"The Deep Waters" by E. Pauline Johnson [Tekahionwake] (1862-1913)
From: Legends of Vancouver. by E. Pauline Johnson. Vancouver: David Spencer, Limited, 1911. pp. 47-58.
AR over your left shoulder as your boat leaves the Narrows to thread the beautiful waterways that lead to Vancouver Island, you will see the summit of Mount Baker robed in its everlasting whiteness and always reflecting some wonderful glory from the rising sun, the golden noontide, or the violet and amber sunset. This is the Mount Ararat of the Pacific Coast peoples; for those readers who are familiar with the ways and beliefs and faiths of primitive races will agree that it is difficult to discover anywhere in the world a race that has not some story of the Deluge, which they have chronicled and localized to fit the understanding and the conditions of the nation that composes their own immediate world. [Page 48]
Amongst the red nations of America I doubt if any two tribes have the same ideas regarding the Flood. Some of the traditions concerning this vast whim of Nature are grotesque in the extreme; some are impressive; some even profound; but of all the stories of the Deluge that I have been able to collect I know of not a single one that can even begin to equal in beauty of conception, let alone rival in possible reality and truth, the Squamish legend of "The Deep Waters."
I here quote the legend of "mine own people," the Iroquois tribes of Ontario, regarding the Deluge. I do this to paint the colour of contrast in richer shades, for I am bound to admit that we who pride ourselves on ancient intellectuality have but a childish tale of the Flood when compared with the jealously preserved annals of the Squamish, which savour more of history than tradition. With "mine own people," animals always play a much more important part, and are endowed with a finer intelligence, than humans. I do not find amid my notes [Page 49] a single tradition of the Iroquois wherein animals do not figure, and our story of the Deluge rests entirely with the intelligence of sea-going and river-going creatures. With us, animals in olden times were greater than man; but it is not so with the Coast Indians, except in rare instances.
When a Coast Indian consents to tell you a legend he will, without variation, begin it with, "It was before the white people came."
The natural thing for you, then, to ask is, "But who were here then?"
He will reply, "Indians, and just the trees, and animals, and fishes, and a few birds."
So you are prepared to accept the animal world as intelligent co-habitants of the Pacific slope; but he will not lead you to think he regards them as equals, much less superiors. But to revert to "mine own people": they hold the intelligence of wild animals far above that of man, for perhaps the one reason that when an animal is sick it effects its own cure; it knows what grasses and herbs [Page 50] to eat, what to avoid, while the sick human calls the medicine-man, whose wisdom is not only the result of years of study, but also heredity; consequently any great natural event, such as the Deluge, has much to do with the wisdom of the creatures of the forests and the rivers.
Iroquois tradition tells us that once this earth was entirely submerged in water, and during this period for many days a busy little musk-rat swam about vainly looking for a foothold of earth wherein to build his house. In his search he encountered a turtle also leisurely swimming; so they had speech together, and the musk-rat complained of weariness; he could find no foothold; he was tired of incessant swimming, and longed for land such as his ancestors enjoyed. The turtle suggested that the musk-rat should dive and endeavour to find earth at the bottom of the sea. Acting on this advice, the musk-rat plunged down, then arose with his two little forepaws grasping some earth he had found beneath the waters.
"Place it on my shell and dive again [Page 51] for more," directed the turtle. The musk-rat did so; but when he returned with his paws filled with earth he discovered the small quantity he had first deposited on the turtle's shell had doubled in size. The return from the third trip found the turtle's load again doubled. So the building went on at double compound increase, and the world grew its continents and its islands, with great rapidity, and now rests on the shell of a turtle.
If you ask an Iroquois, "And did no men survive this flood?" he will reply, "Why should men survive? The animals are wiser than men; let the wisest live."
How, then, was the earth repeopled?
The Iroquois will tell you that the otter was a medicine-man; that, in swimming and diving about, he found corpses of men and women; he sang his medicine-songs and they came to life, and the otter brought them fish for food until they were strong enough to provide for themselves. Then the Iroquois will conclude his tale with, "You know well that the otter has greater wisdom than a man." [Page 52]
So much for "mine own people" and our profound respect for the superior intelligence of our little brothers of the animal world.
But the Squamish tribe hold other ideas. It was on a February day that I first listened to this beautiful, humane story of the Deluge. My royal old tillicum had come to see me through the rains and mists of late winter days. The gateways of my wigwam always stood open–very widely open–for his feet to enter, and this especial day he came with the worst downpour of the season.
Woman-like, I protested with a thousand contradictions in my voice, that he should venture out to see me on such a day. It was, "Oh! Chief, I am so glad to see you!" and it was "Oh! Chief, why didn't you stay at home on such a wet day–your poor throat will suffer." But I soon had quantities of hot tea for him, and the huge cup my own father always used was his–as long as the Sagalie Tyee allowed his dear feet to wander my way. The immense cup [Page 53] stands idle and empty now for the second time.
