Tom Koppel Interview

Interview by Sara Kolbet

Date: 1/28/05

1 Disc, 7 Tracks – 70:51

TRACK 1 – 0:03

TRACK 2 – 16:22


SARA: Introduce yourself.

TOM: I am Tom Koppel. I am an author and journalist in British Columbia, on Salt Spring Island, and I am the author of Kanaka, the untold story of Hawaiian pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. The book was published in 1995, although actually it took me quite a few years to write it, off and on working on it. It was a labor of love, something I was very interested in, the topic, and it was my first book. I’ve written a couple of books since then on other subjects. But it was the first popular book on the subject of Hawaiians in the fur trade and on the northwest coast.

SARA: How did you become interested and what information was out there?

TOM: I became interested because where I live, Salt Spring Island, had one of the largest groupings of Hawaiians outside of the Hawaiian Islands that has ever existed anywhere. In fact, it had descendants of the Hawaiians who worked in the fur trade, dozens of them, settled on Salt Spring Island. So it was one of the few places that there was actually a concentration of Hawaiians after the fur trade period, and these Hawaiians tended to live near each other, they intermarried with each other, and so on Salt Spring, as in very few other places, they kept up some of their traditions, awareness of their heritage. A lot of these people have gone back to Hawaii, they’ve traced relatives, they’re very proud of their Hawaiian heritage. So when I moved to Salt Spring thirty years ago, I began to hear stories about the local Hawaiians. Somebody pointed out an oldish man to me who’s dead now, but a grey-haired man working on the ferry, the local ferryboat to the island, and said see that guy? He’s part Hawaiian. And I looked and I could see it, yes, he really did look it. He had these traits. And it was a very strong bloodline. And there was another Hawaiian on the island, a woman, who ran a restaurant called the Kanaka Place restaurant, and that was one of the first times I’d heard the term Kanaka, and on her menu she had a short history of the Kanaka community, because she was from a different Hawaiian family, was also very aware of it, had been to Hawaii and all of this. So there I was, learning about these things, aware of this, and meanwhile I got into journalism and I began to write for magazines, so one of the obvious subjects to me was the story of Hawaiians in our area, British Columbia. And so then when I went to the public archives in Victoria, the British Columbia archives and started digging in, I realized there was much wonderful material, more than just one magazine article’s worth. And I realized also that nobody had ever done it. So that’s how I set myself the task.

SARA: Basic history questions now. What changed in Hawaii when Captain Cook arrived to lead to the movement?

