This week Stz’uminus First Nation marked the passing of Willie Seymour, who carried the ceremonial names Qwullhutstun and Sxweltun.
Born March 14, 1949, Willie died at age 66 on Monday, Aug. 31; his funeral was held Friday, Sept. 3.
He was nationally recognized as one of fewer than 40 fluent speakers of Hul’qumi’num, one of ten Coast Salish languages spoken on the shores of the Salish Sea.
He was an orator and spokesperson for Hul’qumi’num traditions and language.
Stz’uminus and other Hul’qumi’num nations have been providing opportunities for younger speakers to learn their language, and Willie’s performances of speeches and stories have been a vital resource.
He leaves behind volumes of research with linguists such as Donna Gerdts of Simon Fraser University.
Gerdts began working with Willie in the 1990s. She says, “I was working with the Elders and the language appeared to be down to its last speakers.
“Most of the people I worked with in the 1970s and 1980s had sadly passed away and the children were no longer learning the language in the home.
“The Elders kept mentioning how they relied on a young fellow from Stz’uminus to be their public speaker and translator.
“When I met him, I was so astounded. He spoke authentic, profound Hul’qumi’num learned from his grandparents’ generation.
“He spoke from the heart and his people’s history and traditions came alive when you listened to his words.”
The Hul’qumi’num Elders noticed him from an early age as a serious and talented young man, and encouraged him to become a longhouse ceremonial speaker.
Willie said that he was reluctant to take on this task at first because it is a great responsibility. The speaker officiates at namings, weddings, funerals, memorials, and other Coast Salish traditional ceremonies.
He must know all the protocols as well as thousands of native names. Willie’s booming melodic voice was familiar to the Coast Salish people as he officiated at events for over thirty years on the Island and the Mainland.
One great legacy he leaves to his people is a new generation of longhouse speakers that he helped train, including George Seymour, Stevie Alphonse, and Thomas Jones.
Jones says it was a great honor to accept the responsibility of speaking at the funeral of his mentor.
“Willie trained us that being a longhouse speaker is not just about pronouncing the words and phrases,” he said.
“You communicate the feelings and thoughts of the family in their time of need, and you make sure all the work is carried out properly. This is the way we transmit important ceremonial and spiritual traditions from generation to generation.”
Willie’s talents as a spokesperson were often called upon by his community. He presided over thousands of meetings during his lifetime, and represented the community at treaty negotiations and court cases.
His abilities as a statesman led to work in local and national indigenous governance.
He served several terms on Stz’uminus First Nation council, his latest term in 1999–2001.
For 12 years he travelled to and from Ottawa to serve on the Assembly of First Nations. In June 2001, he became first Chairman of the Board for the First Nations Governance Institute.
Willie served as a bridge between generations, always ready to share his vast knowledge on the culture and language with the younger generation.
He was a frequent visitor to local classrooms, entertaining audiences with the stories he learned from the Elders. Embedded in the stories are the world view and life’s lessons of the Coast Salish people.
Willie said, “I don’t have an academic education, but my cultural inheritance brought me to where I am at.”
Besides indigenous ways of learning and teaching, Willie embraced new media as a way of sharing traditional knowledge.
In 2008, he worked with Thomas Hukari of University of Victoria to release a set of videos of xe’xe’ sqwal ‘sacred language’, demonstrating Hul’qumi’num as it is used in longhouse ceremonies. Last year, a series of YouTube videos featuring Willie were produced by Si’em Media Society.
On July 22, Willie gave lively performances of the story of the origin of the canoe races and his Beaver Story in both Hul’qumi’num and English on the Duncan Festival stage near the Cowichan Valley Museum.
The museum is running an exhibit called Hwsteti’ Hwulmuhw – Coast Salish Canoe Pullers. The exhibit, which runs until Nov. 14, features the voices of Willie and other famous paddlers.
Willie had an illustrious career as a canoe puller and coach, competing for over thirty years at the war canoe races held each weekend during the summer on locations around the Salish Sea.
He started on his grandfather David Jackson’s canoe, the Shadow, paddled on the Mt. Prevost crew that dominated the races for over a decade, and finished his career on the Rainbow.
Willie had a very full life, as an athlete, a spokesperson, a statesman, a researcher, and an educator.
He will be remembered for his important contribution to maintaining his cultural traditions and language.