We never have to look too far for a good story. Sometimes, they’re right under our feet. If you can’t find it in a history book, you might find it through an Elder. Indigenous stories are passed onto the Elders so they can be shared and live on into the next generation. One incredible and spectacular story that has been passed on over a century, was about the mightiest and fiercest warrior, Tzouhalem. The story can’t be found in your conventional history book because it’s an Indigenous story. Tzouhalem was a hero, a leader, a great warrior, a chief and later, an outcast. He is the stuff of legends and the very reason great stories translate well into film.
Filmmaker, co-director, writer and history buff – Leslie Bland teamed up with Harold Joe – Archeological historian, grave digger and co-director of the film. This is an Orca Cove Media production that focuses on First Nations and authentic Indigenous stories. They truly raised the bar in this film but I do believe it will go higher as more Indigenous history is told through film. Fresh off a premiere at the Whistler Film Festival, this story is about the untold legend of Tzouhalem.
Tzouhalem examines details passed on by both historians and First Nations Elders, the impact Tzouhalem had on the modern relationship between the Crown and the First Nations, and how his legend remains alive today. It explores how his story has been told and passed on, and by who. Co-director Harold Joe is a member of the Cowichan Tribes and grew up hearing the legends of the fiercest warrior to ever wage battle in the Pacific Northwest.
I’ve attached a link to the trailer here.
Theatrical dates for Tzouhalem include March 4th at 7 pm at Chemainus Theatre, March 5th 7 pm and March 13 at 2 pm at Cowichan Performing Arts Centre (Duncan), March 11th at 3 and 7 pm at Cinecenta (Victoria). Also in the process of confirming other dates for March 12th at 7 pm at Van City (Vancouver). More dates are sure to be added.
I had the very unique honour of speaking to both Harold Joe and Leslie Bland. Harold portrays Tzouhalem in the film, and Leslie captures true magic in the process. It was a fascinating and head scratching reveal of a legendary man that was both loved and hated. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “This was an incredible film and story, I really enjoyed it.”
LESLIE “It was interesting, because Harold and I had been working on other films and projects together and when he mentioned this story to me, my jaw was pretty much on the floor. There are various versions out there but he told me the story that had been expressed to him about this figure and legendary chief, along with some of the elements around it. I was dumbfounded as to why there wasn’t something done on this sooner. With my background in professional live theatre, he came off as a Shakespeare’s Richard the III type character because he’s disabled. We didn’t emphasize it much in the film but he had a large cyst on his neck, which made his head off center. Harold told me that he was actually more deformed than we portrayed in the film.”
HAROLD “It’s a very unique story and when I was a child, I was hearing all about who he was, what he did, and why he was that way. We played on Tzouhalem Mountain quite a bit and when I was in my teens, we would hunt the mountain and harvest deer. We would go sit up at the cross and make our way down the steep incline, below the cross. I’d make my way over to Tzouhalem’s burial and spend some time with him. The story is very personal to me.”
HNMAG “Is this story told to all the children in the Cowichan community?”
HAROLD “I think that some families have grown up with it and most of the Cowichan community would know who he was and what he was.”
HNMAG “Are there other great warriors that are also spoken about or does he stand out amongst the rest?”
HAROLD “In my community in Cowichan, he stood out from the rest because he was also a chief.”
HNMAG “There are different versions of the story but does the core of it remain constant?”
LESLIE “This story is very prevalent in the Cowichan community and Harold. This is their story and I’m very grateful to be part of it and supporting it. We looked at the different versions of the story. Harold had told me one, where he would shape shift – but we didn’t put that in the re-enactments. There was another one, where he’d reach inside someone and suck out their soul. There are stories like that where they give him bigger powers, such as snakes in the hair. You can’t cover that in a 90-minute documentary, so we looked at where most of the stories intersected. One story that’s so fascinating, is when he dives down into the water, comes up into a cave and there’s spirit women there. That particular story is very common and told by many. The idea of understanding that a woman’s power is the power of the physical and this warrior chief going to those women and saying ‘I want this power from you’ and they say ‘sure, we’ll give it to you, but if you misuse it – it’s a woman that will kill you.’ In any account of Tzouhalem, it’s the woman that either holds him back or kills him.”
Leslie continues, “Whether history has a positive view of him or not, the idea/tale of him going to get a woman from a married man and meeting his demise in doing that, is very common, everybody tells it. In one way, it was a moral failure that got him in the end. When Harold told me he was this architect victor in the biggest naval battle in west coast history, I was like holy s#it! The fact that the Coast Salish set a 3-layered trap for the northerners – that’s amazing!”
HNMAG “Harold, when you were told the story of Tzouhalem as a child, what did you walk away with?”
