The Promise (1864)

skʷəkʷtɛ’xʷqən or t̓sic̓əl̓əs / Sapperton Landing Park, New Westminster, BC
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    Featuring Ronnie Dean Harris

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On May 24th, 1864, upwards of 4,000 Indigenous witnesses gathered to hear the words of then Governor Fredrick Seymour for the birthday celebration of Queen Victoria. The Promise: 1864 tells the story of this historical event and a promise unfulfilled. 

Storyteller statement: Ronnie Dean Harris

In 1864, a great gathering was held at what is now known as Sapperton and Sapperton Landing for Queen Victoria’s birthday. This gathering would have many implications in many lives, including that of my own when finding my connection to the stories involved.

I first heard of this great gathering while researching some history in the City of New Westminster. I had found that there was a series of gatherings for the Queen’s birthday in which thousands of our ancestors traveled from afar to hear the words of Governor Seymour. In further research, I’d find that there was a tapestry of aural/oral traditions around the gathering and “The Promise” that went home in the canoes of those who gathered from Governor Seymour.

Since learning of this gathering, I’ve been working to tell the story and acknowledge it’s importance in history and in the space of Sapperton, one of the oldest settlements in western Canada and those families directly affected by these events. I’ve since moved to Sapperton and work to have an even deeper understanding of the importance of this space and the historical and cosmological data encoded into the landmarks and blood memory of our aural histories.

This is neither doctrine nor gospel, but a thread or even just an intersection of where threads meet in a wider tapestry of our colonial reality.

Story transcript

ʔa səy̓em̓,,

You are asked to witness the work that this time and space has in its intention. Please put these words on your heart and mind. With that being said, this is a story that has occupied the conscience of our people through the generations since the days it happened here along the shores of the rivers. Stories are like threads of a web or tapestry. This account or accounts, I will share with you are just one or a couple of the intersections of these threads in a wider web of our reality. My interest in this, is piqued by my intergenerational connections to the story paired with independent research. I will try to share it with you how I understand it to be in this short time as we walk together.

In 1864, a great gathering was held here in what is now known as Sapperton in New Westminster and back then also known as Queensboro, but before that, this space was known by many names. Where the Brunette meets the Fraser is known as tsicələs or skʷəkʷtɛ'xʷqən by the x ʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) and the Katzie people respectively, and it was a fishing village. Ahead of us as we walk forward, the penitentiary was known as scłi'qən’, and to our destination at what is now known as Glenbrook Ravine was known as Stautlo, which refers to the creek and was in 1859, at the time of the arrival of the sappers, the residents of Chief Tsimilano, until he was compelled to move to qiqéyt, another fishing village across the river from where we are now. Further west was the stone marker connected to the story of Xexá:ls, the transformers and their interaction with the killer sxʷa'ayməɫ.. The promontory of New Westminster was once known as sχʷəyem, named after the stone marker that was once buried by the construction of the first approach to the Pattullo Bridge. Two boulders now sit around the area of the current approach. There are many spots in this area with traditional place names, some with sacred stories and exciting narratives. But they are threads of different stories for a different time.

But in the year of 1864, a celebration was to be held for Queen Victoria's birthday. The new governor of the colony, Frederick Seymour would summons Indigenous people along the rivers through the networks of the order of Mary Immaculate Oblate Missionary stationed up the river in Mission, BC. This would also serve as an opportunity for the new governor Seymour to introduce themselves to the Indigenous peoples and build a rapport such as that which was had with the previous governor, James Douglas. This was a turbulent time in this region. A recent conflict known as the Bute Inlet Massacre involving Cowichan warriors left the tense climate to convene such a gathering. But, since the invitations were already sent, the celebration continued. Governor Seymour himself accounted about 3,500 attended the summons, they came by water and the priests marshalled the procession of canoes, which formed an extremely striking scene as they rounded the point of the Fraser and approach to my house. Governor's house, the approximate location to which we are headed, was located at the creek now called Glenbrook. It was built on the site which was once occupied by Chief Tsimilano before the founding of the city of New Westminster in 1859. In his journal, Father Gendre of the Oblate Missionaries gave one of the most detailed accounts where he mentions his fellow missionary, Leon Fouquet. A warning some of this language might be triggering to those living in a colonial reality. The RP Fouquet travels to the rows of natives to give his orders and at his command, all the vessels moved offshore. Six to seven hundred ships, canoes slide into the current of the Fraser. Sixty flags of which shines the symbol of redemption, wave in the free will of the wind. Fifty-five savage Chiefs lead the first line, the students of Sainte Marie hold a place of honor, they break into the song of the oar and 3,500 miles hold the mountains and forests at bay.

