Culture & History
Saysutshun has always had a special place in the hearts of Snuneymuxw people or mustimuxw. Before European contact, Snuneymuxw people lived on the island throughout the late winter and early spring in order to take advantage of the annual herring run.
The island is also a source of traditional natural medicines and has always been associated with physical and spiritual healing. When someone passed away in the community, the loved ones would go to Saysutshun to yu’thuy’thut - to fix up their heart, mind and body and let go of their tears.
Many changes have come to the island over the past hundred years. In the mid-1800’s, the coal mining industry began operating here and the Coast Salish buildings were abandoned. The island has since been home to a fish salting plant, a shipyard, a sandstone quarry, and a leisure retreat for the wealthy. Now it is run as a protected marine park and event destination by the Snuneymuxw people. A walk around the island truly takes you back through time; you can find hidden treasures of all the island’s past incarnations if you only take the time to look.
In the traditional Hul'q'umi'num language of the Snuneymuxw people, the name given to a place also connects that place to our stories, history and culture.
There are many names for various sites around the Island:
Saysutshun: Means 'training for running' and refers to the special places where runners, canoe paddlers or warriors would bathe to cleanse themselves before a race or battle.
Qulastun: Means 'facing the other way' or 'backwards'. It is the name for the bay where the ferry docks which looks back toward Nanaimo Harbour. Many years ago, this was a favourite gathering place to dig and dry clams.
Tl:piles: Means 'deep, going under water' and is the name for a small bay at the north end of the Island which was a favourite camping site because of its perfect beach for landing canoes.
Thlap’qwum: Means 'boiling place' and is where a monster, a huge sting ray-like creature, lived and made the water look like it was boiling. Read the story of the sea monster (The Boiling Place) in the Traditional Stories section below.
How the Saysutshun Racoon got His White Coat
Long ago all the animals and birds would gather together and have a year-end feast – a Potlach – and share a meal with one another.
If someone liked clams they brought clams to the main table, if someone liked berries they would bring berries, and so on. So everyone’s favorite food was at the same table for one another to share.
Everyone always looked forward to Eagle’s dish because he brought Coho salmon. To all the animals and birds, Coho is like chocolate and it never made it all the way around the table before running out.
One year, Raccoon was talking to his friends Cormorant and Otter. He said to them, “I wish we could just steal that Coho and keep it for ourselves because most of the time it never makes it all the way around the table.”
His friends agreed, so Raccoon says, “Well, all we need is a big distraction.”
Cormorant says, “Well I could pretend I’m stretching and while I’m stretching someone can run behind and grab the Coho.”
“How about I stand up on a perch and watch to see when it looks busy” says Racoon, “and Otter you run in and grab the Coho while Cormorant is stretching.”
The day of the feast, Cormorant goes to main table and stands there waiting for Raccoon to say its OK. When Racoon gives Cormorant the sign, he pretends to stretch and Otter runs in and grabs the Coho and takes off. Just as Otter is at the water line, Eagle swoops down and stops Otter and says “Stop! Why must you steal from our main table? This is the only time of year we share a meal with one another and you are stealing. I must teach you all a lesson. Cormorant, because you tried to trick me with having your wings flared wide open you shall be like this until this day.” Today, whenever Cormorants get wet, they have to leave their wings flared open in order to dry or they will be cold.
Eagle continues, “Otter, you once were a great scout of all the lands now you shall be a great scout of the sea.” So now Otters breathe air but live in the ocean.
As each one was getting in trouble Raccoon became more and more afraid of what was going to happen to him because he had planned the whole idea and when Eagle said, “And Raccoon…”, Raccoon became so afraid he turned white.
Eagle said, “Raccoon because you had planned the stealing of the Coho this is how you shall live from now on.” The Eagle then cast the white Raccoon out to Saysutshun Island and told him that is where he shall live from now on.
This is why Saysutshun is the only place in the world that has the white raccoons.
The Boiling Place
Once on Saysutshun lived a young man, and every day he would stand at one point of the island and talk to a young lady from the village across the water. One day he couldn’t hear her because it was too windy, so he decided to swim across and finally meet her. When he was half way across, the water started to boil and a sea monster came up, swallowed the young man and then went back under the water. The girl began to scream loudly and people from the village came down to see what happened. The Elder of the village told all the young men to run home and grab their paddles and spears and then he told all the women to go down to the beach and dig as many clams as they could and put them in the canoes.
When the canoes were filled with clams, the Elder said to the men of the village, “When you go out to the middle of the water where the water boils, I want you to stop and hit the top of the water with your paddles and you will see the water bubble up. When you see it bubble I want you to throw clams down and the sea monster will come up out of the water to eat more clams and when he does I want you to spear him.”
So the men went out the middle of the water and began to slap their paddles on the water’s surface. Soon the water began again to boil and the men threw their clams into the water. The sea monster came up out of the water, his mouth full of clams and the men speared the monster and dragged it to back to the beach. The Elder grabbed a knife and cut open the sea monster and the young man jumped out with no cuts to his body.
The clams that were thrown into the water washed up on Saysutshun and created the perfect clam bed rock.