The crests of waves crash against a lone buoy where a sandpiper hops from leg to leg. The glittering Pacific stretches into the distance—a silver blend of sea and sky. It is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Minnows dart into the depths between the purple pebbles when I step from the shore. Brine and seaweed cling to the breeze. The water numbs my toes. A surfer lays on his board, eyes on the horizon, and he rises and descends with the tide, a rhythm between man and wave. Slowly, then all at once, rain begins to spill so fine that I have to look to the darkness of the evergreens to see if it is actually falling. An undertow sweeps each drop away like they were never there at all.
Long Beach. Shaped and moulded by long-ago glacial movement, located just outside of Tofino in the Clayoquot Sound. Margaret Horsfield and Ian Kennedy, in Tofino and the Clayoquot Sound, state that the Sound not only blankets 2600 kilometres but also embraces nine different watersheds (1). One of the first biospheres in British Columbia, the region between Hesquiat Peninsula and Kennedy Lake teems with life. Orcas and sea lions glide through the water and above, eagles soar with the woodland skippers, fluttering like golden kites. My west coast Eden, a place nestled in the Ha-houlthee of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. Wait. This is not my language, and this is not my land.
I have been here for only fourteen days. The red cedar, imbued by you with spiritual and practical significance, has grown here for one thousand years. But you, the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, have made this place your home for over four thousand years. Closest to Long Beach, I speak directly to the Tla-o-qui-aht; however, I would also like to recognize the other two Nations that call the northern and southern part of the Sound home: the Hesquiaht and the Ahousaht.
In 1978, the three Nations changed their collective name from the Nootka to the Nuu-chah-nulth, which means “all along the mountains and sea” (Horsfield and Kennedy 25) to better represent their connection to the Pacific Northwest and how they lived in harmony with its seasonal changes. Along with the mild climate, salmon—a vital food source—and red cedars ensured their prosperity. The cedars were often deemed ‘the tree of life,’ providing both housing and canoe transport (Horsfield and Kennedy 13). There was once a oneness here between the First Nations and the life sources of the island, what the Tla-o-qui-aht, would call a Hishuk’ ish Tsawalk. When my people stole this land, we disrupted that connection. We set in motion a colonial fragmentation.
In Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice makes clear that despite the many protestations, we must share the earth and its resources. He asserts that this idea of living together demands empathy and courage, but most importantly, “it depends entirely on our willingness to be fierce in our truth telling” (173). Like Justice, the Oxford English Dictionary says that to acknowledge means “to accept or admit the truth” (OED acknowledge v 2a). Therefore, instead of simply acknowledging this beach on which I stand as something that should have always remained yours, I am going to tell the truth. Perhaps boldly, though not fearlessly, because the truth is, I am scared to say out loud what I have done. The truth is, there is much to do to redress my mistakes. There will always be more. The truth is, I interrupted the relationship you had with this land. And the truth is, I am sorry. Teach me how to restore the connection.
Once, you celebrated the hunt of the whale. This hunt set you apart from other First Nations (Horsfield and Kennedy 28) and to participate meant cleansing your bodies, building twelve-man dugout canoes, and paddling across expansive lengths of water. Each time the whale surfaced, you would take turns harpooning until the ocean reddened. Celebration blossomed with the success of the hunts, often in the form of a potlatch, a word that means “to give.” My people banned these celebrations, shutting away these feasts, ceremonial dances, and orations in 1884, making it a criminal act later in 1913 (Horsfield, Kennedy 573). It took us sixty-nine years to lift that ban and give you a piece of your culture back.
When we arrived in 1774, we assumed the land as ours. Not only did we steal your coast, but we also abolished your traditional barter exchange and replaced it with our capitalist economy. Already we had tried to suffocate your cultural customs, like with the potlatch—why wouldn’t we take away your children, too, and imprison them in residential schools? We dismantled your language, reduced the territories you used to hunt and fish. We brought sickness, introduced you to tuberculosis and smallpox, illnesses so devastating that by the end of the nineteenth century, ninety percent of the First Nations population on Vancouver Island had perished (Horsfield and Kennedy 38). You faced both enemies at once: annihilation by disease and eradication by us. We thought we were settlers. The truth is, we were always just visitors.