HAROLD “His strength, his leadership and his war ethics. When he was born, he had all these things instilled in him by his grandmother, so he grew up with all this vengeance. My grandmother kept telling me these stories about him and I’d go up to his grave and just sit up there and think about who he was as a leader in our community. Now that I’m a man and I’ve gotten into film, I’ve wanted to tell the story of Tzouhalem for such a long time and it’s finally here. Leslie did a phenomenal job on this film and for me it was very personal. Hats off to Les in putting this film together and putting it out there. I’m very excited that it’s finally done and told from our perspective. We’re very fortunate to have our elders that could recollect the stories and write them down. Ninety percent of our stories were told orally.”
HNMAG “How did you find all the elders and the young writer, Isaiah Harris to help tell this story Leslie?”
LESLIE “Although everyone came to us slightly differently, the elders all come through Harold, everyone in the Cowichan community knows him. He’s worked with Florence James before as have I. Oggy was the elder on Penelakut Island sitting on the ocean side and he’s Harold’s archeological mentor. In addition to being a filmmaker, Harold is also an archeological consultant for the Cowichan First Nations and local First Nations. We also reached out through our network in terms of local historians. I teach part time at U of Vic and that association helped with the anthropologist/archeological side. Brian Tom (professor) has done a lot of work with local First Nations communities. He said there was this really great young man that was Coast Salish and said that we should meet him; he was going into film school. When he met Harold on set, that was the first time. We are currently making plans for him to intern with our production company, Orca Cove Media. He’ll be finishing film school in April.”
HNMAG “How long have you been involved in archeological history Harold?”
HAROLD “I’ve been doing this work for 37 years. It started when I became a grave digger as a young boy of 13 – 14. I would work with my grandfather, my uncle and other elders in my community. They would share all the teachings with me on funeral proceedings. I did that for almost 47 years. Through that, I became involved with ancestral repatriation, which has continued to be part of my work. I’ve retired from grave digging and put my eldest son in charge and now he’s walking with it. I’m focusing on ancestral work. There’s constant remains coming up and I have a lot of work coming up in March, with the K’ómoks First Nation, helping them to repatriate many of their ancestors. It’s really hard work but it benefits communities, people, ourselves and we look after them.”
HNMAG “Harold, with all that historical knowledge of the archeology, have you been involved with other documentaries?”
HAROLD “I’ve been blessed to gain all the teachings from the elders in our community. Many of them are gone now, so packing a lot of history and knowledge has been a huge honour for me to do for our People. I also go down into the US to help other nations to help with ancestral repatriations. I’m Dust n Bones, which is a film based on my work.”
LESLIE “That was the first project that Harold and I worked on together. We co-wrote, co-directed and we were commissioned by Telus, APTN and FNX, which is in the US. It’s well travelled and we also have a feature length. The film is framed around a repatriation of artifacts from the Royal BC Museum. Dust n Bones is about Harold’s work and the respect for the ancestral dead. It makes us consider the notion – if you find ancient remains and artifacts, is it an archeological site or is it someone’s loved ones final resting place? Would we go into a modern-day graveyard with large numbers of white people in it – I don’t think so. That is the idea of the film, Dust N Bones and was the first film we did together. We have another one currently in production called The Cedar is Life, which is about the cultural importance and preservation of the cedar tree from Oregon to Alaska. It’s considered the Tree of Life by the First Nations because there’s so much that comes from it. Totem poles, canoes, longhouses, weapons, clothing, baskets, boxes, medicinal herbs – it’s all made from cedar. We also have a comedy heist film coming out. A character similar to Harold puts a rag tag crew together from the Rez and they break into a museum, much like the Royal BC Museum. They steal the stuff back that rightfully belongs to their people and put it back into the ground.”
HNMAG “You’ve known each other for many years. How did your relationship start?”
LESLIE “Harold came in to audition for a part in a sitcom my company was producing. It’s out on Youtube, it’s called Ollie and Emma. It’s a First Nations themed sitcom that’s 54 minutes in length and Harold plays an elder. It was when we were sitting around, doing a few rehearsals before filming when I found out what Harold did. It was amazing to encounter someone with Harold’s background. Since I started working with him, I went right down the rabbit hole. I don’t understand everything that he does, but it’s been a big education for me being exposed to his work. He’s gotten in touch with our local First Nations and First Nations elders, so I’ve been learning a lot about Indigenous culture and it’s been a fascinating journey and I’m excited for more.”
HNMAG “Have you got distribution for the film?”
LESLIE “Yes, we have 2 broadcast partners, CHEK TV, which are a local broadcaster and without them, we would not have been able to make this film. The Superchannel is our second window in Canada. We also have a number of International distributors interested in the film – but haven’t yet determined who that’s going to be. We’ll know soon. The premiere is March 13th.”
This film is one story amongst many Indigenous stories and it also provides momentum for the large ripple created with previous Indigenous stories. On a stage that the world is buying tickets too, more stories, legends, heroes and history unfolds through Leslie Bland and Harold Joe.