The First Cat In Kwaguilth

By Malcolm McColl

Kwakwaka’wakw carver Beau Dick recounted a couple of stories passed down by generations in relation to first contact with Europeans on the coast of the Pacific Northwest. One story describes the fate of the first domesticated feline, and another the chief’s reaction to a special custom of the British Navy.

The Spanish had sailed up the outside coast of the Pacific Northwest islands and archipelagos as early as the mid-1500s to begin conducting business, but the domestic cat did not make its first appearance at a Kwakwaka’wakw village until the in the mid-1700s. This nation of Houses, clans, and villages occupies the mainland, several islands in an archipelago, and the top of Vancouver Island on both sides. When the Spanish sailed up to one of the well-populated villages, they were immediately visited by the chief who greeted the ship’s captain with a cordial welcome to the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. At this first meeting, the chief saw a cat capering onboard the Spanish ship.

The Kwakwaka’wakw chief was enthralled with the unusual creature, and the animal was brought before the chief for his closer inspection. After playing with the cat for a spell, the chief believed it belonged to him. However, the Spanish captain’s devotion to his pet was enormous, and he refused to relinquish it. A couple of intrigues later, the Kwakwaka’wakw chief was in full possession of the cat.

The infuriated captain of the Spanish ship soon unleashed his cannons on the shore at the Kwaguilth community, blowing apart several war-canoes parked on the beach in front of the bighouses. Canoes were never in short supply in a Kwakwaka’wakw community, and a few minutes later a flotilla coursed toward the Spanish ship. The Kwaguilth surrounded the Spanish and returned the cannon balls. They began demanding that the Spanish perform this excellent feat once again. They were not, however, returning the cat.

The Spanish sailed away and left the chief in possession of the curious animal, and he announced a special event to be held in his bighouse. Soon a gathering of chiefs and important clan members and associates had been assembled and the stage was set to unveil the cat. The chief reached into a large cedar basket and grabbed the terrified cat and threw it some distance toward a wooden post where it stuck. Everybody ooh’d and aah’d while the cat did a couple of frantic loops and took off never to be seen again.

The Spanish spent a number of years exploring and mapping their explorations into the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. They left the territory with a legacy of sketches of people, villages, ship’s log entries, and a few Spanish place-names. Beau said the British Navy eventually began stopping around the territory, occasionally gunning the Spaniards out of the region and often stopping at the houses of the chiefs of Kwakwaka’wakw communities. Soon the Spanish were superseded by the British who also brought something new but very different than a cat.

The British had a custom of ending each occasion with the certain protocol of a shot of rum. At first the chiefs were intrigued, but not all were happy with the custom and some were offended by the British insistence at imposing the bitter tasting liquid on these special occasions. Indeed a large argument ensued among the chiefs about whether to allow the British to stay. The argument that prevailed was, “Ah, let them stay. What harm can it do?”