The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson

The Potlatch*

    YOUNG Ta-la-pus sat on the highest point of rock that lifted itself on the coast at the edge of his father’s Reserve. At his feet stretched the Straits of Georgia, and far across the mists of the salt Pacific waters he watched the sun rise seemingly out of the mainland that someone had told him stretched eastward thousands of miles, where another ocean, called the Atlantic, washed its far-off shore, for Ta-la-pus lived on Vancouver Island, and all his little life had been spent in wishing and longing to set his small, moccasined feet on that vast mainland that the old men talked of, and the young men visited year in and year out. But never yet had he been taken across the wide, blue Straits, for he was only eleven years old, and he had two very big brothers who always accompanied their father, old chief Mowitch, on his journeyings, for they were good fishermen, and could help in the salmon catch, and bring good chicamin (money) home to buy supplies for the winter. Sometimes these big brothers would tease him and say, “What can you expect? Your name is Ta-la-pus, which means a prairie wolf. What has a prairie wolf to do with crossing great waters? He cannot swim, as some other animals can. Our parents gave us better names, ‘Chetwoot,’ [Page 103] the bear, who swims well, and ‘Lapool,’ the water fowl, whose home is on the waters, whose feet are webbed, and who floats even while he sleeps. No, our young brother, Ta-la-pus, the prairie wolf, was never meant to cross the great salt Straits.”
    Then little Ta-la-pus would creep away to his lonely rock, trying to still the ache in his heart, and forcing back the tears from his eyes. Prairie wolves must not cry like little girl babies—and sometimes when his heart was sorest, a clear, dazzlingly bright day would dawn, and far, far off he could see the blur of the mainland coast, resting on the sea like an enormous island. Then he would tell himself that, no matter what his name was, some day he would cross to that great, far country, whose snow-crowned mountain peaks he could just see merging into the distant clouds.
    Then, late in the summer, there came one marvellous night, when his father and brothers returned from the sock-eye salmon fishing, with news that set the entire Indian village talking far into the early morning. A great Squamish chief on the mainland was going to give a Potlatch. He had been preparing for it for weeks. He had enjoyed a very fortunate fishing season, was a generous-hearted man, and was prepared to spend ten thousand dollars in gifts and entertainment for his friends and all the poor of the various neighboring tribes.
    Chief Mowitch and all his family were invited, and great rejoicing and anticipation were enjoyed over their salmon suppers that night.
    “You and the boys go,” said his wife. “Perhaps you will be lucky and bring home chicamin and blankets. The old men say the winter will be cold. Gray geese were going south yesterday, three weeks earlier than last year. Yes, we will need blankets when the ollalies (berries) are ripe in October. I shall stay at home, until the babies are older. Yes, you and the boys go.” [Page 104]
    “Yes,” responded the chief. “It would never do for us to miss a great Squamish Potlatch. We must go.”
    Then the elder son, Chet-woot, spoke joyously:
    “And mama, we may bring back great riches, and even if the cold does come while we are away, our little brother, Ta-la-pus, will care for you and the babies. He’ll carry water and bring all the wood for your warmth.”
    The father looked smilingly at Ta-la-pus, but the boy’s eyes, great and dark, and hungry for the far mainland, for the great feasts he had heard so much of, were fastened in begging, pleading seriousness on his father’s face. Suddenly a whim seized the old chief’s fancy.
    “Ta-la-pus,” he said, “you look as if you would like to go too. Do you want to take part in the Potlatch?”
    Instantly Chet-woot objected. “Papa, he could never go, he’s too young. They may ask him to dance for them. He can’t dance. Then perhaps they would never ask us.”
    The chief scowled. He was ruler in his own lodge, and allowed no interference from anyone.
    “Besides,” continued Chet-woot, “there would be no one to fetch wood for mama and the babies.”
    “Yes, there would be someone,” said the chief, his eyes snapping fiercely. “You would be here to help your mama.”
    “I?” exclaimed the young man. “But how can I, when I shall be at the Potlatch? I go to all the Potlatches.”
    “So much more reason that you stay home this once and care for your mama and baby sisters, and you shall stay. Lapool and little Ta-la-pus will go with me. It is time the boy saw something of the other tribes. Yes, I’ll take Lapool and Ta-la-pus, and there is no change to my word when it is once spoken.”
