March 25, 2002
Anthropology 102, Section Ch 2, UCFV
Instructor: Douglas Hudson
Spirit Songs and Sacred Sites of the Sto:lo
"The Sto:lo name is taken from the river; it’s resources have provided sustenance for longer than can be remembered "(Mohs, 1990:5). This essay
is a brief look at their sacred sites, songs, dances, and spiritual concepts. Spirit songs are an integral part of the winter dance ceremonies, as
Hudson (1993:1) states " One Sto:lo described such ceremonies as the core of Sto:lo culture and cultural integrity." Also, Duff (1952:97) confirms
"Winter spirit dances, the most important ceremonial occasions in Stalo life…" This short essay intends to show how the sacred sites and spirit
songs of the Sto:lo are inextricably tied to the natural world and their respect for it.
Many of the sacred sites of the Sto:lo have been destroyed since the coming of the Europeans to this area. The locations of the sites that are left
are kept secret so that they may survive. Mohs (1990:17) writes, "The tradition of silence is still maintained by many Sto:lo who believe that
disclosure of information will inevitably result in the willful destruction and desecration of these sites." I came upon one such site while out
hiking in this area a number of years ago. This encounter is the main reason that I became interested in the ceremonies and sites of the Sto:lo.
A friend and I came across a grove of trees high in the mountains in which we found many of the trees were encircled by apparel and ties obviously
left there by the local people. We decided to leave the site as we found it and end our hike. I definitely felt a sense of power at the site, which
left me with a feeling of awe and admiration.
Since then I have discovered that this is only one of many types of sacred sites which the Sto:lo revere Mohs (1990:10) divides the sites into these
types: Transformer, Spirit/Beings, Ceremonial, Cultural/Traditional, Questing/Power, Legend/Mythological, Burial/Mortuary, Resource, and others such
as astronomical sites and medicinal pools and springs. Here is a brief description of each type of site.
The first type, the Transformer sites are sites related to beings such as Xa:ls, who is a complex and much-revered deity central to Sto:lo history and
Mohs (1990:6) tells, " An understanding of Xa:ls and his role or place in Sto:lo culture is essential in comprehending the spiritual significance of
many sacred sites." Chichelh Siya:m, the Sto:lo name for the Great Spirit, sent Xa:ls to this area and he traveled all across these lands teaching
and creating. The Sto:lo say that he created the salmon and the cedar and taught the people how to fish. Mohs (1990:7) points out "It was Xa:ls who
created the great cedar and showed the people how to use its various parts." Many of these sites are referred to as "stone people" because the
Sto:lo believe that it was here that people were turned to stone.
The second type is a Spirit/Being site believed to be inhabited by supernatural beings or powers. Duff (1952:97) informs us, "Supernatural creatures
living in the natural world were generally called 'Slalakums'." Each site is usually attached to a certain being such as Ghosts, Thunderbird,
Sasquatch, and Serpent. Duff (1952:99) also mentions "A shaman could also get power from an encounter with a slalakum." On the other hand, an
uninitiated person would be more likely to get sick from such an encounter.
This is also the case with Questing/Power sites, which are remote places where a new dancer goes to acquire their power. Each dancer's power is
associated with a particular animal such as a bear, otter, or raven. At these sites the new dancer would tie their regalia and life-pole to the tree
"So that the life-pole and tree become one with the passage of time" (Mohs, 1990:14). These Questing/Power sites are kept secret because as Mohs
(1990:14) notes, "It is generally believed that disturbance, removal or destruction of a life-pole or an initiate's costume can cause severe harm to
befall both initiate and/or the responsible party."
In contrast to Questing sites, Ceremonial sites are generally more accessible. These include the cedar longhouses, which are also known as
smokehouses, as well as ritual bathing pools, sweathouses, and training grounds (Mohs, 1990:14). The Sto:lo especially revere the pools and the
training grounds of the new dancers.
Another important type is the Legend/Mythology site associated with ancient Sto:lo tales. Mohs (1990:15) describes an example as follows "One of
the better known mythological sites is P'oth'esala ('baby basket rock'), a small island in the Fraser River near American Bar." This site
commemorates the ancient tale of the Salmon Woman and her baby basket.
One of the most respected types of site is the Burial Site. Elder AC of the Sto:lo nation
states that "Their feelings, their spiritual feelings, their spirits are with us for life. You weren't allowed to make noise, any noise. If you
did, you'd wake their spirits up"(Mohs, 1990:7).
Throughout this research a recurring theme is a respect for the land, the river, the ancestors, the animals, and each other. The Sto:lo worldview is
one of everything being interconnected and dependent upon each other.
An additional type of site is where the Sto:lo gather medicinal herbs, and plants as well as paints. These sites are small by nature, and found
throughout the Sto:lo nation.
