This is a story about a choir, a composer, a community, and a legend. It’s also a story that extends way out into the Pacific Ocean, and then upriver to Lady Franklin Rock, just north of Yale in the Fraser Canyon. Depending on who’s telling it, it’s a story that goes back 15,000 years, based on the latest archaeological evidence, or to before the beginning of recorded time. Appropriately enough, given the events of this fall, it’s a story of truth and reconciliation, with the reconciliation in this case taking place between the highly European form of unaccompanied choral music and the distinctively aboriginal history of Sche’i:l and the First Salmon.
And the truths? They’re embedded in the sxwōxwiyám (creation stories) of the Sto:lo Nation, the branch of the Coast Salish that has lived in the Fraser Valley since well before the pyramids of Egypt were even a gleam in a pharaoh’s eye.
On a more mundane level, however, the story begins little more than a year ago, when the members of the Vancouver choral group musica intima were celebrating their 20th anniversary.
“In planning our 21st anniversary season, we got together and were really thinking about what was important to us moving forward, and what we actually wanted to say as an artistic collaboration,” says alto Bess Albrecht, serving as spokesperson for the eight-member, conductorless ensemble. “So we started swapping ideas around, and through that discussion we were able to connect in a really authentic way with [composer] Ed Henderson, who was able to connect us with the Sto:lo Nation.”
Henderson and musica intima have since established a particularly close relationship with Sto:lo cultural advisor Sonny McHalsie, who’s known in his native language as Naxaxalhts’i. After discussing the project with the historian and storykeeper, Henderson chose Sche’i:l’s tale as the basis for his latest choral work. It’s a narrative that has deep spiritual and moral dimensions for the Sto:lo, and equally profound implications for the world as a whole.
“It’s a really interesting story, because it talks a lot about the Sto:lo system or the First Nations systems of justice and punishment and tradition, and also to their connection to the salmon and the [Fraser] river and how those things are important to them,” Henderson explains. “Sche’i:l is a mother, and her children were starving. It was the end of a really long, hard winter, and all the food supplies had dried up, and so everybody in the village was hungry. Sche’i:l went out with her dip net and caught a salmon, but it was the first salmon of the season, and there’s a whole tradition of what you do with the first salmon: you bring it to the elders, and the elders do prayers around it, and then they cook it and everyone in the village has a little bit. Well, she didn’t do that. Instead, she hid it in the bushes, and then went back at night and got it and cooked it for her kids.”
Sche’i:l’s punishment was fast and permanent: supernatural forces in the form of a great windstorm lifted her into the sky and then dropped her in the Fraser, where she remains as a rock just beneath the surface of its powerful flow. The ripples in the river and the story both serve as a message to the Sto:lo—and now to others—that it’s never wise to put one’s own needs, however desperate, ahead of those of one’s community and one’s environment.
“We have all these different teachings that we have that teach us to respect the land,” says McHalsie, whose recorded voice serves as the spine of Henderson’s new choral work, Sche’i:l. “Another good one is that we have a belief in what we call the skw’exweq. The skw’exweq are little people that live underwater, and within that story it talks about how when we spit in the water the spit drifts down and lands on those underwater people and gets them sick. So you think about today, all the stuff that’s getting dumped in our river, and yet we, as Sto:lo people, we’re not even allowed to spit in the creeks, the lakes, or the river, because of that story.”
The notion that Canada’s First Nations are also our first environmentalists isn’t a new one, but it will surely gain strength from this innovative new collaboration.
“Everything is connected, and now you have all these different biology studies coming out and showing just exactly how we’re connected,” says McHalsie. “And that’s something that our sxwōxwiyám stories teach us: that through our our shxwelí (life force), we’re connected to everything.”
Musica intima premieres Sche’i:l as part of This Land, at the UBC Longhouse on Saturday (October 26) and the Orpheum Annex on Sunday (October 27).