Two-Headed Guardian On the Old Trail to the Salmon River

The peoples of the Coast have ancestral stories of double-headed serpents, beings of great transformative power.


A Kwakwaka’wakw Sisiutl dance mask made of cedar by Oscar Matilpi. Source

It would not be a surprise if such transformative stories were not present inland as well, as people here did come out of the coast in, first following big game and then following fish, long before history began. Now that history is ending and we are finding our way to the land again, the old stories are beginning to come clear again out of what has been called “Nature” for over 200 years now.

A Chapter in an Old Story

This story has always told us. We called it “beauty.” It was always more of a guide than that. Below is a guardian just off the trail leading up from the villages of Chilutsus and the path down the valley to winter settlements perhaps as far south as Nkwala’s Prairie or SnPink’tn.

Double-Headed Figure

I have found one record that mentions a double-headed rattlesnake in this precise area. Could this be it? Could that be a snake den under it? If it were a rattler, it is coiled and ready to strike. It is also looking both ways, with a fish head looking left and a coyote’s head looking right. What’s more, there’s an owl on its rump, where a rattler’s rattle might be. Just as interesting, it sits in a nest, of both stones and dust, and is surrounded by the rattlesnake of spring plants, sagebrush buttercup, as poisonous as a snake. Are these syilx stories? No, not at all, let’s be very clear about that. These are Harold’s stories, but the pattern is suggestive. After all, it was Sen’klip, sometimes called Coyote in settler culture, who brought salmon. As that is one of the formative stories of this land and her people, that Snake, Sen’klip, Salmon and Owl are sitting in a nest in the middle of a circle of house stones…well, let’s just say a story could be told here. The point is not that this is an old syilx story. Let’s be very clear about that. I am not syilx and don’t have that knowledge, yet… with indigenous story-telling in mind, the land and its relationships can still be meaningfully read with the old stories in mind, and new ones can be made that do not discredit the old ones. That is in keeping with traditional story-telling. The story comes first, and after that the oral record of the story. Written records, not so much. Now, let’s look just along the side of the hill, and even closer to where the old trail probably went, if the land and human feet still make sense together…

Is that an owl?

Is that a snake rising as a nose, between its two eyes, ready to strike?

Is it not a collection of figures, under a choke cherry that a bear clambered on last Autumn to get at some cherries? (Note the broken branches).

Is that not a coyote sleeping below the snake, looking back over his shoulder, as dogs will?

I know of no such story, yet this kind of stone naturally breaks up into particular patterns, which a human mind reads in particular ways, if conditioned to do so by a combination of landscape and story. Even if it is no traditional story, it is not contrary to any that might be told. You could, of course, just talk about frost, crystallization patterns, soil type, habitat and so on, and have a rich “natural” world instead of a world of story, and that is also a great telling, but  looking at the figures above, just imagine how these story piles become iconic points that centre landscape. They are like points of meditation, opening familiar patterns in unexpected ways. I find that intriguing. “Natural” stories bind the land through intersections of processes. Indigenous stories bind the land together through its creatures and their relationship to human families. The reading I’m showing you today shows what can be read of them in the subconscious, with the land and its creatures as a reference. Why not. And consider this: the old stories remain primary and vital and are told by their keepers, as it should be. The land, however, is one of their keepers and though the stories that it tells are tricky and can fool us, they are still there. Even if we just imagine them, as I probably am, it’s not just “us” who is imagining, or, shall I say, imaging. Whether we are going west…

… or going east an hour later…

… the stones speak trees, and more than trees, at least to humans, who have bodies.

Our bodies hear, but do we have the courage to let our selves be wordlessly guided? Can we let “self” go like that?

Can we let “meaning” go and be coming and going at the same time because the story is not about “us”?

Can we step off the trail between the parking lot and the beach and make a new one? The danger of cultural appropriation is always present, but what is life without risk? Besides, we can always say, “There is an old story here. I went walking in it. Look what I saw.” Humility of that kind would do us all good.

Whatever we are, whatever “to be human” is, is not entirely ours to say.

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