TOM: Hawaii, I point out in my book. Hawaii was one of the most isolated major societies in the entire world. It was one of the last places on earth that was actually discovered by western mariners and explorers. To put this into perspective, before Captain Cook came to Hawaii the Russians were already in Alaska, Captain Cook on an earlier voyage had already discovered Antarctica. The Spanish had been in Mexico for hundreds of years, and yet there was Hawaii, sitting out in the middle of the North Pacific. Magellan had gone around the world a couple of hundred years before Captain Cook. So there was this very isolated, large society. I think the population was something like 300,000 people which was a lot at that time, an aboriginal population. And suddenly Captain Cook came and Hawaii was opened to whaling and missionaries and trade and their culture, it was such a shock. They would have been totally unaware that there were any other people in the world, really. They had kept up some very tenuous links to the Marcases and Tahiti and places like that but basically they didn’t know that there were any other people anywhere. And suddenly they were essentially deluged with white, European and American missionaries, soldiers of fortune, people trading for sandalwood and things like that, and then the fur trade began and ships were stopping in large numbers, taking on Hawaiians as crew members and Hawaiians were curious about the world. There seems to have been a great willingness on their part to go out and see where did these people come from? What kinds of societies did they come from? They were interested, but at the same time their own society was changing quite rapidly. Their kings were taking on western ways. They were bringing in people like these soldiers of fortune to show them how to use weapons. In fact, that’s how Kamehameha, the first king unified the islands, it was with the advantage of western weapons. Even just a few swivel guns on canoes was a dominant enough force to overwhelm his opposition. So society was changing very quickly in the early 19th century and their people were being driven off their ancestral land. Now, I don’t want to make Hawaii sound as if it were some kind of paradise. I don’t actually believe that it was. It was a repressive society in many ways. But people’s whole lives were being thrown into upheaval and at the same time opportunities were opening up to them to go abroad, mainly as crew members on ships, such as on whaling ships, and then this new thing came along, the fur trade. Sea otter furs had been discovered by Cook’s first voyage to the northwest coast. The Russians were already involved in the sea otter furs – trading with the Indians and selling the furs to China, where they commanded a tremendous price. Sometimes up to $100 a fur, and this was in the beginning of the 19th century when $100 was a fortune. The average working person didn’t make $100 a year and each sea otter fur was worth $100. So it was like black gold, the fur, the pelts. So these ships began to arrive and some of them took on Hawaiians just as observers or as passengers or even as possible concubines in the case of certain women. And so there were a few Hawaiians who came to the NW coast in the first few years of the 19th century just as passengers on these ships. But the organized fur trade really began with John Jacob Astor, the German-American tycoon whose name is of course associated with the Waldorf-Astoria. And Astor set up a company, he already had a fur-trading company, the American Fur Trading Company and he set up a new one, the Pacific Fur Company. And he decided to send a ship around cape horn and establish a fur trading post, a permanent fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. At a place that’s now called Astoria in Oregon. Until then there had been ships trading with the Indians along the coast but it was kind of haphazard and the Indians didn’t know when the ships were going to arrive. So a fur-trading post, a permanent establishment, a little fort, would be a totally new thing and it was. So Astor sent his ship around the horn and on the way they stopped in Hawaii and at that time most ships, most sailing ships had to stop in Hawaii if they were going around the horn or coming from Asia, either direction, because of the winds and the prevailing currents. It was very hard to sail a ship to the NW coast without coming pretty close to Hawaii and why would you not stop there at that time? Because they needed fresh water, they needed food usually. This was still a time when people would be dying of scurvy, from lack of fresh food on board. So almost every ship automatically stopped in Hawaii. So Astor’s ship stopped in Hawaii and they had lost some of their crew, some had absconded in Hawaii, this was very common, and so they needed and actually they were slightly understaffed when they left. So they needed extra people. And they made a deal with the King, sort of a kickback, they king got a little bit of extra money for each person and the Hawaiians who were hired also got paid. So they hired twenty-four Hawaiians on this first ship to go and help build the fort in Astoria and also to work on the ship. So that’s actually the first formal organized fur-trading venture with the Hawaiians to the Northwest Coast. And in the next few years other ships came with more Hawaiians and then this post of Astoria was taken over by the British as a result of the war of 1812. Actually the British sent an overland party to capture it, but then the Astorians, the Americans working for Astor, they were not soldiers, they weren’t going to die fighting the Brits, so they sold out. They sold the fort to the Brits and that’s how it was first the Northwest Company and then the Hudson’s Bay Company, both of these were British Fur Trading companies. That’s how they acquired their foothold in what was then called the Columbia District.

SARA: How did Hawaiian royalty react to Hawaiians leaving?

TOM: The government of Hawaii as…as the fur trade developed, the government of Hawaii had contradictory feelings about it. On the one hand they were earning some money from it themselves, they were selling licenses in a sense, but on the other hand, as the 19th century moved along, they began to be concerned that too many young Hawaiian men in their prime years were actually leaving. Now, the fur trade was only part of it. More of them were leaving on whaling ships. And this was a very dangerous way of life, a lot of them never returned. Ships were shipwrecked and there were lots of reasons why men might not come back. And some of them just ended up settling in other parts of the world. There were Hawaiians who served in the Mexican navy, if you’ll believe it, which sounds crazy but they did. And there were Hawaiians in Peru and Hawaiians who ended up in New England, working on ships and settling there. So Hawaiians were being spread around the world so the government in the 1840s tried to put limits on the number. They had a quota system; they charged fines to captains who would recruit Hawaiians without permits. In a way it was a tax. In other ways it was a sincere effort to try to reduce this outflow because I believe it was something amazing like 18% of all young men in their prime years had left Hawaii by the mid-1840s. So it was a very large out flux of young men. And at that time the native Hawaiian population was declining from disease and other things like that, so it was sort of a double whammy. And they tried to limit it and the fur trade altogether, the northwest coast fur trade, I believe something like 500 to 700 men went into the fur trade but a couple thousand at least went into whaling, so whaling was even bigger.

SARA: What were those in the fur trade employed to do?

