The story of S-hwu-hwa’us and Qul-lhanumutsun

Jared Qwustenuxun Williams explains how the Cowichan Tribes logo is rooted in a story that’s been passed down for generations
I am honored to share this Salish S-hwu-hwa’us and Qul-lhanumutsun design by Quw’utsun artist Shawn Johnny. Photo submitted by Jared Williams

There is a glossary of Hul’qumi’num words at the bottom of this article

A community member recently asked me if I could tell the story behind the Cowichan Tribes logo, which features Thunderbird and Killer Whale — so I wanted to share the significance of where it came from.

Before I begin, I must say that this story is not mine; I do not write it from my own creation. Instead, this story is owned by all Quw’utsun mustimuhw as it is our story from time immemorial. This story has been shared down from generation to generation and it is intended as a true account of how the people summoned their greatest helper in the time of their most dire need.

Since the beginning the people have relied on salmon

Back when the river and the earth were still new, when people and nature were one and the same, when our first ancestors spread from their mountain home to the villages we know today, from the ancestral villages at the base of Swuq’us down to Ye’yumnuts and later down to Kwa’mutsun — the villages of the Quw’utsun mustimuhw have relied on the salmon runs. These villages were built by dedicated generations of Hwulmuhw mustimuhw who took the time to see the salmon as a relation. They knew that if they could create strong habitat and spawning grounds for the Stseelhtun, they too would thrive.

In fact, our ancestors were so dedicated to the art of salmon-shepherding that they built an elaborate system of salmon weirs. Salmon weirs are fences built across the river to redirect and bottleneck the salmon to make it easier to identify them and fish more selectively. These fences were built by driving willow branches into the river bed, creating a fence. Some weirs, most of which were annually reconstructed, used tripods and had willow mats over top or strong walkways connecting them. 

The Quw’utsun mustimuhw have been relying on this weir technology for so long that Stseelhtun from the Quw’utsun Sta’lo have grown thinner and taller, to be able to push between the willows in a weir fence. Eventually, any tribe in the area could identify a salmon that came from the Quw’utsun river due its slender shape. 

Every year, the people would harvest with special care to allow the stronger males and the majority of the females to pass through the weir and travel upriver to spawn. This would create stronger and more prolific generations, year after year, for thousands of years. I also want to note something important here: Weir technology allows its owner to block off the whole river and deplete the entire salmon run. This means the tribe, village, or house at the mouth of a river could effectively stop the salmon from returning and collect the fish all for themselves. But in the entire history of our people, no one ever did this. Everyone always thought of the weirs, houses and families upriver who relied on those salmon runs just as much as anyone else.

The massive Qul-lhanumutsun arrives

One year, however, the fish didn’t come up the river. The annual salmon run was set to start and the weirs were all built and ready to catch the salmon, but no fish came. Hwulmuhw from all of the villages ran to the mouth of the river to see why the fish were not coming. But when they crested the last hill and could look out upon the estuary, they were awestruck by an enormous Qul-lhanumutsun. It was bigger than any they would have ever seen. 

The shoreline was covered with people watching as the massive Qul-lhanumutsun devoured their salmon stocks and prevented any from making their way up the river. The splashing white water turned red with salmon roe and blood as the great whale feasted upon the Stseelhtun. The great warriors assembled and paddled out in their canoes, singing war songs. They pleaded with the Qul-lhanumutsun to leave, lest they unleash their harpoons upon it. But the blood lusted Qul-lhanumutsun did not hear their calls and its massive body was unaffected by their spears. Defeated, the warriors paddled away.

They say that then, the wisest medicine people gathered together their strongest medicines and they prayed for four days. They sang sacred songs and used ancient instruments that only they could play. The medicine people worked tirelessly and as one, with true Nutsamat Shqwaluwun. They sang in one voice and of one mind and called forth the Quw’utsun people’s strongest ally, the S-hwu-hwa’us. 

It began as a faint sound in the distance, like wind coming in from the sea, but the rumble would grow. The people gathered upon the shoreline and fled the water as they heard the thunder coming towards them. From over Hwutsala’utsum, S-hwu-hwa’us flew down and its shadow darkened the estuary. For a second, the great Qul-lhanumutsun ceased its feast and turned its bloodshot eyes toward the shadow that descended from the mountain. The great whale twisted its tail and readied itself for the fight to come.

Sunrise in the estuary of the Quw’utsun Sta’lo, near where the battle took place. Much has changed with colonization — this empty beach was once a thriving eelgrass garden rife with biodiversity and sea gardens as far as you could see. This estuary once fed the people much more than just stseelhtun. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams

The fight of the Thunderbird and the Killer Whale

As S-hwu-hwa’us descended towards Qul-lhanumutsun, it opened its eyes to judge where to land its mighty talons. When the mighty bird’s eyes crested open, massive bolts of lightning struck the water, sending water and salmon in all directions. But the giant Qul-lhanumutsun was ready and leapt from the water, thrusting its mighty teeth towards S-hwu-hwa’us and nearly biting the great bird’s leg. When S-hwu-hwa’us finally landed, it plunged its talons deep into the back of the Qul-lhanumutsun. The massive whale kicked and shook with all its might but it could not break free. With a thunderous flap of its wings, the great S-hwu-hwa’us ascended into the sky carrying the massive bloodthirsty Qul-lhanumutsun with it. The people watched on as the two fought in the skies above Qw’umiyiqun, with the whale breaking free and biting the great S-hwu-hwa’us before being captured by the mighty bird’s grip once again. The two fought on for hours, dripping blood and feathers all over the lower part of Pi’paam mountain. 

In the end, the great S-hwu-hwa’us prevailed and placed the defeated Qul-lhanumutsun on top of Pi’paam mountain, allowing the salmon runs to return and the people to be fed for another year. But year after year, the people never forgot the great power and benevolence of the S-hwu-hwa’us – they even went on to name many sacred places after their magnificent hero. But that’s a story for another day.

Hul’q’umi’num words used in this story

Hul’q’umi’num – Language of the Quw’utsun People

Hwutsala’utsum – Koksilah Ridge

Hwulmuhw – Indigenous Person

Hwulmuhw Mustimuhw- Indigenous People

Kwa’mutsun – Quamichan Village

Mustimuhw – People

Nutsamat Shqwaluwun – Of one heart and one mind

Pi’paam – Mt Tzouhalem

Qul-lhanumutsun – Killer Whale (Orca)

Quw’utsun – Cowichan

Qw’umiyiqun – Comeakin Village

S-hwu-hwa’us – Thunderbird

Shhwuhua’uselu – Place of the Thunderbird 

Sta’lo – River

Stseelhtun – Salmon (generic)

Swuq’us – Mt Prevost

Tl’ulpalus – Cowichan Bay

Ye’yumnuts – Village site


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