the bank of the river.

We had not proceeded far when we observed one of our men, D’Alaire, walking slowly with a stick in his hand from the bank, and on coming up to him we discovered that he was so wet, so weak, and so exhausted that he could

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scarcely speak. However after leaning a little while upon his stick and drawing breath, he informed us that unfortunately he and the others finding the carrying place too long and the canoes too heavy, took it upon themselves to venture down by water—that the canoe in which he was happened to be the last in setting out.

“In the first cascade,” continued he, “our canoe filled and upset. The foreman and steersman got on the outside, but I, who was in the center, remained a long while underneath the boards [thwarts]. The canoe, still drifting, was thrown into smooth current, and the other two men, finding an opportunity, sprang from their situation into the water and swam ashore. The impulse occasioned by their fall in leaping off raised one side of the canoe above the surface, and I having still my recollection, though I had swallowed a quantity of water, seized the critical moment to disentangle myself, and I gained but not without struggle the top of the canoe. By this time I found myself again in the middle of the stream. Here I continued astride [the canoe], humouring the tide as well as I could with my body to preserve my balance, and although I scarcely had time to look about me, I had the satisfaction to observe the other two canoes ashore near an eddy, and their crews safe among the rocks. In the second or third cascade (for I cannot remember which) the canoe from a great height plunged into the deep eddy at the foot, and striking with violence against the bottom splitted in two. Here I lost my recollection, which, however, I soon recovered, and was surprised to find myself on a smooth easy current with only one half of the canoe in my arms. In this condition I continued through several cascades, until the stream fortunately conducted me into an eddy at the foot of a high and steep rock. Here my strength being exhausted I lost my hold, a large wave washed me off from the wreck among the rocks, and another still larger hoisted me clear on shore, where I remained, as you will readily believe, some time motionless; at length recovering a little of my strength I crawled up among the rocks, but still in danger, and found myself once more on firm ground, just as you see.”

Here he finished his melancholy tale, and pointed to the place of his landing, which we went to see, and we were lost in astonishment not only at his escape from the waves, but also at his courage and perseverance in effecting a passage up through a place which appeared to us to be a precipice. Continuing our course along the bank we found that he had drifted 3 miles among rapids, cascades, whirlpools, &c., all inconceivably dangerous.

Mr. Quesnel being extremely anxious and concerned left his charge and joined us. Two men only remained on shore carrying the baggage, and these were equally ignorant with ourselves of the fate of the others. Some time after, upon advancing towards the camp, we picked up all the men on our side of

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the river. The men that had landed on the other side, joined us in the evening. They informed us that the Indians assisted them from their difficulties. Indeed the natives shewed us every possible attention in the midst of our misfortune in this trying occasion.

Summarizing Fraser’s narrative, then, it appears that the accident happened in the morning and involved three canoes and an unspecified number of men in a foolhardy attempt to run a course of rapids instead of portaging around them. The first two canoes to set out upset early and were brought ashore by their occupants, but the third canoe, with D’Alaire and two companions, swamped in the first cascade and turned over, and although the other two men were able to swim ashore, D’Alaire was carried along down through a series of cataracts and cascades for three miles, losing the canoe, and finally being washed to safety among some rocks. Fraser’s last lines indicate that the whole event was watched closely by the Indians. (His favorable impression of the Indians’ part in the accident contrasts amusingly with a Lillooet account of Fraser’s visit with them a day or two after this: “There were some Indians there who wanted to go after these white men and steal all their possessions, but their leader told them, ‘Don’t bother them; they might be able to help us one day.’”)

Now, of Teit’s three Native texts (the ordering “B,” “C,” “D,” is mine), the second and third manifest, in what looks like evolutionary degrees, the conservatism I referred to above; that is, the tendency of myth, when it is still an active mediating force in peoples’ lives, to imaginatively transform “real events,” no matter how strange, according to its system, so that the people can assimilate such events, and “believe” in them. I will give these two texts in a moment, but first let’s consider Teit’s first text, as narrated around 1900 by an elderly Thompson lady named Semalitsa:

B. Semalitsa’s Account

My grandmother told me that when she was a young girl she was playing one day in the summertime (about the time the service berries get ripe) near the river-beach at the village of Strain, when she saw two canoes, with red flags hoisted, come downstream. She ran and told her mother, and the people gathered to see the strange sight. Seeing so many people gathered, the canoes put ashore and several men came ashore. Each canoe carried a number of men (perhaps six or seven in each), and many of them wore strange dresses, and

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everything about them was strange. . . . The Spences Bridge chief was presented with some kind of metal or brass badge, and a hat worn by the leader of the strangers whom the Indians called “the Sun.” He was called this because of some kind of shining emblem he wore on his hat or cap, which resembled the symbol of the Sun. The Indians applied names to most of the strangers, all taken from some feature of their appearance or from certain marks or emblems on their clothing. After leaving Lytton, at some place closer to Si’ska, one of their canoes was swamped in a rapid, and some of the men were saved with difficulty, after having been some time in the water. . . . Some Indians thought they were just people from a far country and of a different race, for they had heard vague rumors of the strange people with guns, who, it was expected, might find their way to this country some time; but very many people thought they were beings spoken of in tales of the mythological period, who had taken a notion to travel again over the earth; and they often wondered what object they had in view, and what results would follow. They believed their appearance foreboded some great change or events of prime importance to the Indians, but in what way they did not know.

