Above the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island the white, frozen ice of the Comox Glacier presides majestically over the inhabitants. To the Comox First Nation's People, the valley's original inhabitants, this glacier is more affectionately known as Queneesh - the great white whale.
The glacier is a perpetual sheet of frozen water curling and grinding its way over the top of the mountains the way a fog bank sweeps in over the ocean enveloping everything in its path. Residents of the Comox Valley (Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland) can view the glacier from their main street and for many it is one of their lifetime ambitions to climb to the summit.
The glacier has become a focal point for many of the valley artists and its outline can be seen on business cards, tourist brochures, postcards and magazines. These advertisements in turn attract many visitors to the recreational capital of Canada, as the valley is known, to come and see the glacier shimmering in the afternoon sun.
The Comox Glacier has been there since time immemorial and the legend of Queneesh has played an important role for the First Nations. It gives the present people knowledge of the past and a pride in their ancestors. It recounts the time when there was a great flood that inundated the land and is similar to the biblical story of Noah and his Ark. It is a legend that has familiar overtones to those of the First Nations farther up the northwest coast. They also talk about a great flood.
The highest mountain in North America is Mt. McKinley or Denali as it is more often referred to as nowadays. Its icy summit is found in Alaska and is important to the Koyukuk people who live in the valleys to the north of the mountain. They have a myth that tells of an unusual flood that turned Denali into a wave of stone.
Back in a distant time the Raven, a bird known by many as the trickster, assumed the form of a young man. He had heard of a beautiful maiden in a village across the water, so he took a canoe across to ask her to marry him, but she refused. He was offered a baby girl by another woman, so took the child and he began to paddle away. The beautiful maiden was jealous and came down to the water where the Raven punished her for rejecting him. He made her sink into the mud and disappear.
The maiden's mother was furious and set two bears to beating up the waves to drown the Raven. Their efforts caused the waters to rise and inundate the world so that the village perished. The waves were towering above the Raven's canoe and he soon became tired with fatigue from the struggle, so using his magic powers he cast his harpoon at a wave and then fainted.
Later when he awoke, he found that the wave he had hit with his harpoon had turned to stone, forming a small mountain. After glancing off the crest, the harpoon had struck an even larger wave, which had become Denali. Upon looking around, Raven found that the baby girl had now grown into womanhood, so he took her in his arms, and they repopulated the world.
A little further to the south on the Alaska/Yukon border is Mount Saint Elias, Canada's second highest mountain. To the Yakutat Tlingit people who live in the vicinity of Yakutat Bay below the glaciers of this mighty mountain, they also believe that a great flood covered the earth. In their lore they talk about the summit of Mount Saint Elias and two other mountains that remained above the flood waters. Denali to the north would fit in with the story and possibly the other mountain is the Comox Glacier to the south.
To the Yakutat Tlingit,
the mountain has played such an important role in their history that they
even made it their crest. On special occasions they perform ceremonial
dances in which they wear shirts with the stitched design representing
the peak surrounded by clouds depicted as circles.
The voice in the dream tells him that soon the rain will begin to fall and it will not stop for a long, long time. This constant rain will result in tremendous flooding and the people must work hard to prepare themselves for this time. The Comox chief listens to the old man's story and due to his respect for their elders, decides to take his advice.
Groups were assigned various tasks, some to build more canoes; others to harvest much cedar bark and then have it prepared for weaving, as many miles of rope will be needed. Fish had to be smoked, seafood dried and preserved, deer hunted and the meat cured and made ready. Yet others were to make capes and woven hats that would be needed to shed the rain. Even the young children had to give up their games in order to help with the preparations.
Finally everything was ready and just in time. As the voice in the dream predicted, the rain began. A group of the strongest and wisest men was sent to the top of the glacier where they were to find the ideal location to attach the cedar ropes. The place of attachment was crucial as the very future of the people depended on their correct choice.
Before long the rivers began to flood so the canoes were loaded with their provisions, necessities and people, and attached to the cedar ropes from the glacier. Soon the waters rose above the totem poles and each day, they saw things that there was no room for in their canoes, float by.
The rain continued to pour, the people became more frightened and the canoes required constant bailing. Days and nights passed and the waters rose up the sides of the mountains. The rain was relentless. Eventually the day came when the glacier was almost covered and every person began to pray to the great spirit, and then something they had never dreamed possible occurred. The glacier, the very one that they had seen and watched from a distance for many years, suddenly took on a life of its own. It began to float and broke through the surface of the flood waters, the way a great whale breeches. At first the people were in awe of this unusual spectacle but they soon began to understand what was happening. The people began to laugh and cheer, and cry out to each other. "The glacier is a huge white whale!" they say. "Queneesh."
Soon, to their joy, the rain stopped and for the first night in a long time they were able to have a comfortable sleep in their canoes.
Next morning the sun shone through brightly and there was great excitement in the canoes. There was laughter and words of praise in their voices. The people began planning celebrations for when they would be safely back at the site of their village. As the waters subsided, Queneesh began to settle back into his former position where the people see him and admire him to this very day - overlooking the whole Comox Valley as if he were resting upon a throne.
So honoured is Queneesh that on the tribal grounds by the Comox estuary he is symbolized in paint on the front of one of the remaining long houses. Here the people assemble, dance and sing in the shadow of Queneesh.
For many people these mountains are nothing more than rock and ice, a frigid cold place where no one lives. But as we can see from these stories told by indigenous people, they are the homes of animals and mythical creatures, maybe we too can see the spirits they talk about and honor.