TOM: When the Hawaiians signed up they were almost, without exception, signing on as general laborers. To do the lowest grade of work. They were not officers. Most of the officers were Scots or other Brits. A lot of them from the Outer Hebrides and the Shetland Islands and those places. But the Hawaiians went in as basic, they called them servants, low-end workers, and their work was dependant on where they ended up. They were assigned, it was like a military service, they were assigned wherever the company wanted them to go. So some of them worked on ships. They were very well seen as seamen, as mariners. They were very good on boats. They knew how to swim at a time when many Europeans didn’t know how to swim. Lots of sailors, even. They knew their way around boats. They could land their boats on beaches, in surf…

SARA: I hear a clicking.

TRACK 3 –46:46

TOM: One of the reasons that the Hawaiians were considered such good employees by the fur traders was that they knew their way around boats. They could land boats in the surf, on beaches. They were strong swimmers at a time when many Europeans couldn’t swim at all, including lots of sailors, so this was one of the big things that was in their favor. So many of them got assigned to work on boats and rivers of the coastal waters of the northwest coast. And also some of them worked on the ships that went up and down the coast, larger ships. For example there was a steamboat, the Beaver, the first steamboat on the northwest coast, and a number of Hawaiians worked on the Beaver, shoveling coal and such like that. So they were very good for that. A lot of them just ended up doing any other job that needed doing, such as running sawmills. The HBC soon got involved in cutting timber and selling it to places like Hawaii and San Francisco, which was a growing city. Honolulu was a growing city. They needed lots of good lumber and there were these beautiful Douglas fir trees on the Columbia and they immediately started setting up sawmills. So quite a few Hawaiians worked at the sawmills. Others were sent inland, up the rivers to the interior posts, so they would be working on the canoes, paddling the canoes and carrying the backpacks of furs sometimes over the portages and even over the mountains, so they were grunt workers doing all sorts of these jobs. And then, around Fort Vancouver especially Fort Vancouver on the Columbia and later around Fort Langley, they also became agricultural workers, because the HBC had to feed itself and the people on its ships and they also made deals with the Russians in Alaska where there was hardly any good soil or good climate for growing food. They sold food to the Russians in Alaska. So around Fort Vancouver you ended up having thousands of acres of farmland with hundreds of heads of cattle and huge agricultural establishment. And lots of the Hawaiians ended up doing agricultural work.

SARA: You were talking about Astoria being American and then British. How did the revolution affect relations?

TOM: This is way after the revolution. This is the war of 1812.

SARA: Did relations matter as much because it was the west coast?

TOM: The conflict between the US and Britain on the northwest coast was constantly simmering during the main period when the Hawaiians were working for the HBC. Technically the two countries were sharing, they had joint custody, joint ownership of the Columbia country, but the British had ownership first. As time went by, the Americans began to encroach. American settlers began coming the Oregon Trail, for example. Still, until the Gold Rush in California, which started in 1848, the British were still dominant on the Northwest coast. But the pressure was on. The election of 1846 perhaps, or ’44, there was an election fought on the slogan ’54 ‘’40 or fight,’ and that was an American slogan claiming the entire northwest up to Alaska. So it was obvious to the HBC fairly early on that they would probably be pushed out of at least the southern part of the Northwest coast. That somewhere a new line would be drawn, perhaps along the Columbia River, perhaps farther north. It ended up being farther north. But meanwhile what’s interesting for the Hawaiian story is the Hawaiians, working for this British company, were seen increasingly as this loyal group who tended to favor the British. And Hawaii had a monarchy of its own, which is not uninteresting, and in the Hawaiian flag there is the Union Jack. So Hawaii had a special relationship with Britain and Hawaiian kings had gone and visited Britain. So there was a bit of a special relationship between the Hawaiian laborers and the British and this worked to their favor later on in Canada very much so.

SARA: Is there a reason why some Hawaiian records are lost and are only found here?

TOM: I have just a quote from someone.

SARA: Can you read it?

TOM: When the first ship of John Jacob Astor’s was approaching the Columbia River there is a very nasty sandbar at the mouth of the Columbia and they sent in some small boats, some with a Hawaiian crew, some with white guys from the ship, and they went across the bar and it was tremendously rough waves and one or both of these boats flipped over. Some of the white sailors couldn’t swim and one of them saved their lives. And in doing so one of them actually eventually was in the water too long and he perished, this is much colder water than Hawaii. And this was probably the first traditional Hawaiian burial that ever took place on the Northwest coast and I’ll just read briefly: The boat made it to shore eventually, but not before one of the Kanakas died. The dead man was buried by six Kanaka comrades according to their tribal customs. Each before leaving the ship had taken an offering of biscuit, pork, or tobacco. They put the biscuit under the arm of the deceased, the pork under the chin and the tobacco under the testicles or genital organs. Then they put the body in the grave and over covering it with sand and gravel they formed a double line, with their faces turned eastwards. One officiating as a priest went to fetch water in his hat and having sprinkled the two rows of Islanders, began a prayer to which the others responded. Then they rose and departed and made their way towards the ship without looking back. This unnamed Kanaka was the first, but far from the last, to lose his life in the treacherous coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest.