Now, if you look back up the river, you can imagine the sight of 600 to 700 canoes headed to this space. Father Gendre would further describe the arrival at the landing stage close to the governor's house. The governor's house was located roughly around the area of 77 Jamison Court, just up and across Columbia Street and the two train tracks from us here now. Imagine a beach like landing from here up to the Government House. He would describe the reunion as being a few feet from the governor's residence and the RP Fouquet opening a grand paper wrapped in red ribbon pronouncing all the names of the savage Chiefs and carefully, in order not to insult their vanity, places them in a semicircle around so that nobody comes last. Then at noon, the RP Fouquet arrives at his designated place of honor and the governor emerges with his first officers and full military dress, his guards and a musical band. Gendre would describe the thunder of 20,000 cheers for His Excellency could be heard far in the distance. And when it was silent, the first chief presented his speech and their Indigenous language which was interpreted to Chinook jargon, a trade language, and then into English by the RP Fouquet. The governor responded which was translated to Chinook jargon, then translated into the various Indigenous languages. This was then reiterated aloud by hired speakers to the people. This would cause some smirks from the audiences. Gendre would further describe the distribution of gifts after the speeches. The speeches were thus followed by the distribution of presence. Each Chief presented himself before His Excellency to receive a gift reflective of high royalty, are pretty cap laced with gold braids that dazzles like the sun's rays, the joys of the day: 55 ChinookChiefs, 55 ChinookRoyalChinookcaps. The little school children of Sainte Marie all took turns in front of the governor to receive promises, a handshake and complimentary ties. With the completion of the gift distribution, the governor leaves the chair and re enters his dwelling among the loud and dizzying cheering.

In attendance, that day was my great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Kwikwetlem William, also known as xey-tey-nem. From an article written in 1951 by Andy Paul, it states that he was present at the approximate age of 10 when Governor Seymour addressed 2,000 Indians and 85 Chiefs at the pioneer town of Sapperton, informing them that the British were going to adequately compensate them for their country, which they were then taken over its control and government at the command and promise of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The article would later mention that he witnessed Governor Seymour give the Chief Tsimilano a silver decorated staff with a replica of the crown of Queen Victoria at the top. A similar staff was given to another Chief domiciled up the Fraser and that Governor Seymour named his father, Captain John. I, myself have had the opportunity to see this staff that is mentioned up close and in person.

My further connection to the story brings me forward to 1991, where I stood on a floor with my first cousin, whom I also call my brother, and received our ancestral names and ceremonial items in a traditional gathering with 500 plus people attending from communities all over the Halq'emeylem region. At this time, I would receive the ancestral name of Malō:yhleq, the traditional name of Chief James of Yale, up the river. My brother would receive none other than the name of Tsimilano from his grandfather, who also carried the name, our uncle who resides in the village of x ʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) is in possession of this staff, and it was at his home, where I first viewed it without even knowing its inherent importance in history.

In our cultures our gatherings are governance. Just 20 years later, in 1884, these gatherings known most popularly as potlatches, but to our people in this area as stlun'uq would be banned by law until 1951. The cultural action of giving a gift in return for the witness of words and actions is a device our ancestors have lived by for countless generations. There is often a notion that Indigenous people have given away lands for buttons and blankets. In our viewpoint, a button or a blanket would be an item to mark the remembrance of important words or works exchanged in these sultural interactions. The charge of the witness is to document to memory, the event and to share that information with their communities. In a more detailed governance, this person may be called upon if there is a dispute or conflict around this work at hand. These works can range from the giving of names, weddings, adoptions, funerals, memorials, and other variant actions of social and governmental change. In more detail, this hired speaker when calling these witnesses would be followed by family members, with the giving of gifts and tokens of appreciation to each witness. Further marking the acknowledgments of importance of this role in social exchange. These gifts later evolved to be in the form of coins. Now, most commonly two quarters are given as the token of acknowledgement of a witness's role in the work of family or community may have in mind at a Stl’etl’axel or gathering. So the giving of gold tokens ,medallions, gold embroidered hats and other trinkets to the people in attendance, would have seemed a lot like the marking of important words to be remembered by their cultural viewpoint and understanding of these social realities. In short, we were invited, and we felt we were asked to witness.