In 1980, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council asked us for the west coast of Vancouver Island, including its adjacent islands. Eventually, in 2008, your home, the Tla-o-qui-aht, shrunk from the entire northern coastline to twelve reserves on 347.8 hectares of land (Horsfield and Kennedy 24). A treaty is supposed to be a negotiation contract between two parties (OED treaty n 3b), but it seems as if my people always have the last say. Horsfield argues that the treaty process for all First Nations in the Clayoquot Sound “has been long, slow, often frustrating, and remains unfinished” (551). Only six years ago did the Supreme Court of Canada allow the Nuu-chah-nulth to sell fish within their own territories (578) as if it was generous to give back something that was never ours to take.
We did this to others, too. Black settlers on Vancouver Island arrived only shortly after us. In Bluesprint, Wayde Compton states that, in 1858, six hundred members of the Black population traveled from San Francisco to British Columbia in order to settle in Victoria (17). They even formed the capital city’s first set of soldiers. Their militia was targeted at the United States, but perhaps it should have been aimed at us. Compton notes that Black Canadians continued to be segregated in churches and theatres even as years passed and their numbers grew (18). Instead of taking their home away, like we did yours, we never let them feel at home in the first place.
Japanese immigrants also tried to settle on Vancouver Island during the nineteenth century. Many were working males, waiting for the day their families could join them. In Tofino, the Japanese actively participated in community events and contributed to the local economy. Yet instead of thanking them for introducing the island to gillnet fishing—a method to catch salmon during all months of the year rather than just the spring (Horsfield and Kennedy 324)—we made them unwelcome with our “yellow peril” propaganda and riots, and later, in the 40s, with their mandatory evacuation. But like you, they had the strength to survive, the power to reinvent themselves in a world that refracted their differences. Today, I acknowledge the Japanese and Black residents of B.C. as a progression towards my redress. I accept the truth that Canadian racism was and continues to be real, despite our polite denials and averted eyes. The past is never just the past.
This is not a eulogy.
Let us not make this simply a commiseration for lost cultures. We have forgone so many years’ worth of celebration, so let us not waste any more. The Ha-Hoothlee of the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation is a land full of life, abound with not just twelve-hundred survivors but with twelve-hundred lovers and storytellers. Your developments have made the Clayoquot Sound thrive. Thank you for sustainably harvesting marine life. Seafood has ensured your prosperity for thousands of years and now you are preserving theirs. How incredible that your hydropower facilities have become a central component of Vancouver Island’s economy (Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation). Even amidst the wrongdoing, you find a way to demonstrate selflessness by providing energy for us all. I accept the truth that I do not know as much as I should about your governance. Teach me your hierarchical system: the Hereditary Chiefs, or the Ha’wiih, as the foundational leaders of your land and the eleven councillors who govern day to day business. Mr. Moses Martin, Chief Councillor, it is an honour. You have done well by your people. Now, let me do well by you.
In 2017, artist Sinámkin unveiled his hand-carved figure during a First Nations blessing ceremony (Simon Fraser University). A Coast Salish welcome figure. Positioned in a gesturing motion, the figure beckons people to its lands, arms outstretched in welcome. This is not a figure of one of my people. If it were, the figure would have its back to the shore. The truth is, it is hard to see your own people as the worst versions of themselves. The truth is, we need to be better. And the truth is, it is time for my people to turn their faces outward to the sea and hold their arms out in a T formation, palms tilted to the sky.
A surrender for all we have done.
We have talked about the past and about the present. What of the future? There is no guarantee that our ongoing relationship will be better than that of the past, but there is hope. I cannot do much except to promise that I will use my writing craft to continue in the war to dismantle colonialism. Why do I study writing if not to achieve change? Each short story and novel I write will have a piece of you inside the pages and wherever I go, I will speak of Tofino’s land and people. I will start a dialogue.
The waves topple against the buoy. A blue-winged bird soars across the silver sky. There is sand between my toes. It is raining, but I cannot feel anything except for the rattle of my heartbeat. Thank you for keeping this place alive. I wish to acknowledge this land on which Long Beach of the Clayoquot Sound operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Nuu-chah-nulth people. Today, this region is still the home to many Tla-o-qui-aht, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn and to love your people. You are here with me on this beach. I hear you. I see you.
You are beautiful.