SARA: Relations among Europeans, Hawaiians, and those who were already here. Could you explain First Nations to us?

TOM: In Canada, we use the term First Nations for Native Americans, though sometimes you hear Native Canadians or Natives or Indian, you still hear Indian. The government ministry in charge is still called Indian Affairs. The Kanakas had an unusual position that I think of as somewhere between the whites and the Indians in terms of their status. They were dark-skinned people and over time there were newcomers among the whites who discriminated against them personally in their various ways. But legally they were not discriminated against in Canada, as they were in some of the Northwest States. For example, in Oregon, there were actual laws passed that denied them the right to get land even though everyone else coming there over the Oregon Trail was able to claim land for free. In Canada they were able to acquire land and have the vote immediately and serve on juries and actually some of them ran and served in politics quite early along. But it’s true that as more white settlers came in, both in the US and Canada, there were certainly examples of personal discrimination against them. However, in the very early years they had this privileged status because they had been with the HBC before any of these settlers, so they enjoyed a special relationship with the government of British Columbia and were actually given favorable treatment, which stood them in good stead.

SARA: The ethnicities of people who worked for HBC and the female/male makeup.

TOM: At the HB forts, we’re talking about before settlement, before people started moving off on their own and acquiring land, you had these outposts that were basically forts in the middle of Indian Territory. And at these forts the main population on the west coast, the workers were Hawaiians, almost the largest single group. The officers were entirely British, and then there were other employees that had been brought over the mountains from eastern Canada. And they were Iroquois Indians or they were what was called French Canadian voyageurs. These were Métis, part-Indian, part-French men who had learned in either Quebec or in some cases they had lived in the Red River colony in the prairies. And they were skilled fur traders, some of them were second, third, fourth generation fur traders. They had been working for Northwest or HBCs in some cases for 100 years, their families. So they were brought over the mountains on these fur-trading brigades. And all of these people lived together at the forts, or outside the forts in many cases because the forts were small. The officers, some of them lived inside the forts but generally the lower classes, the ordinary workers lived outside the forts. And the Indians also, the local Indians who were trading with the forts also tended to cluster around the forts. So you had Indian villages, new ones, clusters of tents or small buildings, going up right next to the forts to be there when needed, to do jobs and to trade. The most interesting of these fur-trading communities was fort Vancouver, by far the largest. In the 1840s for a few years, Fort Vancouver was by far the largest colony or settlement anywhere in the Northwest beside San Francisco. It was bigger even than the Russians, any town the Russians had in Alaska, like Sitka. It had a population of over 500 fur trade employees. Of those, about half were Hawaiians. They lived outside the fort in what was called the Kanaka Village, a fairly large clustering of houses that they had built themselves. The company did not build them houses, they were shacks really. They paid them a food ration and gave them some money but these people went and built their own houses. And some of them had wives and their wives were almost in all cases native Indian women. There were a couple of hundred outside of fort Vancouver there were a couple of hundred native women living with these fur trade employees and then they had children, so there were a few hundred children. So overall there was more than a thousand people living outside the fort. In this so-called Kanaka Village. And then there was a small number of a dozen or so officers living basically inside the fort. It was a very polyglot community. They spoke different languages. There were pidgin languages that developed such as there was, the Indians had a pidgin language called Chinook which was sort of a trading language on the west coast. And over the years some Hawaiian words worked their way into Chinook and people communicated anyway they could. Some of them of course learned English but French was still being used also in HBC because there were a lot of French Canadians. So they also spoke French.

SARA: Could you explain Kanaka and whether it has connotations?

