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Salt Spring’s Hawaiian Community

Salt Spring’s Hawaiian Community

by Tom Koppel

© Tom Koppel 2005

The year was 1994. Herk Roland, a brawny man with Hawaiian facial features, muscled a log onto a beach fire, where a whole pig rotated on a spit. Nearby, steam wafted from the traditional imu pit, where clams, mussels and oysters cooked under layers of seaweed and burlap. Up behind the beach, three hundred people, many in bright Polynesian garb, had settled in for a good-time luau.

Cathy Roland, wearing garlands of flowers in her hair, entertained the guests while they awaited the feast. Switching easily between Hawaiian and English, she crooned a South Seas lover’s lament. “E ku'u morning dew, alia mai, alia mai” she sings, “To you alone I say, wait for me, wait for me.” Three of her sisters, decked out in leis and muumuus, joined her in the chorus. Backing them on bass, guitar and drums was their brother Dave Roland and a few of his friends. Like his sisters, Dave had long black hair and a distinctly Hawaiian look.

But this was not Hawaii. It was Salt Spring Island, where the Rolands and their Hawaiian ancestors had been hosting luaus for over a century.

The Rolands are descended from William Naukana, one of some 500 Hawaiian men who came to the Northwest Coast in the 19th century to work as contract labourers in the fur trade. Between 1820 and 1850 the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established a dozen fortified trading posts, along with several sizable farms, from Oregon to Alaska, including in what is today coastal B.C. Kanakas worked at all of these outposts and on HBC ships as well. Eventually they were 30% to 60% of the work force at most of these isolated installations. At the largest post, Fort Vancouver on the Columbia (today’s Vancouver, Washington), they lived outside the stockade in the “Kanaka Village” and had their own minister, school and church.

Scores of these adventurous young men married Native Indian (First Nations) women, put down roots and stayed. They called themselves Kanakas, the Hawaiian for “human being.” A series of gold rushes (starting in California in 1848 and on the Fraser River in B.C. in 1858) led to huge influxes of mainly American and European miners. This destroyed the HBC’s fur trade monopoly and resulted in large-scale private land settlement in the Northwest. The Kanakas, who were already living and working in the region, were well-situated to pre-empt land in desirable locations. They soon established their own small settlements: on the Fraser River (today’s Maple Ridge), in both downtown Vancouver and near the sawmills of North Vancouver, in downtown Victoria, and on Salt Spring Island, which was one of the first places where land was opened to settlement.

By the late 1870s about one dozen first-generation families (with Hawaiian-born husbands and Native Indian wives) had pre-empted land on the southern end of Salt Spring (Isabella Point and Beaver Point) and on three nearby smaller islands—Portland, Russell and Coal. As with most frontier families, there were many children, and they tended to marry other part-Hawaiian offspring and start large families of their own. So, by the late 1890s, there were about two dozen Kanaka (or part-Hawaiian) households, including a few on other nearby Gulf Islands. Some of their surnames retained a Hawaiian ring, others had been either Anglicized, or else non-Hawaiian names had come in through the marriage of a part-Hawaiian woman with an Anglo-American or other European man.

Among the surnames of these Kanaka individuals and families, by birth and marriage, were: Naukana, Palua, Nuana (or Nawana), Tahouney, Mahoi (or Mahoy), Kamai, Kane (or Carney), Lumley, Shepard, Kahana-Nui, Parker, Haumea, Peavine-Kahou, Tamaree (or Komaree), Douglas, Fisher, Roland, King, Purser, Harris and Pappenberger.

A few of the men, such as William Haumea, William Naukana and John Palua, were mainly fruit-growers or subsistence farmers, but most worked as fishermen, loggers, whalers, boatmen on coastal steamships or as crew members in the large seal fishery that was based out of Victoria but reached as far as the Bering sea. Several of Salt Spring’s young Kanaka men died when their sealing ship sank in 1903. The women mainly raised the children, kept house and maintained home gardens. They filled the kerosene lamps, stoked the wood-burning cook stoves, prepared meals, and boiled clothes and diapers in huge tubs and scrubbed them by hand on washboards. The Kanaka children made up half or more of the enrollments at both the Isabella Point and Beaver Point one-room schools in the early 1900s. Some of them had to row across to Salt Spring for school each day from Russell and Portland Islands. Kanaka families held regular luau feasts, usually during winter.

Since the Native Indian wives of the first-generation Hawaiian men had never known the Hawaiian language, it died out on Salt Spring, except for a few words and expressions. Through the middle years of the 20th century, later generations of part-Hawaiian children went off to be educated, married into the mainstream of society and assimilated. (One Kanaka descendant of the Mahoi and Douglas family, Mel Couvelier, served as Finance Minister of B.C.) Salt Spring’s Hawaiian heritage was largely overlooked. But a few families kept the Kanaka flame alive. The Rolands listened to Hawaiian music on the radio and held family luaus on the beach at Fulford Harbour. Jackie Hembruff, of the Nawana, Tahouney, and Lumley family, opened a restaurant in Ganges called the “Kanaka Place,” and gave a brief history of the local Hawaiian community on her menu.

Then, in the early 1970s a Honolulu newspaper “discovered” Canada’s long-lost Hawaiians and invited several of the Rolands for an expenses-paid visit to Hawaii, where they made contact with distant relatives. Other Salt Spring Kanaka families soon made similar trips, and some of their children became interested in Hawaiian music and hula dancing.

By the early 1990s, scores of families with Kanaka backgrounds in B.C. and nearby Washington State had re-established ties with each other, so they organized a series of annual gatherings called the Hawaiian Connection. The first was held in 1993 in a park just outside the stockade of Fort Langley, one of the main HBC outposts in B.C. The second was in 1994 at Drummond Park on Fulford Harbour, and it was more like a genuine luau. First Nations dancers from the Cowichan Valley and from the Lummi tribe of Washington State also attended and performed. Soon, historical plaques went up in a few places on Salt Spring and the neighbouring islands with Kanaka ties. Books were written. The Hawaiians descendant were interviewed on radio and TV. There was no longer any danger that Salt Spring’s Hawaiian links would be forgotten.

Audio Recordings

Russell Island Oral Histories
by Wendy Maurer

Russell Island: Ruth Sandwell talking to Harry Roberts at his home in Parksville

Russell Island: Ruth Sandwell talking to Harry Roberts on Russell Island

125 The Kanakas -Tom Koppel

46-1 The Kanakas -Tom Koppel

46-2 Newcastle Island -Tom Koppel

89 Dave, Jack and Paul Roland