I live in a special place, near a forest on a hill that is full of magic and mystery. It sits at the edge of urban Victoria; from one side of the hill you can see the city laid out before you while from the other side you look across a few farms to the greenbelt that contains the urban sprawl. Here is one story of how this land came to be, years and years ago when the people first came to this place:
The Wives of the Stars
There once was a chief who had two daughters. During the summer the people moved to a camp where they fished for salmon. One day the girls went into to the meadows to harvest camas. At night they lay down among the trees and looked at the stars. The elder sister said, “I wish the big star up there (Jupiter) would be my husband.” And the younger said, “I wish the red star there (Mars) would be my husband.” Then they fell asleep. When they woke again, they found themselves in a strange land. The stars had taken them into the sky. Now they saw that the stars were men. What they wished for had come to pass and the stars became their husbands. The following day, their husbands told them to go out and collect camas. But they forbade them to dig up the bulbs as is done on earth. Instead, they were only allowed to cut off the stalks. To start with, the women obeyed, but one day the older sister said, “I must eat a camas bulb again!” She dug one up and, to their amazement, they were looking down upon the earth through the hole. When they arrived home, they didn’t say anything about this. They still went to the forest as before to gather camas. But now they made a long rope there, without anyone knowing about it. When they thought that it was long enough, they made a big hole in the ground and the eldest daughter crawled down. She said to her sister, “You wait here. When I have arrived down there safely, I’ll shake the rope. Then follow me down. Otherwise, assume that I’ve fallen into the sea.” The younger sister held the rope as she went down. The woman landed on would be known as Knockan Hill. There, she walked back and forth over a long distance and pulled the rope to and fro. Thus, she was able at last to shake it a little bit and her sister in the sky felt some very weak movements. She tied the rope to a tree up there, clasped it with her hands and legs and climbed down. The elder sister sat down below and looked up. Finally she saw a small moving dot. It grew bigger and bigger and then she recognized her sister. Her legs had become quite crooked from climbing so long. She had scarcely arrived at the bottom when the rope fell down. The people in the sky had missed the women and when they discovered the rope, they cut it. Then the women went to their home where they were welcomed with much excitement. Some people say that the rope has turned into the rocky outcroppings around the hill, while others say that the rope is invisible except to the pure of heart.
The land around Victoria used to be characterized by rolling meadows of camas and ancient Garry Oaks. After the founding of the Fort of Victoria right down to the present, the camas meadows have been whittled away and now only a few original sites persist. Something like only 1% of what used to be camas meadows survive on southern Vancouver Island. The park behind my house is one of those rare places. Every year, we locals spend hours battling the invasive plants in the meadows and the forest and every spring we are rewarded by the carpets of purple camas that continue to flourish on Knockan Hill. The hill is also home to wildlife of all kinds, from insects to lizards to mammals and birds.
A few years ago, the park became home to a pair of eagles who built a nest in a tall tree in the centre of the forest. Some years have been better than others for the eagles, but I’ll never forget a couple of years back when two eaglets successfully hatched and fledged and learned to fly. By the end of the summer one of the young eagles moved on, perhaps to Goldstream park for some easy fishing. The other young eagle wasn’t quite so eager to move on. Instead he remained in the nest until finally the parents decided it was time for junior to grow up, and to move out. So they very simply started to deconstruct the nest, until there simply wasn’t any choice left for the young one, it was time to move on. Many of the eagles’ two-legged neighbours took notes on the process and smiled knowingly to one another along the trail. A short time later however, disaster struck. It was around Easter and the eagles had been nesting for some time. We weren’t sure if the eggs had hatched yet but clearly something was going on. Then the weather turned, a low pressure system moved in and the winds picked up and before we knew it, gale-force winds began blowing. After a day of strong winds I had a visit from my nephew and his girlfriend and so despite the breezy weather I took them on a tour of the park. All went well until we got close to the eagle tree. Looking down the trail, something was wrong…the tree was missing! Rounding a bend we saw the downed tree lying straight across the trail. Disaster – we searched for the nest but couldn’t find a trace. As we scrambled through the brush, from overhead came a loud and pitiful cry as one of the adult eagles circled in distress. It seemed to be calling “What happened? Where’d it go? Where’s my nest?” over and over and over again. The neighbours and I wondered if that was it for the eagles, would they go away for good now? But no, after a week or so, we started to see them flying overhead again, into and out of the forest. Then a few days later they started carrying sticks and branches and began rebuilding their nest in a different place.
When we consider this story as a metaphor it has a lot to teach us. Human parents sometimes pick the wrong place to build their nests. From up above it’s hard to see if a tree is rotten down below or if its roots are too shallow in the rocky terrain to withstand a big windstorm. Sometimes, even though the parents are caring, a big wind can come up and knock down the tree and crush the nest. Sometimes, the original landscape has been altered so much that the only place left for the eagles to build is a tree that they wouldn’t pick if they had a choice. So if we consider why there are so many aboriginal kids in government care it’s instructive to think about the eagle nest on Knockan Hill. Just because parents have to pick a rotten tree to build their nest doesn’t mean that they aren’t good parents. Just because a big wind comes up and blows down the nest, it isn’t necessarily justification to take kids away from their parents. None of us are responsible for the big strong winds of social change, for the forces beyond our control. It’s my personal opinion that all too often it appears that society, and in particular mainstream social workers, are quick to judgment about the lifestyles of aboriginal families. What appears not to be taken into account is that the substandard reserve housing was never the choice of aboriginal people. The reserves themselves were more often than not marginal lands doled out as consolation prizes after traditional territories had been conquered and stolen. Years of systemic abuse and attempts to de-culturate indigenous peoples have been followed by decades of benign neglect and broken promises. The different levels of government point to each other as reasons for not providing support while along the way families suffer in poverty. Through it all social workers, police, teachers and health professionals mostly look at the homes of indigenous families through the perspective of their own quite different experiences. It’s time to think about that eagle nest again. Just because the nest didn’t survive is no reason to say that the eagles didn’t know how to parent. None of us should be judged for not withstanding a windstorm. Instead we need to make sure that there are enough strong trees around, with deep roots reaching into rich soil. We need to make sure that those trees are flexible and can bend and twist in the wind. We need to pick up the pieces, without condemnation and with empathy. That’s the teaching of the eagles’ way.
David Trudel © 2012