TOM: The word Kanaka simply means person or man in Hawaiian. Although man, strictly speaking is Kane. But human being or person, really would be the translation. Now, it has had negative connotations at certain times. People have called each other you dumb Kanaka or something like that. But actually the Hawaiians themselves never used it in a negative way. Even today in Hawaii they are proud to call themselves Kanaka. There are a number of book titles besides mine that use Kanaka so it’s not a derogatory term, strictly speaking. The Hawaiians were called Kanaka also officially in the censuses in places like British Columbia and they referred to themselves as kanaka. So if you asked what are you, they would say I’m a Kanaka. On the voting lists in places like Salt Spring Island where I live, in the old voting lists there would be censuses, or when they took censuses, there would be the name and it would say Kanaka. As an identifier. Rather than British or whatever.

SARA: Did Hawaiians go back to Hawaii?

TOM: During the fur trade period when the Hawaiians were being recruited for these forts on the Northwest coast, they were on a contract basis, they were being hired for three years at a time, usually, and it was part of the deal that they could go back. The HBC had ships going back and forth a couple times a year. HBC had a recruitment agency in Honolulu. So they were recruiting 50 or 60 new Hawaiians every trip. And at the same time when the ships went back they were bringing furs to places like China but also they were dropping off employees. So it was a choice at the end of the three-year period when you were being paid off, you could go back or not. Now, during the three-year period a lot of these men acquired wives. Common-law wives if you will, but some of them were actually married, there were missionaries, priests at these forts and you could have a church marriage and a lot of them did. So you had people starting families and those people generally did not go back. Their wives and children would probably not have fit into Hawaiian society at all. I never came across a reference to them going back with their families. So basically it was men who either did not like the service or had not started a family that went back. And from the statistics that I could see, I went back through the HBC records carefully, it looked as though at least a third did go back. A larger number stayed and quite a lot died in service, it was quite dangerous and there were illnesses and lots of young men didn’t live to their middle years, working men in those days. So they simply died usually in accidents on the rivers and in the mills and things like that. But probably more stayed in the northwest coast than went back. But a lot went back.

SARA: I find the movement of HBC north interesting. Could you use some examples to explain movement north?

TOM: The land-based fur trade at the forts started at the Columbia River but it didn’t remain at the Columbia because the Columbia was more or less the southern end of the rich fur trading area on the northwest coast. The areas farther north, especially what’s today British Columbia, had a lot of excellent potential for trading with the Indians. So the HBC began to establish forts in Washington State and what is now British Columbia. The first and most important of those in the early years in the 1820s and 30s was Fort Langley, and this is at the mouth of the Frazer river, not too far from the city of Vancouver, Vancouver BC. And the first couple of Hawaiians who went to establish that fort were interesting guys. One was named Como and one was named Peeohpeeoh. Como had been at fort Vancouver and before that he had been at the northwest company, so he was one of the very early people who had come probably around 1816, 1818 or so. And had worked at one of the forts, most likely Astoria on the Columbia River before the big fort, Fort Vancouver, had even been built. And then they established Fort Langley, and he went with the first group north. He had been a cook in one of his guises in the fur trading. I’m not sure that was the only thing he had done but he was referred to by one of the officers as a cook. As a young guy, of course. Then when he came up to the Vancouver area, to Fort Langley, he was mainly employed at first sawing wood. They didn’t have a real mill, a water mill yet, they were still pit sawing, sawing by hand. So in the records of Fort Langley I came across these references to Como and Peeohpeeoh sawing more logs today, and Como and Peeohpeeoh sawing again. And these were officer’s records and the Owyhees starting another saw pit. They sometimes called them Owyhees, starting with an O, O-W-H-Y, Owyhees. And after I think it was fourteen or fifteen years at Fort Langley, Como went back to Fort Vancouver. He had a wife by then and I think he was able to bring her along but then he died in his fifties. But he had been with the HBC something over thirty years.

SARA: Could you start again?

