Salish Spirituality

January 27, 2007

in 2006-2007, Faith Traditions, Speakers

The Gabriola Ecumenical Society was delighted to welcome Elder Gerry Brown from the Snuneymuxm First Nation as our guest speaker in  June 2007.We appreciate this opportunity for insight into our neighbours native spirituality.

Gerry attends Malaspina College, where he has been a student for six years. On completion of his courses Gerry will be teaching his native language in the School System. He has a deep interest in the preservation of First Nations' culture and traditions. We  asked Gerry to talk on First Nations' "Spirituality", and how this affects the way our world is viewed, daily life lived and one's relationship with the environment.

Gerry Brown’s presentation clearly moved the people who were fortunate enough to be there. He began by introducing himself and his cousin Mavis, and telling us about their ancestors. He explained that for Salish people, who we are is always about family.


He spoke about early relationships between his people and Europeans who thought that “Indians” had no religion. Then he described some of the ways that Salish people practice their religion, and some of their beliefs. Every day, people bathe and then face the rising sun. People should look for peace and wisdom. Everybody is born with virtues. Respect is important; younger people ought to show respect for elders and for their knowledge. Communities make sure that teen-agers have learning sessions with elders. When it’s time for young people to be initiated as adults “the rules change. You are supposed to be responsible.” Initiation rituals include four days of isolation from others with no food. “They dissect you” You learn to get along with your family.


Traditions are passed on by oral, visual and hands-on methods. Jerry mentioned stories derived from the time when Xels walked the earth. Xels is the Creator or the Transformer. To respect others, we shouldn’t laugh at people or do anything that causes hurt. People should use traditional protocols to appease natural things such as water and trees when we need to use them. We have prayers for everything. The word “Syewun” means purifying. Every morning we run for an hour. People used to use canoeing for purification, but now it is a sport.


Mavis talked about rituals for the transition from child to young woman; sometimes people go up into the mountains to be isolated from others for their initiation, and are only allowed to eat certain foods; the ritual symbolizes that you have died as a child and have been born again as an adult.
When someone close to you dies, part of you dies. Bereavement is one of the four passages marked by rituals. People need to learn to pray to change their bad habits. We only have a few elders. Some people are reluctant to be elders.


Some Salish people belong to the Shaker religion Gerry described it as a Protestant Pentecostal religion Gerry sang a Shaker song, accompanying himself on a traditional drum made with wood and deer hide.


Gerry said that the people of Gabriola can help the Snuneymuxw people by learning about their sacred places and understanding what they need in order to maintain their traditions. There is only one very small piece of reserve land on Gabriola Island, but many other places on the island are sacred to them. [Reported by Barbara]

Pronunciation and other notes (Barbara Williamson):

  • Gerry referred to his language, Halkomenum or Halkomelem. The word has slightly different pronunciations in different dialects, and different spellings. It is one of the Coast Salish family of languages.

  • The Shaker religion is practised by Northwest Coast First Nations people who have been influenced by Christianity and have created their rituals, songs and ways of recognizing clergy. There is a very good documentary about it that has been shown on the Knowledge Network.

  • Syewun is sometimes referred in English as “spirit dancing”. It is a very old spirituality that is still done today. Gerry refers to practitioners as “longhouse people “.

  • Xels: the letter ‘x is usually pronounced like the “ch” at the end of the Scottish word “loch”, or the German “ach”.

  • Snunymuxw: Something like sne-NAY-mooxw. (The consonant at the end is so soft that I find it easier to say
  • sne-NAY-moo; the first an! last syllables are unstressed and very short.) The name of the city, Nanaimo, is an anglicized version of Snuneymuxw.


For those who wish to learn more about Halkonelem Coast Salish belief systems Mike Kew, who taught Anthropology at UBC, recommends the following:

  • Jenness, Diamond, 1955, The Faith of a Coast Salish Indian, Anthropology in BC, Memoir No. 3, BC Provincial Museum, Victoria.

  • Kew, Michael, 1990, “Central and Southern Coast Salish Ceremonies Since 1900”, pp.4.76-4.80, in Sullies, Wayne, editor, Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 7, Northwest Coast, Smithsonian Institution, Washington.

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