Siwash Rock: Indigenous Wisdom for Father’s Day

Dr. Craig O’Brien

Dr. Craig O’Brien leads Origin Church (West Coast Baptist Association) in the University of British Columbia campus community. Previously, he planted and pastored Cityview Baptist Church in Riley Park – Little Mountain. He completed his DMin from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003 with a focus on raising cross-cultural competence in urban leaders. He also serves as the coordinating chaplain with the University MultiFaith Chaplains Association. Craig has kindly permitted us to repost this May 28th, 2012, entry from his blog, Urban Foot: Another Step with Jesus, in honour of Father’s Day and the Indigenous people who have so much to teach us about this place we call Vancouver.

Clean Fatherhood

Two enjoyments:  a family walk along the seawall at Stanley Park and a good story.

One of the stories I most appreciate in Pauline Johnson’s collection of coastal First Nations’ stories is associated with the Siwash Rock in Stanley Park.  In the story told by a local chief over a hundred years ago, a young-chief-father-to-be persists in the pursuit of purity that will be imputed to his child; he persists in a decision that will benefit his child and make a future for the child.  He continues even when confronted by power and personalities who believe he is in their way.

Johnson records the tillicum’s account:

“Do you dare disobey us,” they cried–”we, the men of the Sagalie Tyee? We can turn you into a fish, or a tree, or a stone for this; do you dare disobey the Great Tyee?”

“I dare anything for the cleanliness and purity of my coming child. I dare even the Sagalie Tyee Himself, but my child must be born to a spotless life.”

The four men were astounded. They consulted together, lighted their pipes, and sat in council. Never had they, the men of the Sagalie Tyee, been defied before. Now, for the sake of a little unborn child, they were ignored, disobeyed, almost despised. The lithe young copper-coloured body still disported itself in the cool waters; superstition held that should their canoe, or even their paddle-blades, touch a human being, their marvellous power would be lost. The handsome young chief swam directly in their course. They dared not run him down; if so, they would become as other men. While they yet counselled what to do, there floated from out the forest a faint, strange, compelling sound. They listened, and the young chief ceased his stroke as he listened also. The faint sound drifted out across the waters once more. It was the cry of a little, little child. Then one of the four men, he that steered the canoe, the strongest and tallest of them all, arose, and, standing erect, stretched out his arms towards the rising sun and chanted, not a curse on the young chief’s disobedience, but a promise of everlasting days and freedom from death.

“Because you have defied all things that come in your path we promise this to you,” he chanted: “you have defied what interferes with your child’s chance for a clean life, you have lived as you wish your son to live, you have defied us when we would have stopped your swimming and hampered your child’s future. You have placed that child’s future before all things, and for this the Sagalie Tyee commands us to make you for ever a pattern for your tribe. You shall never die, but you shall stand through all the thousands of years to come, where all eyes can see you. You shall live, live, live as an indestructible monument to Clean Fatherhood.”

The four men lifted their paddles and the handsome young chief swam inshore; as his feet touched the line where sea and land met he was transformed into stone.

Siwash Rock, 1889 or 1890. Courtesy of Vancouver Archives.
Siwash Rock and seawall, 2013. Photo: Ross Strachan, Flikr.
Siwash Rock and seawall, 2013. Photo: Ross Strachan, Flikr.

Then the four men said, “His wife and child must ever be near him; they shall not die, but live also.” And they, too, were turned into stone. If you penetrate the hollows in the woods near Siwash Rock you will find a large rock and a smaller one beside it. They are the shy little bride-wife from the north, with her hour-old baby beside her. And from the uttermost parts of the world vessels come daily throbbing and sailing up the Narrows. From far trans-Pacific ports, from the frozen North, from the lands of the Southern Cross, they pass and repass the living rock that was there before their hulls were shaped, that will be there when their very names are forgotten, when their crews and their captains have taken their long last voyage,  when their merchandise has rotted, and their owners are known no more. But the tall, grey column of stone will still be there–a monument to one man’s fidelity to a generation yet unborn–and will endure from everlasting to everlasting.

Read the whole story here.

The majesty and beauty of the story has grown on me and is one that I read out loud to my family at least once a year.  But more than that, every time I see the Siwash Rock I have had to hear again in my heart what I believe is God’s call to “clean fatherhood.”  I could choose to live only for myself, but the most challenging and noble way to live is to persist in a way of life that creates opportunity for the generation coming behind me.

I wish every resident of Vancouver and every walker along the Stanley Park seawall knew the story of Siwash Rock.  The stone and its history calls out to us as individuals and as a society to conduct ourselves in ways that value purity, perseverance, and self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.