by Alice Meyers in conversation with Earl Claxton Jr. (Thuh-thay-tun Kapilano)
This is the story of my friendship with Earl Claxton Jr., a SȾÁ,UTW̱ (Tsawout) Elder and respected botanical knowledge holder from the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) Coast Salish First Nation on the territory known as Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Anglicized from his SENĆOŦEN language, his names are Thuh-thay-tun and Kapilano. As I dip a canoe paddle into deep, cool waters, I reflect on the first day Earl and I met at ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School, drawn together by a shared desire to tend Indigenous trees and plants awaiting homes at habitat restoration sites. With Earl grieving the loss of his father, Dr. Earl Claxton Sr. (YELЌÁTŦE), a celebrated teacher, storyteller, and language keeper, I grieve the loss of both my grandmothers, Lorna and Helen. We find ourselves sharing stories in a place of joy at PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ (“The Blossoming Place”), the Tribal School’s native plant nursery and garden, watching plants grow under the shining sun as a chorus of children’s laughter fills the air. Students at ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School learn the SENĆOŦEN language while harvesting KEXMIN (a W̱SÁNEĆ medicinal plant), feasting on tenderly planted vegetables, and shrieking with happiness at the annual wet-leaved “bedding down” of the garden. In this sacred space, Earl’s stories find their grounded place, echoing in my ears as I write.
An accomplished dancer, storyteller, ethnobotanist, chef, educator, and now a friend, Earl has become an important part of my life over the last year. Earl’s mother and grandmother were well-known community knowledge holders, respected for expertise about plants as foods and medicines. His mother, Joanne, a founder of the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board, asks Earl to tell students about respecting one another and respecting education. Earl’s father, Dr. Earl Claxton Sr., continued the foundational legacy of SENĆOŦEN language resources initiated by Dave Elliott Sr. in the 1970s. My analogy of the canoe journey comes from Earl’s father, who viewed life as a paddling journey, telling Earl: “The swirls that you leave behind are something to think about.” Earl’s grandmother, Elsie Claxton, collaborated with ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner, who affirmed in her book The Earth’s Blanket: “First Nations’ spiritual life is completely tied to … home places.”
Having acknowledged Earl’s family history, I now locate myself. I am of Scottish, English, and German ancestry, and the canoe played a symbolic role in my growing up. My ethnobotanical journey began in childhood as I canoed with my grandmother Lorna, looking up to passionate ecologist parents. As I paddled through university as a linguist in Toronto, spending time with Anishinaabe language resurgence communities, an element of spiritual exploration entered my journey. It is this quest that brought me to Coast Salish territory. My interests lie in SENĆOŦEN and Hul’qu’minum language resurgence, celebrating multiple literacies (eco-, heart, community, and language literacies) enabled through reconnection with ancestral languages. At this point in my “canoe journey,” as the WEXES (frog) moon rises, I feel the ripple effect of the deep sorrow for the state of the environment. I want to celebrate W̱SÁNEĆ culture by honoring ancient knowledges carried by Elders, like Earl Jr., while also contributing to ecological restoration.
Reclamation of ancestral language and re-naming of sacred sites is vital to Coast Salish self-determination today.
Reclamation of ancestral language and re-naming of sacred sites is vital to Coast Salish self-determination today. As we bear witness to increasing evidence that Indigenous language revitalization positively influences social determinants of health, it is time to celebrate ancient wisdoms living on in Elders, like Earl Jr. Furthermore, the importance of connecting language transmission with nature is confirmed by the rise in land-based pedagogies, where learning takes place on the land, forming what, in the words of the Tribal School’s ÁLEṈENEȻ program, is a “central strategy for the indigenization of education.”
SENĆOŦEN, the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ people, is one of 34 unique languages found in the territories known as British Columbia, the richly diverse home to sixty percent of First Nations languages in Canada. At ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School on the W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) reserve, students engage in learning-by-doing at PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱, the native plant nursery and garden program, coordinated by local ethnoecologist Judith Lyn Arney. Workshops teach garden skills and SENĆOŦEN plant names, and language resurgence weaves into land-based, experiential learning.
