Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid

These aren’t just the supernatural stories of the sea grizzly bear or bekwus, but the unnatural stories of his own life of colonization beginning and drawing to an end on the banks of the Kitlope.

It is a Thursday night at the Kitimat Valley Institute and there is a long line-up of people waiting to buy a book from the master storyteller, Xenaksiala elder, Cecil Paul. He and Gerald Amos, his shist a bey or navigator at the front of the canoe, have just regaled the crowd for the last hour about their work with the Haisla community to save the Kitlope from the big industrial interests of their time—logging, hydro, oil and gas. Cecil Paul has told the story of that long journey in—what his granny called—the magic canoe. “Build a canoe and it will be supernatural and no matter how many people will come aboard to help you paddle to save your place of birth, it will never be full.” Raincoast is one of the many organizations who stepped into the magic canoe to support and learn from the traditional knowledge systems of the Xenaksiala.

The book launch has the usual supernatural quality of the coast when you travel it with Wa’xaid, his Xenaksiala name which translates as, the Good River. Haida drummers appear and sing a warrior song. Kitimat mill workers, who have benefitted from his teachings, express their gratitude. Wa’xaid is wearing a beautiful button vest with the Killer Whale clan crest on it, his great uncle’s clan into which he was adopted to keep the clan alive after the decimation of smallpox.

He leans on a cane carved by Roy Henry Vickers with a white eagle head (his mother’s clan) made out of killer whale tooth. He stands to tell a few of the stories that we have collected together over the last 20 years.

Cecil Paul stands and tells stories at his book reading, with Briony Penn sitting beside him.
Wa’xaid, Cecil Paul, at the Kitimat Valley Institute. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation, 2019.

These aren’t just the supernatural stories of the sea grizzly bear or bekwus, but the unnatural stories of his own life of colonization beginning and drawing to an end on the banks of the Kitlope. In part, it is a hellish journey with many arrows coming his way: residential schools, diseases, Indian hospitals, alcoholism, racism and corporate genocide. But it is mostly a story of how he found healing and forgiveness in the beauty of his birth place, Kitlope Lake or Kaous, and how the teachings of his culture gave him the resilience to continue and win back what was taken away: his birthplace, the Gps’golox pole, the oolichan and his daughter.

Today, the Kitlope is the largest unlogged protected temperate rainforest on the planet. Raincoast continues to support the teachings of the Xenaksiala, one of which is that the grizzlies are what everything else stands upon. The moratorium on trophy hunting and buying out of the guide outfitting licence will mean a return to the valleys of the grizzly. Wa’xaid’s stories document that return.

Get Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid.

Book by Cecil Paul

Briony Penn, PhD, author Briony Penn, author, Phd, illustrator and activist.

Briony Penn is an award-winning writer of creative non-fiction books as well as a contributor to many anthologies and chapter books. She has been a feature writer and columnist for decades with over five hundred articles on environmental issues and natural history in newspapers, magazines, government publications, on-line news sources and peer-reviewed journals. She’s written environmental guides and educational handbooks for teachers in British Columbia.

Video: Stories From The Magic Canoe | Cecil Paul

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