TOM: Peeohpeeoh, who went north with Como, helped to found Fort Langley, was also an interesting character. He had also joined when it was the Northwest Company on the Columbia, so that was before 1820, and he became, he was one of the ones who became a specialist, after this pit-sawing episode he became a cooper, which is a barrel-maker. Now at Fort Langley they were, among the other jobs they were doing was salting salmon. The Frazer River had tremendous runs of salmon just like the Columbia and it was a great place for them to trade for salmon with the Indians. The Indians did most of the catching of the salmon and at the fort they would salt them down and they had to pack them into barrels and they were selling them mainly to Hawaii. And even to this day Hawaii which has no salmon, Hawaiians love salmon. They call it lomi lomi salmon and it’s a very popular dish at any luau you go to in Hawaii, you have lomi salmon. I had it there myself. So tremendous numbers of barrels had to be built. I think by the peak they were selling something like two thousand barrels of smoked salmon a year to Hawaii. And so somebody had to make these barrels and these were the coopers. So Peeohpeeoh became a cooper. He was taught it by somebody else, obviously. Wouldn’t have gone to a trade school. But he learned it and so as typical, I could see this in HBC records, he was given a bonus. The average worker was making seventeen pounds; these are seventeen British pounds a year. It wasn’t very much money. Let’s say $100 roughly. And Peeohpeeoh was getting an extra three pounds a year for being a cooper, not just being an ordinary laborer. He stayed at Fort Langley. He also had a wife and he had I think three children. He never left the area. Eventually he had a son who was named Joseph Mayo who was apparently quite a physical specimen. The Indians supposedly called him the strongest man in the world, this son, Joseph Mayo. So this guy growing up at the fort, what else was he supposed to do, he worked for the company. And he got sent on one of these trading brigades up the Frazer River to the interior of British Columbia, it was called New Caledonia, it was a very rough place at that time. Very difficult place to live. A very isolated fort. And he spent a couple of years in New Caledonia and then he came back down. And he went into the trade of being a cooper too, so he worked for many years as a cooper. And finally, where Como went back to the fort on the Columbia, Peeohpeeoh and his son Joseph Mayo never did. They settled on the Frazer River. Just as there had been a gold rush in California in 1848, in 1858 there was a gold rush on the Frazer River up the Frazer River and gold miners came in by the thousands and it sort of destroyed the fur trade. So at that point land was thrown up, open to settlement and the fur trade really waned quite quickly in the 1860s and people like Peeohpeeoh and his son Joseph Mayo were able to claim land for themselves for free, 160 acres each, and they had already been living on the Frazer in their own houses and commuting, in a sense, across to the fort to work there. And they basically retired from the company and some of these Hawaiians continued to do odd jobs for the company, part-time work, but they settled and became farmers on the Frazer River and they had adjacent holdings of 160 acres each. And built houses and the last I heard in the records, the last reference I found to Joseph mayo, the son of Peeohpeeoh that he was still fishing in his boat as an old man in 1915, he lived to a ripe old age.

SARA: What did Hawaiians think of working for the HBC?

TOM: It’s hard to know what the Hawaiians actually thought of their service with the HBC because so few of them were literate that there are almost no letters or testimonies in their own words. There is one letter I believe written for one of the fur trade employees that got back to Hawaii and has been preserved, but it doesn’t really deal with his service with the company. It’s more just describing a luau that was being held on Puget Sound in the 1860s. So just proud that the Hawaiians there were keeping up the heritage…

SARA: Start again…

TOM: One Hawaiian whose letter has been preserved, named Naukana, I believe was illiterate himself but I believe someone wrote the letter for him. He described a luau being held by Hawaiians on Puget Sound in the 1860s and it was a very proud letter saying essentially we the sons of Hawaii held this wonderful luau and invited our white or American friends and they were very glad to come and they were very honored to be there. And we ate our dishes and then they came and they ate some of our dishes and some of their types of dishes and we want you back in Hawaii to know that we are keeping up this honorable tradition. This was the essence of this letter home. But sadly very few Hawaiians could read or write, of the Hawaiians who went into the fur trade at least. So we don’t really know that much about what they thought about their service. I think the best testimony is simply that so many of them signed up again. They didn’t have to. They could have gone home after three years, but actually most of them stayed longer than three years. Most did sign up again. Some of them went home eventually anyway, but that was after six years or nine years, they kept signing up. And it was certainly a good enough job that a lot of them kept it for the rest of their lives, or at least until the fur trade ended, because that’s what happened. It petered out.

SARA: So when did this stop?

TOM: Basically the fur trade waned with massive white settlement on the Columbia, in the southern area it petered out in the 1850s with white settlers coming over the Oregon Trail. And in British Columbia farther north it waned quickly in the early 1860s. To the point where there were no new forts built and the old forts gradually abandoned. Eventually they were all abandoned. None of them exist today except as historical sites.

SARA: Repeat.

TOM: None of these old traditional forts exist today except as historical sites. Fort Langley and fort Vancouver on the Columbia are both wonderful places to visit. They’ve been rebuilt as close to the original look as possible and they have staff who dress in period costumes and demonstrate some of the trades, barrel-making and blacksmith shop and it’s really worth it to see.