The W̱SÁNEĆ people have lived on this land for millennia, forming intimate relationships with local keystone species such as salmon and cedar. Known as the “salt water people,” the W̱SÁNEĆ “used the channels around our Island territories [as their] rivers,” as an ÁLEṈENEȻ program report puts it. They live today on four reserves at the location of original winter village sites, W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip), SȾÁ,UTW̱ (Tsawout), W̱SÍKEM (Tseycum) and BOḰEĆEN (Pauquachin). In his book The Salt Water People, Dave Elliott Sr. describes W̱SÁNEĆ interconnectedness with nature as “so much a part of nature, we were just like the birds, the animals, the fish.”
W̱SÁNEĆ linguistic traditions are centered around this deep bond to the land and the sea. Earl told me stories of SENĆOŦEN place names tied to geographical formations on W̱SÁNEĆ territory. As Dave Elliott Sr. related in his book, “every bay, every stream, every village, every island, every mountain, every lake had a name in our language.” Place name stories underscore the significance of reclaiming local sites on Vancouver Island, such as PKOLS (Mt. Douglas), ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ (Mt. Newton), and SṈIDĆEȽ (Tod Inlet), a practice Earl views as important for healing from residential schools, conveying that “we all need to heal together.”
Similarly, in the ÁLEṈENEȻ report John Elliott Sr., Dave Elliott’s son, expresses: “The teachings from this traditional place … are useful today in reconciling the relations between the W̱SÁNEĆ people, traditional places such as SṈITĆEȽ [sic], and others who currently live on or use these traditional territories.” The SENĆOŦEN names open a window onto understanding another worldview, intrinsically linked to this land for thousands of years. In his book The Caretakers, W̱SÁNEĆ poet Philip Kevin Paul notes that the basic difference between English and SENĆOŦEN is “perspective,” as English “creates observers whereas the SENĆOŦEN language creates participants.”
In contrast to the deep reciprocal bond that W̱SÁNEĆ people hold with the earth, settler relationships with land shifted from respecting the land to viewing it as terra nullius (no-man’s land) through the lens of economic profitability. Conversely, the W̱SÁNEĆ honor the earth and her cycles, ensuring sustainability and displaying deep respect through ceremony, celebrating the arrival of each plant or animal that grows, each insect that buzzes by, and each tree that buds.
Sacred sites are known to be places where we communicate with creation, and their re-naming from European to Indigenous monikers is an act of reconciliation, contributing to a global movement to restore Indigenous rights. Earl tells me stories about SENĆOŦEN place names, originally told by his father, Earl Claxton Sr. Together, we present five elaborations on W̱SÁNEĆ sacred sites.
The first site is adjacent to the famed Butchart Gardens. Like the gardens, it rests on land reclaimed from a former cement factory at what has been called “Tod Inlet” on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island. Earl explains that this habitat restoration site for students at ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School is called SṈIDĆEȽ, meaning “Place of the Blue Grouse.” With sadness in his voice, Earl told me he believed the blue grouse might never return because of human interference with the land. As an indicator species, it was understood by the W̱SÁNEĆ people that “the blue grouse would only occupy a place if the land was very rich,” as Philip Kevin Paul put it. SṈIDĆEȽ is the original W̱SÁNEĆ village site and an important fishing and hunting area — the only one, adds Paul, “within my people’s winter movements that offered protection from the southwest wind, the most vicious wind in Saanich.”
The second and third sacred sites have entered public consciousness through community-based movements to rename them as ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ (Mt. Newton) and PKOLS (Mt. Douglas) on Vancouver Island. As heard in the film The Renaming of PKOLS, W̱SÁNEĆ Elder and master carver Charles Elliott refers to the renaming as a small act of decolonization, in which “we are honoring something that our ancestors had put into place thousands of years ago.” In 2013, actions to re-name PKOLS were organized by Earl’s community of SȾÁ,UTW̱ (Tsawout), supported by other W̱SÁNEĆ nations and the Songhee First Nation. PKOLS translates as “White Head,” reflecting Indigenous oral history, supported by geological findings, that it was the last place from which glaciers receded on southern Vancouver Island. PKOLS is sacred to the W̱SÁNEĆ as it represents their nation’s birthplace. The reclaiming of ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ followed in 2014. This mountain, after which ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School is named, is known as “The Place of Refuge,” referencing the great flood that forms part of W̱SÁNEĆ identity. Earl explains that a 10- to 15-minute hike past the parking lot at John Dean Provincial Park on Vancouver Island reveals “a sign up there that says ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱.” As recorded by Nancy Turner, the late Philip Paul, a well-known leader and former chief of the Tsartlip Band, and son of W̱SÁNEĆ Elder Christopher Paul (the latter being Turner’s “first ethnobotany teacher”) says the mountain evokes “reverence, a special emotional sense of awe and wonder similar to that a cathedral inspires … and an equivalent respect and wish to protect it from harm.”