    Chet-woot sat like one stunned, but an Indian son [Page 105] knows better than to argue with his father. But the great, dark eyes of little Ta-la-pus glowed like embers of fire, his young heart leaped joyously. At last, at last, he was to set foot in the country of his dreams—the far, blue, mountain-circled mainland.
    All that week his mother worked day and night on a fine new native costume for him to wear on the great occasion. There were trousers of buckskin fringed down each side, a shirt of buckskin, beaded and beautified by shell ornaments, a necklace of the bones of a rare fish, strung together like little beads on deer sinew, earrings of pink and green pearl from the inner part of the shells of a bivalve, neat moccasins, and solid silver, carven bracelets.
    She was working on a headdress, consisting of a single red fox-tail and eagle feathers, when he came and stood beside her.
    “Mama,” he said, “there is a prairie wolf skin you cover the babies with while they sleep. Would you let me have it this once, if they would not be cold without it?”
    “They will never be cold,” she smiled, “for I can use an extra blanket over them. I only use it because I started to when you were the only baby I had, and it was your name, so I covered you with it at night.”
    “And I want to cover myself with it now,” he explained, “its head as my headdress, its front paws about my neck, its thick fur and tail trailing behind me as I dance.”
    “So you are going to dance, my little Ta-la-pus?” she answered proudly. “But how is that, when you do not yet know our great tribal dances?”
    “I have made one of my own, and a song, too,” he said, shyly.
    She caught him to her, smoothing the hair back from his dark forehead. “That is right,” she half whispered, for she felt he did not want anyone but herself to know [Page 106] his boyish secret. “Always make things for yourself, don’t depend on others, try what you can do alone. Yes, you may take the skin of the prairie wolf. I will give it to you for all time—it is yours.”
    That night his father also laid in his hands a gift. It was a soft, pliable belt, woven of the white, peeled roots of the cedar, dyed brilliantly, and worked into a magnificent design.
    “Your great-grandmother made it,” said the chief. “Wear it on your first journey into the larger world than this island, and do nothing in all your life that would make her regret, were she alive, to see it round your waist.”
    So little Ta-la-pus set forth with his father and brother, well equipped for the great Potlatch, and the meeting of many from half a score of tribes.
    They crossed the Straits on a white man’s steamer, a wonderful sight to Ta-la-pus, who had never been aboard any larger boat than his father’s fishing smack and their own high-bowed, gracefully-curved canoe. In and out among the islands of the great gulf the steamer wound, bringing them nearer, ever nearer to the mainland. Misty and shadowy, Vancouver Island dropped astern, until at last they steamed into harbor, where a crowd of happy-faced Squamish Indians greeted them, stowed them away in canoes, paddled a bit up coast, the sighted the great, glancing fires that were lighting up the grey of oncoming night—fires of celebration and welcome to all the scores of guests who were to partake of the lavish hospitality of the great Squamish chief.
    As he stepped from the great canoe, Ta-la-pus thought he felt a strange thrill pass through the soles of his feet. They had touched the mainland of the vast continent of North America for the first time; his feet seemed to become sensitive, soft, furry, cushioned like those of a wild animal. Then, all at once, a strange inspiration seized him. Why not try to make his footsteps “pad” [Page 107] like the noiseless paws of a prairie wolf? “pad” in the little dance he had invented, instead of “shuffling” in his moccasins, as all the grown men did? He made up his mind that when he was alone in his tent he would practise it, but just now the great Squamish chief was coming towards them with outstretched greeting hands, and presently he was patting little Ta-la-pus on the shoulder, and saying, “Oh, ho, my good Tillicum Mowitch, I am glad you have brought this boy. I have a son of the same size. They will play together, and perhaps this Tenas Tyee (Little Chief) will dance for me some night.”
    “My brother does not dance our tribal dances,” began Lapool, but Ta-la-pus spoke up bravely.
    “Thank you, O Great Tyee (Chief), I shall dance when you ask me.”
    His father and brother both stared at him in amazement. Then Chief Mowitch laughed, and said, “If he says he will dance, he will do it. He never promises what he cannot do, but I did not know he could do the steps. Ah! he is a little hoolool (mouse), this boy of mine; he keeps very quiet, and does not boast what he can do.”
