The Great Flood: Attila Nelson’s award-winning story

Congratulations to Lil’wat Nation’s Attila Nelson, a UVic Philosophy major and storyteller, who recently took third place for his story at the Indigenous Arts & Stories awards, Canada’s largest creative writing competition for Indigenous youth. Written up for his success in the Pique, Attila’s winning story is shared below.

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The story I have chosen is my take on the Lil’wat traditional telling of the great flood. The story was told to me by my father, who it was passed onto by the old people that raised him. Our traditional oral stories are important because they connect us to our land, and teach us at a young age the boundaries of our territory as well as the places of importance. The great flood is a story that is nearly lost in our community, but it holds great importance as it is about a way of life that took place before contact. It was a lesson on respecting elders, being spiritually connected, and the cycle of life.
The story itself is an allegory about following old traditions, rather than being swept away by modern technologies or faster methods of living. It is meant as a lesson regarding the cyclical way of life, and how each generation has their own battle to face. The story ends as it begins, thus opening another chapter of struggle and strife. By holding onto our ancestral teachings, we arm ourselves with the knowledge necessary to prepare for the disasters that may come within our lifetime.

 The Great Flood

The rain had already started. Drops from the sky did not seem to be out of the ordinary for a cool summer morning. The valley was in full summer bloom, with the old growth fir and cedar trees racing toward the sky, while families of animals scurried among the moss below frantically storing nuts, berries, and other knick-knacks in preparation for the long winter. A river meanders back and forth across the territory, starting from the northwest, and ending in the southeast where it shakes hands with a lake. A smaller river that comes from Skalula Mountain runs alongside the larger river for a few kilometers before the lake, like a young sibling racing an older brother. The lake extends like a boomerang around a few mountain peaks, at the very end of the lake is a special mountain, one that has a forked top, known to the people of the valley as In’shuck’ch, or gunsight.

A great grizzly bear speaks of rain, in a language that is from an older era that makes it nearly incomprehensible. With its speech, it bestows visions that flicker between what may come and what has come. The land is torn asunder into small islands, a strange vision to imagine the valley bottom as if it were filled with water, and only the mountain tops tall enough to keep their head above the water. The dream fades as drumming takes over, a cacophony of lamentation songs echo from one end of the valley to the other, as if saying goodbye to a loved one. A willow tree sprouts from the earth and dances its way through the stages of life, becoming old as quickly as it was born. Swaying back and forth, her soothing song calms the choir of other songs, as well as calming the strong winds that are billowing across the expanse of water.

N’chinemqen, the village old man, rolls over in his bundle of hides, and opens his eyes. His body is soaked in sweat from another night of strange dreams. For a man that has endured well over eighty winters, he lays in his pit house attempting to take some sort of meaning from his dreams. As he slowly goes through his meticulous routine of starting his day, he ponders the grizzly bear. After tending to the fire inside his pit house, he leaves through the entrance on the top to bask in the morning and braid his hair, and is surprised by the weeping clouds as it reminds him of the night before.
Over the past few winters, the old man began to converse with the grizzly in his sleep.

The bear had given him certain tasks to complete such as teaching the young warriors how to create rope from cedar and willow trees at certain times of the year – rope much too thick for anyone to reasonably use, or to create war canoes out of trees that were much larger than a simple dugout canoe – one of which had required plenty of sap to create vats that would hold water similar to an aquarium. The old man was never confronted about setting the young with these tasks, but he knew by now that the younger generations thought he was beginning to cross into the spirit world, and set sail in a copper canoe. His wife had passed a season or two before the dreams, and he had almost convinced himself that the dreams were her coaxing him over. Her youngest brother was still alive and well, and although he tried to put up with the old man, he simply didn’t take the time to do the tasks as he was asked.

Hamo’Qo, the old man’s young brother in law, was barely forty winters, and his braid always seemed to be frayed as if he had put it up as fast as possible. He had a family of his own, with children running around all over the valley. He was like a little raccoon, with his hands clutching to everything. He was always hunting, and he had become the man to bring your hides to have them prepared for clothing, bedding, or other such uses. Although the valley people got along well enough, it was easy to know who clung to the old ways with their cedar weaved attire, or those who were friends with Hamo’Qo as they were all adorned in furs and leathers.

The valley people did not have a village per se, as their traditional pit houses were spread throughout their territory for different purposes, and to add to the confusion each family usually had multiple homes for the differing seasons. This being the summer, most were living on the valley bottom picking berries or drying smaller fish. The summer harvest was good this season, but had come somewhat later than usual. To add to the late season, the old man had gone to each family and given them the task of preparing more food than usual, which seemed a little off as the coming winter didn’t seem like it would be a cold one, but the people, for the most part, listened to him anyway.