Now Semalitsa’s account, as detailed and literal as a newsmagazine article, reminds us that there have always been Native skeptics, dissenting individuals who would resist all or part of the prevailing mythological interpretation of the world and its events. Whether it is the grandmother’s skepticism that is involved, or Semalitsa’s own, working “historically,” or both, the details of her narrative correspond closely to Fraser’s own account of his visit to the Thompsons and the canoe adventure, and the mystery of the sun-and-moon tattoos is dryly explained away as deriving from a shiny badge or metal of some sort worn by the explorer; other members of the party were similarly nicknamed, Semalitsa tells us, according to their appearances. I have not found any references in Fraser’s Journal to such medallions or badges, but in fact that practice of wearing them and bestowing them on Indian leaders was standard in the early expeditions to the American and Canadian West, as witness the famous “Peace and Friendship” medals Lewis and Clark distributed in 1804-5, several of which have actually survived, testifying to the Indians’ high valuation of them.

Thus the factuality of the event: but the fact that Fraser and his men—nameless and uncanny strangers to the Thompsons—were nicknamed as to appearances may suggest in itself that the mythologizing process began on the spot, or very soon after, as “Sun” and the others began to figure

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in Native reports and stories about the episode. “What’s in a name?”—probably not, as Max Müller claimed long ago, the power to generate mythology through a “disease of language,” but rather in this instance the power to hasten the assimilation of Fraser and his company into the Thompson myth-system.

The genuinely mythological accounts of the capsizing are effectively prefaced by Semalitsa’s remark that, although there were skeptics, many Thompson people viewed Fraser and his men with wonder as “beings spoken of in tales of the mythological period, who had taken a notion to travel again over the earth.” Clearly Versions C and D are expressive of this response to the event; the appearance of the white men among the Indians was here and elsewhere ipso facto a mythic happening, an unprecedented but possibly precedent-setting “first time,” and the Thompsons seem to have come to terms with it collectively by interpreting it according to their mythological system. Let us see how.

C. First Mythological Account

Many years ago, but at a time long after Coyote had finished arranging things on earth, he appeared on the Fraser River in company with Sun, Moon, Morning-Star, Kokwela, the Diver, and the Arrow-Armed Person. These seven came in a bark canoe, and came down from the Shuswap country above. They landed at Lytton, where my people saw them. Continuing their journey, and when in the middle of the river, a short distance below Lytton, the Moon, who was steersman of the canoe, disappeared with it under the water. The others came out of the water and sat down on a rock close above the river. Then the Arrow-Armed Person fired many lightning-arrows, and the Diver dived many times into the river. The Sun sat still and smoked; while Coyote, Kokwela, and Morning-Star danced. Coyote said, “Moon will never come up again with the canoe”; but Sun said, “Yes, in the evening he will appear.” Just after sunset, Moon appeared, holding the canoe, and came ashore. All of them embarked and, going down the river, were never seen again. This is the only time Coyote has appeared since the end of the mythological age.

Now the traditional mythologies of the Thompsons and other Interior Salish peoples contain no less than four distinct “transformer” story-cycles, one involving a primal creator, possibly of Christian extraction, known as “Old One”; another featuring a team of three brothers, the Qwo’qtqwal; a third centering on Coyote in his usual Western upriver transforming

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capacity; and a fourth set of stories involving a heroic local figure known as Kokwela. This redundancy of stories is probably to be explained by dissemination and incorporation: the Thompsons and their neighbors, being centrally located between the coastal and the plateau cultures, must have taken on some features of both.

What is important for the mythifying of the Simon Fraser story is that as the Thompson mythology narrates how these personages once variously traveled upriver transforming the world to its present status at the end of the Myth Age, so it is logical that they might eventually reappear in the Historical Age, headed downstream, with various mythic companions. Narrative C appears to synthesize these traditions: now at least two of the Thompson transformers appear to be conveniently “in the same boat,” headed downriver, revisiting the world they “fixed up” so long before.