    Little Ta-la-pus was wonderfully encouraged by his father’s notice of him and his words of praise. Never before had he seemed so close to manhood, for, being the youngest boy of the family, he had but little companionship with any at home except his mother and the little sisters that now seemed so far behind him in their island home. All that evening the old chiefs and the stalwart young braves were gravely shaking hands with his father, his brother Lapool, and himself, welcoming them to the great festival and saying pleasant things about peace and brotherhood prevailing between the various tribes instead of war and bloodshed, as in the olden times. It was late when the great supper of boiled salmon was over, and the immense bonfires began to blaze on the shore where the falling tides of the Pacific left the beaches dry and pebbly. The young men stretched themselves on the cool [Page 108] sands, and the old men lighted their peace pipes, and talked of the days when they hunted the mountain sheep and black bear on these very heights overlooking the sea. Ta-la-pus listened to everything. He could learn so much from the older men, and hour by hour he gained confidence. No more he thought of his dance with fear and shyness, for all these people were kindly and hospitable even to a boy of eleven. At midnight there was another feast, this time of clams, and luscious crabs, with much steaming black tea. Then came the great Squamish chief, saying more welcoming words, and inviting his guests to begin their tribal dances. Ta-la-pus never forgot the brilliant sight that he looked on for the next few hours. Scores of young men and women went through the most graceful figures of beautiful dances, their shell ornaments jingling merrily in perfect time to each twist and turn of their bodies. The wild music from the beat of Indian drums and shell “rattles” arose weirdly, half sadly, drifting up the mountain heights, until it lost itself in the “timber line” of giant firs that crested the summits. The red blaze from the camp fires flitted and flickered across the supple figures that circled around, in and out between the three hundred canoes beached on the sands, and the smoke tipped tents and log lodges beyond the reach of tide water. Above it all a million stars shone down from the cloudless heavens of a perfect British Columbian night. After a while little Ta-la-pus fell asleep, and when he awoke, dawn was just breaking. Someone had covered him with a beautiful, white, new blanket, and as his young eyes opened they looked straight into the kindly face of the great Squamish chief.
    “We are all aweary, ‘Tenas Tyee’ (Little Chief),” he said. The dancers are tired, and we shall all sleep until the sun reaches midday, but my guests cry for one more dance before sunrise. Will you dance for us, oh, little Ta-la-pus?”
    The boy sprang up, every muscle and sinew and nerve [Page 109] on the alert. The moment of his triumph or failure had come.
    “You have made me, even a boy like me, very welcome, O Great Tyee,” he said, standing erect as an arrow, with his slender, dark chin raised manfully. “I have eaten of your kloshe muck-a-muck (very good food), and it has made my heart and my feet very skookum (strong). I shall do my best to dance and please you.” The boy was already dressed in the brilliant buckskin costume his mother had spent so many hours in making, and his precious wolfskin was flung over his arm. The great Squamish chief now took him by the hand and led him towards the blazing fires round which the tired dancers, the old men and women, sat in huge circles where the chill of dawn could not penetrate.
    “One more dance, then we sleep,” said the chief to the great circle of spectators. “This Tenas Tyee will do his best to amuse us.”
    Then Ta-la-pus felt the chief’s hand unclasp, and he realized that he was standing absolutely alone before a great crowd of strangers, and that every eye was upon him.
    “Oh, my brother,” he whispered, smoothing the prairie wolf skin, “help me to be like you, help me to be worthy of your name.” Then he pulled the wolf’s head over his own, twisted the fore legs about his throat, and stepped into the great circle of sand between the crouching multitude and the fires.
    Stealthily he began to pick his way in the full red flare from the flames. He heard many voices whispering, “Tenas,” “Tenas,” meaning “He is little, he is young,” but his step only grew more stealthy, until he “padded” into a strange, silent trot in exact imitation of a prairie wolf. As he swung the second time round the fires, his young voice arose, in a thin, wild, wonderful barking tone, so weird and wolf-like that half the spectators leaped up to their knees, or feet, the better to watch and listen. [Page 110] Another moment, and he was putting his chant into words.