Finally, the centerpiece of Sto:lo life is the river. As Mohs (1990:5) quotes " The River is our lifeblood. Anything that happens to it is a
concern to us." Like most societies, the Sto:lo live in close proximity to the river. As Mohs so eloquently states, (1990:5), " Sto:lo heritage -
past, present and future - is intimately tied to the river."
In addition, the Sto:lo ceremonies are connected to these sacred sites. The Winter Spirit Dance occurs at different times of the winter at different
locales. It starts progressively later in the year closer to the coast. They believe that the winter dance spirit power comes down out of the
mountains and moves in a circle around their world before returning back to the mountain. As Chief Frank Malloway says in Carlson (1997:15) "And the
Coast Salish are the only people who practice Spirit Dancing." These dances could be of any size, from as small as one person's home with a few
guests, to as large as a whole community in a large cedar longhouse. Duff (1952:107) relates that, " Often he and his family would hunt and fish for
several weeks in advance to procure enough food." These festivities would include dancing, singing, drumming, and feasting. The Smitla or spirit
songs that the participants would sing come to the singers in one of four ways.
The first way was for a person to be seized by the spirit song during the winter dancing season. Duff (1952:104) explains, " This mode of song
acquisition, unsolicited possession during the dancing season, could usually be expected to occur to anyone who wanted a spirit song." This was
followed by four days of training and a run through the forest that the singer would go on to finish getting the complete song. The singer would be
visited by their 'sulia' who would possess them and teach them their song. Oliver N. Wells (1970:1) describes the sulia as " usually the spirit or
power associated with some animal which became the guardian spirit of its owner throughout his life." Though dancers will often not say what type of
animal their sulia is an observer can often tell what it is by their movements when they do their dance. Duff (1990:105) states, "In her dance the
old lady used to wave her arms like the moth's wings."
An interesting thing about getting a spirit song is that an old dancer can force another person to learn one. This is described in detail by Duff
(1952:105), " An account by R.J. tells how old dancers would punish someone who scoffed at them by forcing him to become a dancer, ' but the chances
are that this man will never get another song, even on his run.' ".
The next way in which one can get a spirit song is during a dream. The person's sulia would come to them in the dream and teach them the dance and
the song. This is similar to the first way in that they are both described as sulia experiences. As to the difference between the sulia, or guardian
spirit, and a slalakum, Duff (1990:99) quotes A.J." A shaman, however, could ask it for power. It would take human form and talk to him, then take
its other form as it left. This was not a sulia experience."
The last way to receive a spirit song is to go out into the forest alone. Duff (1952:105) relates "A person walking alone in the woods would hear a
song emanating from a tree or other object, would learn it and use it at winter dances." This was also not a sulia experience as there was no spirit
present. Only visions and dreams in which a guardian spirit visited the person are considered sulia experiences. Duff (1990:106) recounts " Age was
no bar, at least in recent times; informants gave examples of two married couples who became dancers after they had passed 70. Neither was race;
half-breeds and one Spaniard have become dancers."
The underlying principle and theme of the Sto:lo spirituality is very closely related to nature. The animals, trees, land, and water come up over
and over in their stories. It is obvious that they feel a part of the land and know that they share it with the trees and animals. They look at the
living things around them with compassion. As Elder A.C. puts it, "It's like cedar trees get hurt, when you break their branches. So, you have to
apologize for that when you take from it. Then, the cedar tree understands what it is you're going to do. My grandmother used to do that. When
she'd take cedar roots for baskets, she'd get up early and thank the tree. These ways are our ways. Indian spirituality is based on respect."
My conclusion after reading about the Sto:lo attitudes to the land and resources is that they have a spiritual belief that is based on respecting the
world around them. By personifying the trees, fish, and animals, they are careful to take care of them. By using only what they need, they have a
better chance of preserving the natural environment than do the European settlers, who see nature as something to be subjugated and dominated. The
Sto:lo feel they are an inseparable part of nature, while the newcomers feel that they have dominion over nature, and therefore can do with it
whatever they like. The Sto:lo attitude is shared by many groups around the world and has proven to be more conducive to the conservation of the
natural resources of an area. Their outlook and spirituality served this land well and maintained its unpolluted state. This contrasts starkly with
the dramatic changes wrought to this area since the explosive growth of the population over the last century. This shows that people who revere
nature as holy are more likely to protect it. Seneca put it best when he said, "What is nature except God?"
Carlson, Keith Thor
1997 You Are Asked To Witness: The Sto:lo in Canada's Pacific Coast History,
Sto:lo Heritage Trust, Chilliwack, BC
1952 The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia,
British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria, BC
1993 Coast Salish and Sto:lo Notes: An Informal Guide to the Literature and Issues,
University College of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, BC
1990 Sto:lo Sacred Ground,
Sardis, BC, Sto:lo Tribal Council
Wells, Oliver N.
1970 Myths and Legends of the Stawloh Indians of South Western British Columbia,
Frank T Coan Ltd., Vancouver, BC