Manataka American Indian Council







A War Story of the Cowichans

"This war that I am about tell you about happened about 300 years ago. The Cowichans had grown a great and powerful people, numbering many thousands. 

They had been insulted, or some of their friends had been killed by the people of Snohomish, now in America territory.  Now, they are burning to avenge this deed, and mustered their fighting men and manned their war canoes, and off they started. The got safely across the Sound and attacked the people of Snohomish, conquered them and burnt their villages. From there they went on to Port Manson, and then to Gothic, a village near Port Townsend, and on to Los Angeles, conquering wherever they went.

After an absence of a month they turned homewards, laden with the spoils of war; but what was their horror on reaching home, where they expected a warm welcome, to find their village all in ruins and their wives and children gone. An old man hobbled down to the beach and told them of what had taken place. The Fort Rupert and one hundred and twenty Northern Tribes had come down on a war expedition, and had fallen on the defenseless villages of Cowichan, Kuper Island and Saanich, and had killed the men left in charge and carried off the women and slaves, to be 'elitans' or slaves. The Cowichans did not wait long, but hurried to the New Westminster people and asked their help. They are related to the Cowichans. The Songhees, who lived at Mechosin sent word to say that the Northern Tribes were going to make a second foray, and try to carry off the men this time. The Songhees bid their friends to wait till the Northern people to come down.

"One day a canoe came flying with the news that the invaders were coming. About 300 canoes had passed Nanaimo. So the Cowichans and New Westminster went to meet them.

"At Maple Bay the invaders had landed to rest. The Cowichan crept up and waited outside of the bay. In order to draw the enemy out to sea, they sent a canoe, with a man disguised as a woman, and twenty men lying at the bottom of the canoe, fully armed and covered with mats, across the entrance of the harbor. When the Northern people saw this, they pushed off and went in chase of the canoe. The canoe turned out to the sea and drew the people after it; and, when well out, the Cowichans, Saanich and New Westminster contingents gave chase, and then the battle commenced. The Northern people were surrounded and kept in for two days and three nights. The water was red with blood. The Cowichan sang their war song, given Stimqua, the great snake, which fell from the heaven into the bay. At last a few canoes escaped and were chased as far as Comox. They were upset and the people killed. Not one of the Northern people escaped.

"After resting, the Cowichan, Kuper Island and Saanich people went to look for their wives and children. They were successful and brought them home safely. Then they made a second expedition for revenge, burning the villages and taking the women and children of the Northern people, and the Cowichan lived in peace for many years."

History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians
Harris - Douglas, Martha, Dept. of Agriculture,
The Colonist Printing and Publishing Company
Limited Liability, Victoria, B.C. 1901

Story of the Quamichans

"The wild woman named Quamichan, who made a basket out of a snake, was a giantess and her whole appearance was disgusting. She lived on human flesh, and sneaked about villages stealing children, which she put into her snake basket. She lived on Salt Spring Island, near Kuper. She had wings and used to fly about Saanich and elsewhere, stealing young people.

" Her sister was a very small woman, and hated Quamichan bitterly, Quamichan decided to have a big feast and invite her friends; so for a few days she was kept busy stealing children, whom she hid in a cave. When she had enough, she dug a huge pit, about 100 square feet and very deep. She put dry wood as kindlings, and then big stones on the top of all. Then she set fire to the wood. She called the children out, and made them sit down and watch the fire. There were hundreds of poor children, crying and begging to be let go home.

" She made fire by rubbing sticks together in this fashion: A flat stick with a small hole in the middle, and a small round stick with a sharp point to fit in the flat piece of wood; then the round stick was rubbed violently between the two palms, and as soon as smoke and sparks were seen coming out, fine dry cedar bark was held to the sparks, and as they fell on the bark it was gently blown, and the fire fanned into flame.

" Now, after the fire had started, Quamichan danced round the pit, singing and shouting. ' Now I am going to have a big feast with my friends and eat these young animals,' as she called the children. ' I hope the stones will get red-hot quickly, so that they will be well cooked.'

" She told her sister to take pitch and make the children open their eyes, and smear their eye-balls with the pitch, so that they could not see what was going to happen. Now the sister's heart was tender. She took the pitch and went to each child and bid it close its eyes and put the pitch on the lids, and said to each: ' When I call out 'Open your eyes!' you must get sticks and be ready, for I am going to punish Quamichan. Now, be ready.'

" When she had finished, Quamichan told her to take out the sticks and throw them to one side, as the stone were red-hot. ' Yes, sister ' she said;' 'but first dance again and sing, for you sing so well, and shut your eyes tight and look up as you dance.'

" Quamichan was greatly pleased with this flattery, and danced away like mad. The little sister now got a long pole, and when Quamichan came close by her, she thrust the pole between her legs and tripped her, and Quamichan fell into the hot pit on her back. She screamed to her sister to help her out.

" ' Oh, yes, I am helping you out, but you are awfully heavy; call on the boys and girls to help.'

"With that sister shouted: ' Children, open your eyes ', and they took sticks and threw them into the pit, where they caught fire. Quamichan was burning like oil, and the sparks from her turned into ducks, geese and all sorts of birds. This was the end of Quamichans. The little sister sent the poor children back to their homes rejoicing. The Cowichan Indians called themselves Quamichans, after this big woman, and they learnt to make fire from her."

History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians
Harris - Douglas, Martha, Dept. of Agriculture,
The Colonist Printing and Publishing Company
Limited Liability, Victoria, B.C. 1901

All fiver photographs on this page by Curtis, Edward S., 1868-1952, photographer

History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians

By Martha Douglas Harris (Illustrations by Margaret C. Maclure)

Introduction by Dr. Paul Lindholdt, Eastern Washington University

In the late 1800s, Martha Douglas Harris, the daughter of the former governor of British Columbia, observed that "civilization" was destroying the "native dignity and wholesome life" of the Cowichan tribe of Vancouver, "substituting much evil for the real good found in their former customs and character." She herself was part Cree Indian—a fact that her father was none too eager to make public. But he and her mother had long since passed away, and so she wrote this book of 20 folktales in 1901, partly to honor her Native American heritage. 

"Reciting these legends to my own children, I have found that they contain the power to delight and amaze. ... There are unforgettable creation legends, a war song, epic heroes, and wild women. There are characters with all the rashness of Odysseus, the romantic compunction of the prodigal son ... and folklore motifs that parallel the classical epics and biblical parables." –Dr. Paul J. Lindholdt, from the Introduction

Contents: The Enchanted Bear, The War Song, The Thunder and Lightning Bird, Children of the Moon, The Two Sisters and 15 other classic stories about the Cowichan and Cree tribes.

"...a significant and seminal contribution to Native American Studies..." -The Midwest Book Review

138 pages / paperback / 6 x 9 format / 11 illustrations / fall 2004 / $71.95  / Includes CIP data and index / ISBN: 0-922993-11-4 

This book is now out of print and available only from rare book dealers / $71.95