SARA: Do you know some Hawaiian place names on the NW coast?

TOM: There are lots of place names on the NW coast that have Hawaiian references, although a lot of them are generic. They’re things like Kanaka Creek, Kanaka Bar, these are on the rivers. The bar, there’s a Kanaka bar on the Frazer. There’s an Owyhee river off the Snake River. I believe it’s in either Idaho or in Oregon. It’s a place where some Hawaiians drowned and they named the river after them. But then there’s a few towns, such as Kalama Washington which is named after a Hawaiian, one of the fur traders was named John Kalama. And there’s an island up the British Columbia coast, Kamala Island, which is named after one of the Hawaiians there. So there are a number of places. On Salt Spring Island where I live there is a Kanaka road. They’re sprinkled around. There is a Kanaka point on San Juan Island in the San Juans in Washington State. There are quite a few places with Kanaka names.

SARA: What do descendants think about their history?

TOM: The descendants of the original Kanakas that I’ve gotten to know over the years are amazing proud of their unique background. They know all about it. They feel it makes them a little different from their friends and associates here in Canada or in the US. A lot of them have shown this by going back to Hawaii and tracing their roots. There’s a lot of interest in Hawaiian genealogy. Hawaiians traditionally were very interested in their own genealogy. They used to chant their genealogy as a way of introducing themselves to people. This was an old thing in Hawaii. But the other thing that they’ve done in recent years is they have gotten together every few years, for a while it was every summer, and had these gatherings around the Vancouver area and some of them were around Seattle. They called them the Hawaiian connection or the Kanaka Connection, things like this. They were generally something between a luau and just a big party. One of them that I went to really was a wonderful luau right on the beach on Salt Spring Island. But others were just parties in a park near Vancouver for example. And they’d have music. There was a Hawaiian slack-key guitar band that played at one of them. There was hula dancing and often there was Hawaiian food, including the traditional foods such as pig cooked on a spit. Another traditional Hawaiian way of cooking is to put seafood and fish and wrap it in seafood and bury it in the beach over coals and cook it underground all surrounded by tarps to keep it clean for several hours. And they’ve had that at some of these events. This kind of traditional seafood. I forget the name of it but there’s a coconut dish that’s common in Hawaii, kind of a dessert that’s served at these events. And people wear their aloha shirts and they have, they put their fingers up in this funny pattern of thumb and pinky which means hang loose or right on brother, that Hawaiians do at each other. They get down and they get into it.

SARA: Besides the history, is there anything more universal we can learn?

TOM: One of the things that has struck me in studying Hawaiian history on the northwest coast is something that I don’t think most people would think of first. But the early frontier years were actually a time of greater tolerance and cooperation with people than the later years. The Hawaiians were at least in British Columbia where they were officially accepted by the government and allowed to claim land, were treated quite well and managed to get along quite well with their neighbors. Whereas in later years there was definitely a sense of discrimination. I think it was who you were if you proved yourself as a good worker or a reliable neighbor or a cooperative neighbor, on the frontier you were accepted. And there was a lot of intermarriage across the races during the frontier years. And later on there was less. The people who were coming in, the settlers, they were not interested in intermarrying with dark skinned people or whatever. They were the women for one thing were coming on brides ships from Europe and places like that. That’s not why they were coming to the NW coast. But in the early years there was a level of tolerance that I think was quite admirable.

SARA: Hawaiian canoe racing.

TOM: One of the most enjoyable experiences for me was shortly after my book was published these two large Hawaiian voyaging canoes came to the NW coast. These canoes were double-hulled canoes. They had sailed across the pacific several times but on this occasion they didn’t have time. They shipped them by freighter to Seattle. And they had these joint events between the crewmembers and the local communities in Seattle and Vancouver and later on the two canoes went different directions. One went all the way up to Alaska, the other went all the way down to San Diego. But what was so interesting was at many of these events were joint events between the crews of the canoes and local Indian or first nations bands in Canada.