Helping him off with his great-coat, I chatted on about the deluge of rain, and he remarked it was not so very bad, as one could yet walk.
"Fortunately, yes, for I cannot swim," I told him.
He laughed, replying, "Well, it is not so bad as when the Great Deep Waters covered the world."
Immediately I foresaw the coming legend, so crept into the shell of monosyllables.
"No?" I questioned.
"No," he replied. "For, one time, there was no land here at all; everywhere there was just water."
"I can quite believe it," I remarked caustically.
He laughed–that irresistible, though silent, David Warfield laugh of his that always brought a responsive smile from his listeners. Then he plunged directly into the tradition, with no preface save a comprehensive sweep of his wonderful hands towards my wide [Page 54] window, against which the rains were beating.
"It was after a long, long time of this–this rain. The mountain-streams were swollen, the rivers choked, the sea began to rise–and yet it rained; for weeks and weeks it rained." He ceased speaking, while the shadows of centuries gone crept into his eyes. Tales of the misty past always inspired him.
"Yes," he continued. "It rained for weeks and weeks, while the mountain torrents roared thunderingly down, and the sea crept silently up. The level lands were first to float in sea-water, then to disappear. The slopes were next to slip into the sea. The world was slowly being flooded. Hurriedly the Indian tribes gathered in one spot, a place of safety far above the reach of the on-creeping sea. The spot was the circling shore of Lake Beautiful, up the North Arm. They held a Great Council and decided at once upon a plan of action. A giant canoe should be built, and some means contrived to anchor it in case the waters mounted to the heights. The [Page 55] men undertook the canoe, the women the anchorage.
"A giant tree was felled, and day and night the men toiled over its construction into the most stupendous canoe the world has ever known. Not an hour, not a moment, but many worked, while the toil-wearied ones slept, only to awake to renewed toil. Meanwhile, the women also worked at a cable–the largest, the longest, the strongest that Indian hands and teeth had ever made. Scores of them gathered and prepared the cedar-fibre; scores of them plaited, rolled, and seasoned it; scores of them chewed upon it inch by inch to make it pliable; scores of them oiled and worked, oiled and worked, oiled and worked it into a sea-resisting fabric. And still the sea crept up, and up, and up. It was the last day; hope of life for the tribes, of land for the world, was doomed. Strong hands, self-sacrificing hands, fastened the cable the women had made–one end to the giant canoe, the other about an enormous boulder, a vast immovable rock as firm as the foundations [Page 56] of the world–for might not the canoe, with its priceless freight, drift out, far out, to sea, and when the water subsided might not this ship of safety be leagues and leagues beyond the sight of land on the storm-driven Pacific?
"Then, with the bravest hearts that ever beat, noble hands lifted every child of the tribes into this vast canoe; not one single baby was overlooked. The canoe was stocked with food and fresh water, and, lastly, the ancient men and women of the race selected as guardians to these children the bravest, most stalwart, handsomest young man of the tribes and the mother of the youngest baby in the camp–she was but a girl of sixteen, her child but two weeks old; but she, too, was brave and very beautiful. These two were placed, she at the bow of the canoe to watch, he at the stern to guide, and all the little children crowded between.
"And still the sea crept up, and up, and up. At the crest of the bluffs about Lake Beautiful the doomed tribes crowded. Not a single person attempted to enter the canoe. There was no wailing, no [Page 57] crying out for safety. 'Let the little children, the young mother, and the bravest and best of our young men live,' was all the farewell those in the canoe heard as the waters reached the summit, and–the canoe floated. Last of all to be seen was the top of the tallest tree, then–all was a world of water.
"For days and days there was no land–just the rush of swirling, snarling sea; but the canoe rode safely at anchor, the cable those scores of dead, faithful women had made held true as the hearts that beat behind the toil and labour of it all.
"But one morning at sunrise, far to the south, a speck floated on the breast of the waters; at midday it was larger; at evening it was yet larger. The moon arose, and in its magic light the man at the stern saw it was a patch of land. All night he watched it grow, and at daybreak looked with glad eyes upon the summit of Mount Baker. He cut the cable, grasped his paddle in his strong young hands, and steered for the south. When they landed, the waters were sunken half down the mountain-side. [Page 58] The children were lifted out; the beautiful young mother, the stalwart young brave, turned to each other, clasped hands, looked into each other's eyes–and smiled.
"And down in the vast country that lies between Mount Baker and the Fraser River they made a new camp, built new lodges, where the little children grew and thrived, and lived and loved, and the earth was repeopled by them.
"The Squamish say that in a gigantic crevice half-way to the crest of Mount Baker may yet be seen the outlines of an enormous canoe; but I have never seen it myself."
He ceased speaking with that far-off cadence in his voice with which he always ended a legend, and for a long time we both sat in silence listening to the rains that were still beating against the window.