Place name stories underscore the significance of reclaiming local sites … a practice … important for healing from residential schools.
The fourth site, known in English as McKenzie Bight, is what the W̱SÁNEĆ call W̱MÍYEŦEṈ, translated as “People of the Deer”. Using a phonetically based, anglicized spelling of the word for deer (smi-uth), Earl tells me “that’s where Smi-uth was transformed from a human to a deer.” As Smi-uth the human ran to escape XÁLS (the creator), he carried two arrows and two deep-sea mussel shells. XÁLS caught him and transformed Smi-uth into a deer, throwing the mussel shells into his head to become distinctive peaked ears, and sticking the arrows down each ankle to produce the bow-legged march of the deer. Earl often pointed out W̱MÍYEŦEṈ to me across the water. It is a formative story for my understanding of connections between people, language, and place.
The fifth site, W̱EN,NÁ,NEĆ (“Facing Towards Saanich”), is the W̱SÁNEĆ traditional territory near Fulford Harbor on Salt Spring Island. Earl’s translation of “your rear end facing the wind” depicts the extent of winter’s cold, as “you feel like the wind is traveling right through you.” Earl says at an original longhouse site are huge clam middens, proving the long occupation of the W̱SÁNEĆ people.
Sacred sites are known to be places where we communicate with creation, and their re-naming from European to Indigenous monikers is an act of reconciliation, contributing to a global movement to restore Indigenous rights.
I see that each of these stories demonstrates the bond that W̱SÁNEĆ peoples have with their land, represented through the SENĆOŦEN language. Considering we all come from the earth, live from the earth, and go back to the earth, it is time to work together to honor the land around us and uphold First Peoples’ knowledges. Supporting SENĆOŦEN names for sacred sites is important to the W̱SÁNEĆ people as an act of self-determination. As Earl asserts, it forms part of a healing process we all need to go through together. For local people seeking to respect Indigenous wisdoms, the name changes honor the desires of Elders. Globally, the reclaiming contributes to the linking of linguistic diversity with biodiversity, enriching universal soul consciousness.
As I watch the cedar branches dancing along the shore from my canoe, I reflect on the fact that the garden at PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ provides a grounded, earthy place from which to learn these names and stories. As camas flowers and fawn lilies begin to bloom with the arrival of a new growing season, Earl and the program coordinator prepare for sessions on canning, making berry jam and planting seeds, while the laughter of children resonates through the garden.
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Alice Meyers is a PhD candidate in the Language and Literacies Education program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Of Scottish, English, and German background, Alice is passionate about the links between nature, languages, and education. She enjoys spending time with her grandfather.
Earl Claxton Jr. (Thuh-thay-tun Kapilano) is a celebrated Elder, storyteller, and educator from the SȾÁ,UTW̱ (Tsawout) First Nation. Raised with deep respect for the land by his parents and grandparents, Earl inspires awe in his students and is looked upon fondly by all those who know him.
Davies, S. (Director). (2015). The Renaming of PKOLS. [Short film]. Canada.
Elliott, D. Sr. (1990). The Salt Water People: A Resource Book for the Saanich Native Studies Program. Native Education: School District 63 (Saanich).
Paul, P.K. (1995). The Caretakers: The Reemergence of the Saanich Indian Map. Sidney, BC: Institute of Ocean Sciences.
PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱. (2015). PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱: Native Plant Nursery & Garden. [Website]. Retrieved from www.pepakenhautw.com.
Swallow, T. (Ed.). (2008). ÁLEṈENEȻ: Learnings From Homeland. Brentwood Bay: W̱SÁNEĆ School Board & Saanich Adult Education Centre.
Turner, N. (2005). The Earth’s Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living. Seattle: University of Washington Press.