TOM: These canoes came to Seattle and Vancouver and then spit up. One went north to Alaska and the other south to San Diego. Along the way they had events of various kinds with local Indians in Canada, called First Nations groups. And what was so interesting was that many of these First Nations groups in Canada or Indian bands and tribes in Washington state for example, were partly Hawaiian themselves. And they were aware of their Hawaiian heritage. For example in Washington State the Lummi of the Bellingham area have some Hawaiian blood and they’re quite aware of it. And some of those Lummi Indians have come to the Canadian events, these connection get-togethers. In Vancouver there is a large family of Nahaines, in North Vancouver, the Sqammish or Capala band there, who are part Hawaiian and are very aware of their heritage and always have been proud of it. And the interesting thing was to see that they had a similar tradition in a way of canoeing and canoe racing. So in Hawaii canoe racing is a big sport. It’s outrigger canoes paddled by six paddlers. And there are these huge canoeing clubs that canoe all the time. They race between islands. Well, the Indians especially in British Columbia also do this. They don’t have outrigger canoes. They have long dugout canoes with larger numbers of paddlers and especially in places near where I live on Vancouver island you see these canoes on trucks being taken from one place to another, constantly racing, and again it’s a very serious sport. They take it really seriously. They’re very proud of their canoes teams, it’s important to win. And this is usually one Indian band versus another or one club versus another. So when these twin-hulled canoes came over from Hawaii, and they held a joint potlatch and luau. A potlatch is a traditional Indian ceremony here and a luau is a traditional Hawaiian one. So at the North Vancouver longhouse of the Squammish they hosted this wonderful event that I was honored to be invited to where they cooked the pigs and the seafood. But in addition they had these joint paddling dances with the Hawaiian crews did their paddling dances and then the local Indians did theirs. It was a wonderful thing to watch. They were getting their heritages mixed up but it was a wonderful time had by all. I should say there was no alcohol at these events. They never serve alcohol at these potlatches.

SARA: Anything else?

TOM: Oh the trials and tribulations of being an author. I’ve had a wonderful experience publishing my book but strangely enough, although it did quite well, the publisher eventually let it go out of print. At first I was quite upset but in a way it’s turned out very good for me because people were still very interested in it, so I’ve actually had the book reprinted on my own and now I can sell it and make a better profit and I often sign the books for people. So lots of people may look online and they’ll look on Amazon or Barnes & nobles and it looks like the book is out of print. Well, they can still get it from me and it’s through my website. My email address: and I will personally sell them a copy and sign it for them.

TRACK 4 – 4:12

TOM: I’ve mentioned the connection between the Hawaiians and the native Indians here in British Columbia but one of the most interesting things is how the families of the Hawaiians became either white, joining the mainstream society or becoming Indian. It depended on the sex or gender of the second generation in almost all cases. Because you had the Hawaiian young men marrying Indian women and if their child was a son, in the frontier there were no other Hawaiian women generally to marry. There were almost no white women who would have them as wives, so they would almost all marry native Indian women just as the other fur traders were by and large doing, even the whites were doing that, even the officers of the company were doing that. And then settlements began and countries became states or they became Canada and provinces and organized Indian reserves arose. So these second-generation men and their wives would end up being Indian and their subsequent children and later generations would be Indian. They’d be part of these Indian reserves. But if they were girls, if the child of that first generation was a girl, she would very likely end up meeting a white guy because they were certainly around. They were moving in as settlers, as miners. And there were very few white women for them to marry. So they were by and large taking either Indian wives or in these cases, part Hawaiian, part Indian wives. And their children would become part of the mainstream society and four generations later, they’re white. Some of them were not even aware of their Hawaiian background for a while. Larry Bell is an example o f that. I’m not sure what he considers himself now, he may consider himself an interesting mix. But he would have grown up in a mainly white circumstance. Or there was this finance minister; this is one of Jean Barman’s discoveries. The finance minister of BC, Mel Couvalier, was totally unaware that he was part Hawaiian. He thought he was part Indian but until he was thinking of running for premier of the province, which is like governor, and at that point he thought he had better find out the truth about his background and he asked Jean Barman to look into it and she was the one who told him he was part Hawaiian. She checked his family.

SARA: Was the Hawaiian-ness encouraged?

TOM: Eventually it was discouraged among the whites. I think that’s the thing. In the early days it was more tolerant but eventually even being part Indian was something you didn’t talk about. Nowadays it’s trendy again. But in the 1920s, 30s, 40s people did not talk about being part Indian or part Hawaiian. They may have suspected that they had mixed blood of some kind, they may have suspected as they weren’t blond haired and blue eyed or something like that, but they didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t a social advantage saying you’re part Hawaiian or part Indian. So families in some cases in British Columbia, in Washington State, didn’t tell their children. They kept quiet.   Ask Larry Bell.


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