The Father of All Trees

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

One of the most interesting aspects of living mythological systems is how flexible and adaptable they are, easily able to accomodate new realities. I've just come across a charming example of this in The Faith of a Coast Salish Indian by Diamond Jenness. Published in 1955 as Anthropology in British Columbia Memoir no. 3, this monograph was based on interviews in 1936 with "Old Pierre, a Katzie man about 75 years of age who enjoyed a wide and honourable reputation as a medicine man both on Vancouver Island and on the Mainland."

Jenness lists all the spirit guardians that Old Pierre had seen portrayed in the winter dances - land animals, sea mammals, fish, birds, insects, reptiles, forces of nature, and mythical creatures such as the two-headed snake. The last of these spirit guardians seems anomalous: locomotive. "When a half-breed Indian living near Abbotsford claimed it during one of the winter dances, the other Indians laughed at him. He insisted, however, that it enabled him to control the weather, because a locomotive goes everywhere through rain and sunshine; and he said that because they had mocked him, he would make the weather very cold for two months. When snow fell the next day and the weather did remain cold for two months, the Indians believed him."

Old Pierre's account of how he achieved his shamanic power is truly poetic. This is just one incident, in which he stands before "the father of all trees, invisible to mortal eyes":

"For a long time I stood there waiting. Finally the tree spoke: 'O poor boy. No living soul has ever seen me before. Here I stand, watching all the trees and all the people throughout this world, and no one knows me. One power, and one only, I shall grant you. When you are treating the sick, you shall see over the whole world; when the mind of your patient is lost, you shall see and recapture it. Remain here for a while till someone comes with a noise like the rushing of a great wind - someone who always rests on top of this tree. Do not look until I bid you.

"I waited. There came a sound as of a great wind at the top of the tree. 'Now look,' said the tree. I looked. On its summit stood a great white horse. Its hoofs were red, and two persons sat on its back. 'That horse flies all over the world,' said the tree. 'I shall not give you its power, for you would not live long.'"

After a series of hardships, purifications, and visions, "I awoke and found myself lying on the ground. Now I had power - power in my hands and wrists to draw out sickness, power in my mouth to swallow it, and power to see all over the world and to recover minds that had strayed from their bodily homes. I was a medicine-man."

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