In response to the Canadian government’s self-congratulatory and hypocritical billion- dollar Sesquincentenial Celebration of 150 Years of Confederation set against a backdrop of stolen land, cultural genocide and the ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples; we offer a counter-narrative. Here is the story of an inspirational act of naked defiance to colonialism which occurred 152 years ago in the village of Comox in what is now referred to as British Columbia.
Each autumn, the Lekwiltok, Kwakwaka’wakw (known by the settlers as the Euclataws) would venture south down the coast to Comox Bay with a large flotilla of canoes during salmon fishing season in what by all eyewitness accounts was a remarkable sight to behold. While some settlers welcomed their extended seasonal visits and/or traded with them for their dried salmon and venison, others accused them of coming to steal the farmers’ potatoes and repeatedly asked the colonial authorities to force them to return to their Cape Mudge village on Quadra Island. As Admiral Richard Mayne noted in 1862, the Euclataw warriors were known for their fierce resistance to the English gunboats in previous forays in defense of their Cape Mudge home. Consequently, the British navy wanted nothing better than to settle old scores. And so the stage was set for “The Potato Wars” of 1865, involving a cast of characters that included: Jordan Cave Brown Cave, an Anglican missionary priest recently arrived in Comox; Chief Claylik of the Euclataws, with whom Cave would have a blasphemously mythic encounter on the beach; and Rear-Admiral Joseph Denman, freshly returned from leading a viciously punitive 1864 attack on the rebellious Chief Chapchah and his Ahousaht warriors in Clayquot Sound.This Denman fellow is the same military swine whose name was eventually to be affixed by colonial mapmakers to the island on which I presently live but which at that time bore the traditional Pentlatch name, Sla-Dai-Aich (Inner Island).
Things came to a head in October of 1865, when Cave made a complaint to Nanaimo-based magistrate, W.H. Franklin, which said that about 150 marauding Euclataws had descended on Comox. He reported that they had established a fishing camp a few miles upriver from the British gunboat presence in the harbor with their nefarious purpose being to steal the settlers’ potato crop. As part of his disposition, Cave stated that when he had gone on a mission to the Euclataw camp to tell them that he wanted them to leave immediately or face the consequences, they refused. He then threatened that he would request that the Royal Navy take action based on his half-baked potato-rustling story. To which Chief Claylik replied that they would kill any man that tried to evict them from their traditional camp before they had properly dried the salmon that they had caught. Tempers flared, and historian Allan Pritchard has recreated the priceless moment when the proverbial shit hit the colonial fan by quoting Franklin’s account of Cave’s story about Claylik’s subversive act of refusal. “In a scene the missionary seems to have viewed with special indignation, ‘He then held out his blanket and danced on the beach in a defiant manner.’” Claylik’s supreme act of “naked defiance” in the face of clerical authority proved to be the final straw for a colonial government which would soon institute the assimilationist horrors of a Christian residential school system in the following decade with the express purpose of taking the “Indian” out of the child.
Accordingly, Governor Kennedy dispatched Admiral Denman to retaliate with reinforcements against these naked potato- thieving heathens. As Commander-in Chief of the Pacific Station, Denman stated that he would send all available force to Comox Bay which in his words was “a place where so many ineffectual remonstrances had been made.” Denman arrived with a full-blown fleet that included his flagship gunboat, HMS Sutlej (a big ship with a crew of over 500, more than 30 heavy guns and a variety of other armaments), as well as the Clio and the Sparrowhawk (larger and more heavily armed than the smaller gunboats which had dispersed the Euclataws on previous occasions only to see them return again the following autumn). Faced with such a full-on naval show of force, punctuated as it was by the firing of a warning salvo of shells and rockets; the Euclataws eventually agreed to return to Cape Mudge pending the release of Chief Claylik, who temporarily had been placed in irons for 48 hours by Denman, and so bloodshed over small potatoes was avoided. Subsequently, Denman visited with several settlers who were critical of Cave for summoning the Royal Navy to drive away the Euclataws in the first place, who they did not view as a threat. In fact, two-thirds of the settlers who attended a meeting called by Denman in Comox favored leaving the Euclataws at peace in the future, although this dispensation was largely out of economic rather than altruistic motives because their cheap labor as potato diggers was needed by the farmers. The “Comox Potato War” had ended with a fizzle, much as it had begun, and Euclataw canoes would continue to arrive in the Comox Valley each fall until the 1880s.
CREATING A NEW MYTH OF REVOLT
Instead of succumbing to the staged patriotic spectacle of the Sesquincentennial this year, let us strike back with our own annual festival here on Sla-Dai-Aich (Denman Island). The Festival would be held outdoors in early Autumn to celebrate Chief Claylik’s poetic act of refusal. The Naked Defiance Dance Festival would start with a marvelous procession of canoes arriving on the beach. The canoers would be welcomed with a campfire feast of salmon, blackberries, oysters, baked potatoes and whatever other grub people might bring to suit their particular fancies. Then, in theatrical topsy-turvy fashion, Admiral Denman would be placed in irons by Chief Claylik to the cheers of all those assembled. At the prearranged signal of Claylik’s key turning in the admiral’s iron(ic) lock, the naked dancing would begin in joyous anti-colonial solidarity (bring your own blankets).