Through the various interpretations on the day and through the records of the time, the addresses of the day are recorded as follows:

The Chiefs address to Governor Seymour. "The assembled Indian Chiefs of New Westminster, Fort Yale, Fort Douglas and Lilooet have resolved to address the governor, the representative of Queen Victoria through their representatives as follows: Great English Chief, we beg to speak to you, we the Native Indians are gathered to welcome you and to show you our good dispositions. We know the good heart of the Queen for the Indians, you should bring that good heart with you. So we are happy to welcome you. We wish to become good Indians and to be friends with the white people. Please to protect us against any bad Indians or bad white men, please to protect our land that it will not be small for us. Many are well pleased with their reservations and many wish that their reservations be marked out for them. Pleased to give us good things and to make us become as good as the white men as an exchange for our land occupied by white men. Our hearts will always be good and thankful to the Queen and to you great Chief, we finished to speak to you."

Governor Seymour's speech is recorded as follows:

(11:32)"My Indian friends, I am glad to see you and to find that so many have come down to show their loyalty to our Queen. You are right. The Queen has a good heart for the Indians. I shall be good to them but harsh to the bad ones. I will punish them as they deserve. I am glad to find you have given up strong drinks, they are not good for you. As you say, there is plenty of land here for both white men and Indians. You shall not be disturbed in your reserves. I shall protect you from both bad white men and from bad Indians. I'm glad that you wish to be civilized and raised to an equality with the white man. Cultivate your lands. Send your children to school. Listen to what the clergymen tell you and believe in it. I am stranger here and I don't yet speak your language but I am as good a friend to you in heart as my predecessor. I give to you but trifling presence now but next year on the Queen's Birthday, I shall give better ones to all good Indian Chiefs. Those who behaved badly shall have none. I wish you all goodbye and hope you will have a pleasant day. I have no more to say."

(12:43) What has been intended and recorded in the records has been contested by that which has been acknowledged in the oral traditions. You see in the oral traditions of countless ancestors and elders, a promise of one quarter or in some cases 1/3 of monies accrued from land sold outside reserve lands would be set aside for the benefit of the Indian people. There are numerous accounts of this promise recorded throughout the generation since. In 1906, a delegation of Chiefs would travel to London to meet with King Edward the Seventh to petition Indigenous title and rights and the question of this promise wasn't mentioned. The promise of funds and accrued will be mentioned another important documents penned by our ancestors like the 1910 Sir Wilfred Laurier memorial and the 1911 memorial to Frank Oliver. In numerous testimonies of the 1913 to 1916 Royal Commission, numerous mentions of this promise and funds collected on our behalf are recorded even by my ancestors for whom my traditional namesake is connected. The events that would follow this gathering here in May of 1864, would further shift and transform the lands and minds of the colonial reality in this region and beyond. But in the memories and stories shared around the fires of our tradition, record of a great Stl’etl’axel or gathering with stories of a great promise from the representative of the matriarch of the crown, marked by the exchange of gifts and tokens of appreciation would travel back to the communities of these chiefs and travelers who brought their ears with intentions of putting what they heard onto their hearts and minds. Today, while we stand here on unceded lands, with an ancient reverberation of occupation, and complex web of cosmological and historical memory encoded into the landscape, in communities of those connected to it, I hope that you can be activated to remember and further understand the events that have happened here in this space, as you look around and see the effects that it has had on the lands and waters, in the kinships with those living beings connected to them. I hope you can put this on your heart and mind and be a Chinook witness.

Thank you.


Written and performed by Ronnie Dean Harris 


Darylina Powderface, community Engagement Coordinator 
Cameron Peal, production coordination 
Sherri Sadler, marketing & communications 
Chelsea Carlson, production management 
Safoura Rigi-Ladiz, copywriting and videography
Heather Cant, consulting (Indigenous Cities) 

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