“They call me Ta-la-pus, the prairie-wolf,
    And wild and free am I.
I cannot swim like Eh-ko-lie, the whale,
    Nor like the eagle, Chack-chack, can I fly.

“I cannot talk as does the great Ty-ee,
    Nor like the o-tel-agh** shine in the sky.
I am but Ta-la-pus, the prairie-wolf,
    And wild and free am I.”

    With every word, every step, he became more like the wolf he was describing. Across his chanting and his “padding” in the sand came murmurs from the crowd. He could hear “Tenas, tenas,” “To-ke-tie Tenas” (pretty boy), “Skookum-tanse,” (good strong dance). Then at last, “Ow,” “Ow,” meaning “Our young brother.” On and on went Ta-la-pus. The wolf feeling crept into his legs, his soft young feet, his clutching fingers, his wonderful dark eyes that now gleamed red and lustrous in the firelight. He was as one inspired, giving a beautiful and marvellous portrait of the wild vagabonds of the plains. For fully ten minutes he circled and sang, then suddenly crouched on his haunches, then, lifting his head, he turned to the east, his young throat voiced one long, strange note, wolf-like he howled to the rising sun, which at that moment looked over the crest of mountains, its first golden shaft falling full upon his face.
    His chant and his strange wolf-dance were ended. Then one loud clamor arose from the crowd. “Tenas Tyee,” “Tenas Tyee,” they shouted, and Ta-la-pus knew that he had not failed. But the great Squamish chief was beside him.
    “Tillicums,” he said, facing the crowd, “this boy has danced no tribal dance learned from his people or his [Page 111] parents. This is his own dance, which he has made to deserve his name. He shall get the first gifts of our great Potlatch. Go,” he added, to one of the young men, “bring ten dollars of the white man’s chicamin (money), and ten new blankets as white as that snow on the mountain top.”
    The crowd was delighted. They approved the boy and rejoiced to see the real Potlatch was begun. When the blankets were piled up beside him they reached to the top of Ta-la-pus’ head. Then the chief put ten dollars in the boy’s hand with the simple words, “I am glad to give it. You won it well, my Tenas Tyee.”
    That was the beginning of a great week of games, feasting and tribal dances, but not a night passed but the participants called for the wild “wolf-dance” of the little boy from the island. When the Potlatch was over, old Chief Mowitch and Lapool and Ta-la-pus returned to Vancouver Island, but no more the boy sat alone on the isolated rock, watching the mainland through a mist of yearning. He had set foot in the wider world, he had won his name, and now honored it, instead of hating it, as in the old days when his brothers taunted him, for the great Squamish chief, in bidding good-bye to him, had said:
    “Little Ta-la-pus, remember a name means much to a man. You despised your name, but you have made it great and honorable by your own act, your own courage. Keep that name honorable, little Ta-la-pus; it will be worth far more to you than many blankets or much of the white man’s chicamin.” [Page 112]

* “Potlatch” is a Chinook word meaning “a gift.” Among the Indian tribes of British Columbia it is used as the accepted name of a great feast, which some Indian, who is exceedingly well off, gives to scores of guests. He entertains them for days, sometimes for weeks, together, presenting them with innumerable blankets and much money, for it is part of the Indian code of honor that, when one has great possessions, he must divide them with his less fortunate tribesmen. The gifts of money usually take the form of ten-dollar bank notes, and are bestowed broadcast upon any man, woman or child who pleases the host by either dancing the tribal dances very beautifully, or else originates an attractive dance of their own. [back]

Fact. This amount has frequently been given away. [back]

The Chinook for father and mother is “papa” and “mama,” adopted from the English language. [back]

** Sun. [back]

†† Friends, my people. [back]