A Celebration of Women Writers

"A Squamish Legend of Napoleon" by E. Pauline Johnson [Tekahionwake] (1862-1913)
From: Legends of Vancouver. by E. Pauline Johnson. Vancouver: David Spencer, Limited, 1911. pp. 125-135.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 125] 

A Squamish Legend of Napoleon

HOLDING an important place among the majority of curious tales held in veneration by the coast tribes are those of the sea-serpent. The monster appears and reappears with almost monotonous frequency in connection with history, traditions, legends and superstitions; but perhaps the most wonderful part it ever played was in the great drama that held the stage of Europe, and incidentally all the world during the stormy days of the first Napoleon.

Throughout Canada I have never failed to find an amazing knowledge of Napoleon Bonaparte amongst the very old and "uncivilized" Indians. Perhaps they may be unfamiliar with every other [Page 126]  historical character from Adam down, but they will all tell you they have heard of the "Great French Fighter," as they call the wonderful little Corsican.

Whether this knowledge was obtained through the fact that our earliest settlers and pioneers were French, or whether Napoleon's almost magical fighting career attracted the Indian mind to the exclusion of lesser warriors, I have never yet decided. But the fact remains that the Indians of our generation are not as familiar with Bonaparte's name as were their fathers and grandfathers, so either the predominance of English-speaking settlers or the thinning of their ancient war-loving blood by modern civilization and peaceful times must, one or the other, account for the younger Indian's ignorance of the Emperor of the French.

In telling me the legend of "The Lost Talisman," my good tillicum, the late Chief Capilano, began the story with the almost amazing question, Had I ever heard of Napoleon Bonaparte? It was some moments before I just caught the name, for his English, always quaint and beautiful, [Page 127]  was at times a little halting; but when he said, by way of explanation, "You know big fighter, Frenchman. The English they beat him in big battle," I grasped immediately of whom he spoke.

"What do you know of him?" I asked.

His voice lowered, almost as if he spoke a state secret. "I know how it is that English they beat him."

I have read many historians on this event, but to hear the Squamish version was a novel and absorbing thing. "Yes?" I said–my usual "leading" word to lure him into channels of tradition.

"Yes," he affirmed. Then, still in a half-whisper, he proceeded to tell me that it all happened through the agency of a single joint from the vertebra of a sea-serpent.

"In telling me the story of Brockton Point and the valiant boy who killed the monster, he dwelt lightly on the fact that all people who approach the vicinity of the creature are palsied, both mentally and physically–bewitched, in fact–so that their bones become disjointed and [Page 128]  their brains incapable; but to-day he elaborated upon this peculiarity until I harked back to the boy of Brockton Point and asked how it was that his body and brain escaped this affliction.

"He was all good, and had no greed," he replied. "He was proof against all bad things."

I nodded understandingly, and he proceeded to tell me that all successful Indian fighters and warriors carried somewhere about their person a joint of a sea-serpent's vertebra; that the medicine-men threw "the power" about them so that they were not personally affected by this little "charm," but that immediately they approached an enemy the "charm" worked disaster, and victory was assured to the fortunate possessor of the talisman. There was one particularly effective joint that had been treasured and carried by the warriors of a great Squamish family for a century. These warriors had conquered every foe they encountered, until the talisman had become so renowned that the totem-pole of their entire "clan" was remodelled, and the new one crested by [Page 129]  the figure of a single joint of a sea-serpent's vertebra.

About this time stories of Napoleon's first great achievements drifted across the seas; not across the land–and just here may be a clue to buried Coast-Indian history, which those who are cleverer at research than I can puzzle over. The chief was most emphatic about the source of Indian knowledge of Napoleon.

"I suppose you heard of him from Quebec, through, perhaps, some of the French priests," I remarked.

"No, no," he contradicted hurriedly. "Not from East; we hear it from over the Pacific from the place they call Russia." But who conveyed the news or by what means it came he could not further enlighten me. But a strange thing happened to the Squamish family about this time. There was a large blood connection, but the only male member living was a very old warrior, the hero of many battles and the possessor of the talisman. On his death-bed his women of three generations gathered about him; his wife, his sisters, his [Page 130]  daughters, his granddaughters, but not one man, nor yet a boy of his own blood, stood by to speed his departing warrior spirit to the land of peace and plenty.