Coyote in this narrative is not to be identified with Simon Fraser per se, who figures here and in all other accounts as Sun—rather, Coyote seems to be the mythic patron or “headman” of the whole amazing episode, just as he is the dominant Transformer in Thompson mythology. Of his companions in the canoe and on a rock, Kokwela (“hog-fennel” in the Thompson language, a local plant with an edible root, formerly important in the Thompsons’ diet) figures as the local hero of a number of Thompson and Lillooet stories, including one in which Kokwela wins a great transforming contest with the brothers Qwo’qtqwal on the Fraser below Lytton, somewhere near the site of the capsizing, in fact. He then goes on down the river a certain distance, before returning—accounting for the growth of hog-fennel in Thompson country. The general parallel with Coyote’s and the Qwo’qtqwals’ river travels is obvious.

It is not clear whether Coyote’s other companions in the canoe include the qwo’qtqwals and “Old Man,” corresponding to the third and fourth Thompson transformer cycles. It is certainly not improbable that “the Diver,” who “dived many times into the river,” actually represents, submythologically, one of Fraser’s unfortunate men, mythically simplified forever, as it were, in terms of one of his observed actions during the emergency. And the “Arrow-Armed Person,” who “fired many lightning-arrows,” may likewise correspond to someone who fired signal shots. Semalitsa’s remarks about how “the Indians applied names to most of the strangers” based on their appearance strengthens this conjecture, but it is also possible that both epithets may represent novel applications for names

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that once figured in Thompson mythology; if so, I have not been able to identify them, mythologically speaking, in Teit’s texts.

As for Sun and Moon, although Fraser’s journal makes it clear that he was not actually involved in the capsizing, it is mythologically inevitable, according to the conserving and simplifying process we are exploring, that Fraser (the headman who wore a sun badge) should come to figure as “Sun.” And it is equally “logical,” according to this process as it seems to have operated within the Thompson myth-system, for poor D’Alaire, the voyageur, to be identified as “Moon,” who disappeared with the canoe into the river. Teit notes that the Thompsons had a proverb that when the faint disk of the old moon appears in the evening within the crescent of the new, “it is the moon holding the canoe”—in our narrative, bringing it back to Sun and his companions.

Almost certainly it was not the historical episode that gave rise to the proverb, but rather the ready-to-hand proverb that contributed to the mythologizing of the episode. As we have noted in earlier essays, it was once widely held that the world’s mythologies were created in order to humanly “explain” the appearance and motion of the heavenly bodies: but here, clearly, a piece of lunar lore, a metaphor really, has been adduced to explain, or rather to record and translate into traditional order, an earthy event.

In the third Thompson account of the capsizing, briefly summarized by Teit (D), this ad hoc ordering and stylizing process is even more obvious and would seem to have gone about as far as possible. Now the only passengers in the canoe are the three heavenly bodies from C—Morning-Star, Sun, and Moon—and they reappear after the accident in perfect diurnal order, with Moon predictably bringing back the canoe! Mythology has, as it were, succeeded in redeeming News utterly.

D. Second Mythological Account

The canoe was of birch-bark and disappeared under the water with all hands. The first to appear very early in the morning was Morning-Star, who rose to the surface and came ashore. At noon, Sun rose and came ashore; and in the evening, Moon rose holding the canoe, and came ashore. During the night, the canoe and all disappeared.

We are a far cry in these mythic accounts from what must have been the sweaty, grumbling, and often desperate realities of Fraser’s expedition

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on the one hand, and the surprise and consternation that it must have provoked among the Indians, on the other. Perhaps a clue as to the Indians’ feelings is given by Semalitsa. In observing how the arrival of Fraser and party was seen by many as a fulfillment, indeed a culmination of myth (and we have been examining the details of this culmination), Semalitsa goes on to remark that the people “believed their appearance foreboded some great change or event of prime importance to the Indians, but in what way they did not know.” Certainly by Semalitsa’s time this sense of foreboding in the event could be interpreted ex post facto in the light of history: the sudden appearance of the Fraser party foretelling, that is, the appearance fifty years later of white miners and settlers, whose manifold arrival—not by mythical canoe—changed the Thompsons’ way of life utterly. Perhaps—we can only speculate—such apprehensions attending the original event may have spurred the Thompsons, at least the orthodox among them, to transform the details of the event as rapidly and as completely as possible into the familiar lineaments of myth.

As we turn to our newspapers and to Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and their associates, all this may sound very foreign, remote from our objective usages, “primitive.” In Pound’s sarcastic epigram, “We have the press for wafer,” and we think, not without self-congratulation, that ours is not any such mythological mentality. Yet a little reflection tells us, I think, that in our own response to “Hard News”—the assassinations of presidents, for example, with their retinue of prophetic dreams, numerological and calendrical formulae, and so on; or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in response to which Japanese writers and filmmakers turned back to “primitive” Native myths of retributive monsters; or the Jonestown suicides; or even the moon landings—we too must involve what remains of our a priori mythological systems, lest the unmediated news, “bloody with reality,” prove unassimilable to the listening imagination—that is, unreal.

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