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  • Ancient Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth
  • Chief William K’hhalserten Sepass (bio)

William K’HHalserten Sepass (circa 1840–1943) was chief of the Skowkale First Nations people and a hereditary chief of the Chilliwack Tribe. As a keeper of the tribal knowledge, he had been taught the Coast Salish tradition of storytelling by memorizing ancient songs. Recited in Halq’eméylem, the native Coast Salish language, the songs were part of an epic cycle traditionally recited at special gatherings, especially during the sun ceremonies held in Chilliwack every four years in precontact time. The songs are creation stories and legends of X á:ls, the Great Transformer, who “walked this earth in the distant past to put things right.” Chief Sepass was seventy years old when he began to preserve the songs of Y-Ail-Mihth for his people by working with Sophia White Street, the daughter of one of the first missionaries sent out to the Pacific coast by the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Mrs. Street was fluent in both English and Halq’eméylem, having been raised by Stó:lō nannies. Between 1911 and 1915, Chief Sepass recited the songs to her, and they translated the work into English. The songs were published in 1963 and again in 1974 by Sophia’s daughter, Eloise Street. In 2009, Longhouse Publishing issued a commemorative edition of Sepass Poems: Ancient Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth, which included a “missing” sixteenth poem. The Longhouse publication marks the first time the poems appear under the copyright of the Sepass family— through his grandson, Gerald Sepass. Chief Sepass’ people in the Fraser Valley continue to cherish these works, and he remains an honored ancestral figure. The following are two of the poems in the cycle.

The Beginning of the World

Long, long ago, Before anything was, Saving only the heavens, From the seat of his golden throne The Sun God looked out on the Moon Goddess And found her beautiful. [End Page 89]

Hour after hour, With hopeless love, He watched the spot where, at evening, She would sometimes come out to wander Through her silver garden In the cool of the dusk.

Far he cast his gaze across the heavens Until the time came, one day, When she returned his look of love And she, too, sat lonely, Turning eyes of wistful longing Toward her distant lover.

Then their thoughts of love and longing, Seeking each other, Met halfway, Mingled, Hung suspended in space . . . Thus: the beginning of the world.

Sat they long in loneliness The great void of eternal space Closing in upon them. Despair hung in their hearts. Gone was the splendor of the golden throne; Gone was the beauty of the silver garden; Their souls burned with a white flame of longing.

Up leaped the Sun God, Chanting his love song, The words of his love thoughts:

    “My heart wings its way to you,     O daughter of the Moon!     My heart wings its way to you     Where you stand     In your silver garden;     Your white face turned toward me.

    You will receive a gift,     O daughter of the Moon!     A gift of my great love     For you only;     You will receive a gift of my love     This day, ere the dusk falls.” [End Page 90]

He seized his knife, And with swift slashes, Tore a strip of bark From a great tree. Still he chanted his songs Of love and longing, As he wrote on the birch bark In the speech of springtime, The language of lovers.

Then, From his place at the gate of the Sun, He, the Sun God, Raised his arm high And cast his message Far into the sky. Swift it flew, Following an unerring course Toward the distant garden Where sat the Moon Goddess.

    But what of the message?     Alas! It wavers in its flight;     Drops;     Falls on the embryo world;     Thus: the land.

Far across the heavens, In her silver garden, The Moon Goddess wept bitterly. A tear was borne by the wind; Fell on the half-formed world; Thus: the water.

There from the love thoughts, Longings and love words Sprang beautiful trees and flowers. Little streams gurgled through the forests; Leaping waterfalls foamed; Great...