"The charm cannot rest in the hands of women," he murmured almost with his last breath. "Women may not war and fight other nations or other tribes; women are for the peaceful lodge and for the leading of little children. They are for holding baby hands, teaching baby feet to walk. No, the charm cannot rest with you, women. I have no brother, no cousin, no son, no grandson, and the charm must not go to a lesser warrior than I. None of our tribe, nor of any tribe on the coast, ever conquered me The charm must go to one as unconquerable as I have been. When I am dead send it across the great salt chuck, to the victorious 'Frenchman'; they call him Napoleon Bonaparte." They were his last words.

The older women wished to bury the charm with him, but the younger women, inspired with the spirit of their generation, were determined to send it over-seas. [Page 131]  "In the grave it will be dead," they argued. "Let it still live on. Let it help some other fighter to greatness and victory."

As if to confirm their decision, the next day a small sealing-vessel anchored in the Inlet. All the men aboard spoke Russian, save two thin, dark, agile sailors, who kept aloof from the crew and conversed in another language. These two came ashore with part of the crew and talked in French with a wandering Hudson's Bay trapper, who often lodged with the Squamish people. Thus the women, who yet mourned over their dead warrior, knew these two strangers to be from the land where the great "Frenchman" was fighting against the world.

Here I interrupted the chief. "How came the Frenchmen in a Russian sealer?" I asked.

"Captives," he replied. "Almost slaves, and hated by their captors, as the majority always hate the few. So the women drew those two Frenchmen apart from the rest and told them the story of the bone of the sea-serpent, urging them [Page 132]  to carry it back to their own country and give it to the great 'Frenchman' who was as courageous and as brave as their dead leader.

"The Frenchmen hesitated; the talisman might affect them, they said; might jangle their own brains, so that on their return to Russia they would not have the sagacity to plan an escape to their own country; might disjoint their bodies, so that their feet and hands would be useless, and they would become as weak as children. But the women assured them that the charm only worked its magical powers over a man's enemies, that the ancient medicine-men had 'bewitched' it with this quality. So the Frenchmen took it and promised that if it were in the power of man they would convey it to 'the Emperor.'

"As the crew boarded the sealer, the women watching from the shore observed strange contortions seize many of the men; some fell on the deck; some crouched, shaking as with palsy; some writhed for a moment, then fell limp and seemingly boneless; only the two French- [Page 133]  men stood erect and strong and vital–the Squamish talisman had already overcome their foes. As the little sealer set sail up the gulf she was commanded by a crew of two Frenchmen–men who had entered these waters as captives, who were leaving them as conquerors. The palsied Russians were worse than useless, and what became of them the chief could not state; presumably they were flung overboard, and by some trick of a kindly fate the Frenchmen at last reached the coast of France.

"Tradition is so indefinite about their movements subsequent to sailing out of the Inlet that even the ever-romantic and vividly coloured imaginations of the Squamish people have never supplied the details of this beautifully childish, yet strangely historical, fairy-tale. But the voices of the trumpets of war, the beat of drums throughout Europe heralded back to the wilds of the Pacific Coast forests the intelligence that the great Squamish 'charm' eventually reached the person of Napoleon; that from this time onward his career was one vast [Page 134]  victory, that he won battle after battle, conquered nation after nation, and, but for the direst calamity that could befall a warrior, would eventually have been master of the world."

"What was this calamity, Chief?" I asked, amazed at his knowledge of the great historical soldier and strategist.

The chief's voice again lowered to a whisper–his face was almost rigid with intentness as he replied:

"He lost the Squamish charm–lost it just before one great fight with the English people."

I looked at him curiously; he had been telling me the oddest mixture of history and superstition, of intelligence and ignorance, the most whimsically absurd, yet impressive, tale I ever heard from Indian lips.

"What was the name of the great fight–did you ever hear it?" I asked, wondering how much he knew of events which took place at the other side of the world a century agone.

"Yes," he said, carefully, thoughtfully; "I hear the name sometime in London [Page 135]  when I there. Railroad station there–same name."

"Was it Waterloo?" I asked.

He nodded quickly, without a shadow of hesitation. "That the one," he replied. "That's it: Waterloo." [Page 136] 

[Page 137]

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom