Coast Salish oral history varies on Battle of Maple Bay
But remains consistent on central themes of the event
Anyone who watched the documentary Tzouhalem had to be captivated by the story of the Battle of Maple Bay. It’s hard to imagine that this tranquil little bay was once the scene of an epic, bloody clash between a Coast Salish alliance and a tribe from northern Vancouver Island.
The event likely took place around the late 1830s to early 1840s and continues to resonate with not just the Cowichan people but dozens of Coast Salish groups from the south coast of BC and Washington State.
An academic paper published by Bill Angelbeck of Douglas College and Eric McLay of the University of Victoria examined 21 accounts— both recent and historic — of the battle told within the various communities that participated in the alliance.
While the oral history differs, there is unanimous agreement that the Coast Salish scored a decisive victory over outside invaders, the “Kwakwaka’wakw Lekwiltok,” according to the researchers’ paper.
“The battle was of such a large scale, according to all accounts, that individuals and groups would have experienced it from different perspectives, and the accounts reflect that,” the paper says.
While the victors kept the story alive, the losers preferred not to. The paper quotes an ethnologist from the early 1900s who concluded that the Lekwiltok “refuse to discuss this disastrous affair, frankly admitting, when pressed, that they prefer to talk about their victories.”
The paper adds: “While many stories demonstrate remarkable consistency over generations, each account also has some elements and events that are missing in others. The aggregate of these accounts provides a larger comparative context that reveals how each group had motives to participate in this alliance, how they uniquely experienced the battle, and why this historical event was so significant in transforming intergroup relations in the early postcontact era.”
Among the differences in oral history, some suggest the battle was purely waged with canoes, whereas others suggest the outmanned Lekwiltok sought to escape on land, where they were massacred. Some say the Lekwiltok fell into the water after their canoes capsized or tried to swim away but “were speared like salmon.” Others suggest that spirit powers were employed to win the battle. “The Cowichan sang their war song of Ts’inukw’a’, the great serpent that fell from the skies into Maple Bay.”
The Coast Salish formed the alliance due to ongoing raids by the Lekwiltok, including the enslaving of women and children, but that ended after the battle of Maple Bay.
“Although retold by different individuals and groups over many generations, Coast Salish narratives about the Battle at Maple Bay exhibit many common elements and themes: a history of Lekwiltok attacks; a council of war; the organization of a Coast Salish alliance; the setting at Maple Bay; a decoy canoe; the surprise ambush of the Lekwiltok; the use of overwhelming numbers; the Coast Salish strategic use of local geography; the massacre of the Lekwiltok; the bay turning red with blood; and the ending of the conflicts by the destruction of the Lekwiltok villages and the rescue of enslaved family members.
“Consistently, the Battle at Maple Bay is described as the last great battle between the Coast Salish and the Lekwiltok. Furthermore, it is said to be the initiation of a lasting regional peace.”
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— Larry Pynn Mar. 16, 2022