Before the autumn salmon run had come, the old man seemed to have fully embraced the spirit talk as he ordered a large portion of people carry his larger than life canoes to gunsight. This task was exacerbated because once the boats were near the top of the mountain, he wanted them tied together with the cedar and willow ropes that he had made over the last few years. Hamo’Qo had finally had enough.

The old man must be crazy, Hamo’Qo thought to himself. First the boats, and now the heavy rope were to be brought to a mountain top. After fastening Nchinemqen’s boats together with the ropes, he decided to tie his own boats together with his own leather ropes as it would finish the task sooner and allow him to go back to his own bidding. The families that Hamo’Qo had made leather and fur clothing for had followed suit. When all was said and done atop gunsight, the rain had begun.

For three days it rained. Not the light summer rain in the old man’s dreams, but a deluge as if the stars themselves fell to the ground. Families nearest to the rivers along the valley bottom were swept away. Panic set in, and everyone began the trek across the territory toward the old man and his boats. Most people left whatever belongings they owned in favour of carrying as much berries and dried food. A pilgrimage through the rain had commenced.

There seemed to be two separate groups racing toward the twin peaks of gunsight. One group had their light cedar woven clothing, while the second group pace slowed as their clothing was heavy due to soaking. The two rivers joined together in the valley, and the lake seemed to be swallowing the mountains.

Gunsight had never had so many people near the top before, and what was once a serene and beautiful meadow was now more akin to a refugee shelter. There were no traditional pit houses, but instead overturned canoes with children sleeping next to the seasons dried goods. Families were arguing over dry places to sleep, all the while the lake below seemed to sneak closer to the mountain top after each night. People were becoming frantic, all vying for a spot on Nchinemqen’s enormous war canoes, one of which was devoid of any people with the exception of a couple that seemed to be twenty winters older than the old man himself.

Nchinemqen had his flotilla of war canoes, and of the four largest he designated a task. The first was to hold nothing but dried foods the people had collected all summer such as berries, mushrooms, roots, and wind-dried fish. The second war canoe was used as a fish nursery, and the old man had the couple tend to them. The third ship he opened to the families that had aided him from the beginning. The forth canoe had animals from the valley that had scampered up to gunsight during the flooding, and any spare room he gave to children of family clans that arrived safely to gunsight before the final calamity of water engulfed the valley.

Hamo’Qo had his own flotilla, but the boats were much smaller. He allowed anyone with their own canoes into his flotilla as he had enough animal hide to tie them into his fleet. Their food was heavier, as it was mostly smoked fish and game – a tastier meal, but it never seemed to last very long.

The rain stopped, only long enough for the earth to let out a roar. No one knew what had happened, but gunsight began to tremble. The two flotillas were fastened to opposing peaks. Nchinemqen’s war canoes held together during the earthquake, but the weeks that had past while the people lived on the water had strained Hamo’Qo’s animal hide ropes and they tore apart. Before anyone could do anything to stop the ropes from ripping, Hamo’Qo and the people with him began drifting away. The people started crying out for Nchinemqen’s help, a loud chorus of weeping families. Nothing could be done, and by the end of the day they would float to a new land, and over time become a new people.

As the water began to recede, an entire moon passed since Hamo’Qo drifted away. Nchinemqen tasked the very old couple with seeking refuge for the orphaned children living on his forth war canoe. The couple split up, one leading the porcupine clan children to a warm home, while the other took the woodpecker clan to a place with an abundance of woods. The remaining clans Nchinemqen set out with to settle their old valley homes.

The great flood had carved the valley into a new world. Where the old rivers used to meet and race to the lake is where Nchinemqen decided to settle down for his few remaining winters, below a mountain that he called Mimshk – a marking stood out where the water had been. While in his final years, the old man began crafting a copper canoe, as the old people used to before they ventured off into the spirit world. One night Nchinemqen had the children from his fourth war canoe over for a feast, but by this time they were fully grown, and had families of their own. That night he told them he would be gone soon, and by the morning he had set sail in his copper canoe.

Like the willow of his fevered dreams, he had set roots back into the valley and blew away with the calming wind. Although the people wept for his passing, they were ever grateful for having listened to an old widowed man and his crazy dreams, for the people of the valley were able to return to their territory after the calamity that swept through.
The Lil’wat people, as the called themselves forevermore, would teach their children the story of the great flood to instill in their hearts that the connection to their land was not simply physical, but also spiritual. A need for balance is to be sought, as the creator cannot always be reached during our waking lives, and that sometimes a frantic dream may be our only connection to our ancestors. Nchinemqen was a messenger, and perhaps, in time, the need of another similar to him would be born once again.

The Lil’wat people went about their lives, running around the valley preparing for winter by collecting fruits, fish, and other knick-knacks while the trees reach for the stars. Streams fumble around rocks toward the lake at the bottom. In a small pit house, off the beaten path is a young girl. She is lost in a dream, beads of sweat trickle across her forehead. She is about to wake.

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