How The Columbia River Came To Be

Excerpts from the 'How the Columbia River Came to Be' BY MARILYN JAMES

“Over time, I have heard the story of the Columbia River and how it was formed through multiple tribal renditions. The particular version I tell has roots in an ancient form but is a hybrid of my own taking. I explain this as part of my responsibility to the ancient profession of storytelling. To quote Chief Standing Bear from Mourning Dove’s book Coyote Stories: The stories ‘never grow old... [they] are of the mountains, rivers, and forests...They belong!’” Marilyn James, Sinixt elder and storyteller

This story is about a time long ago, so long ago that there was no Columbia River and next to nothing alive on the landscape. Sin-ka-lip (Coyote) was wandering around looking for something to eat, but all he could find was a Coyote’s Breakfast: a drink of water and a look around. Then, his radar indicated that there was a beautiful woman in the vicinity. Now, Coyote was a real scoundrel and a scamp, especially when it came to women. He believed himself to be quite debonair but was actually creepy and repulsive. His hair stood on end, he had an uncontrollable thumping of the hind leg and he drooled heavily. So when he saw a beautiful woman named Rain, it was hard to imagine that he had a chance in the world to get her attention. But for all his flaws, Coyote had a way about him. He began to sing a magical love song to Rain. And in spite of herself, Rain fell deeply, head-over-heels in love with the despicable Coyote. As he sang his love song, Coyote promised Rain a gift if she shared her own gift with him. Knowing that she was irrevocably in love with Coyote and that there was nothing she could do about it, Rain reached into her chest, tore her heart from her breast and cast it down. Where her heart landed and her heart’s blood seeped became the headwaters of the Columbia River. As Coyote continued to sing his love song, Rain cradled him in a warm, wet embrace and together, they began to travel across the landscape. Eventually, the two of them found their way into the land of Rain’s cousin, Ocean. Ocean was equally as beautiful as Rain, and as soon as Coyote caught sight of her, he was smitten. In his repulsive, gory persona of standing hair, thumping leg and excessive drool, Coyote loped between the two beautiful women, professing love to each. “Oh Rain...I love you...Ocean...I love you...No, Rain I love you...Oh, Ocean it is you that I love.” Rain was incredibly angry with herself for having fallen in love and with Coyote for showing interest in Ocean. Rain told Coyote, “You promised me a gift if I shared my gift with you...I will hold you to that promise...I want my gift.” Coyote told Rain: “I love you...I really love you...I will give you many gifts that will prove my love to you.” Coyote began taking bits of himself and laying them beside the trickle of water running from Rain’s heart, each of these bits from Coyote’s body became a being intricately tied in relationship to that trickle of water from Rain’s heart. Kingfisher, Osprey, Eagle, Bear (brown, black and grizzly), Marten, Beaver, Frog, all species of flora and fauna, all species of fish, resident and anadromous. After that, Coyote reached into his spaoose (heart) and set down a small piece of it on the land. This piece of his heart became the Sinixt peoples. The responsibility of the Sinixt was to live with Rain’s heart, to show reverence to the land every single day, to show respect and love to the source of the Columbia River, Rain’s heart. Coyote told Rain that each spring and each fall his best swimmers would make their way down the water path of her heart to a greater body of water (Ocean) and each spring and fall these best swimmers (this would be spring disbursement of fry –– baby salmon –– and the great spring and fall runs of salmon) would make their way back to her heart, bursting with love as Coyote’s proof that he still loved Rain. Coyote promised that one day he would return to be with her forever and ever. When he returned, he promised, he would make everything all right. The Sinixt people wait to this very day for Coyote’s return. They believe that when he does return, he will fulfill his promise to make everything right. In the meantime, Coyote being who Coyote was, he said to Rain: “I’m going with Ocean.” And Coyote has been with Ocean ever since.

“To me Coyote actually embodies the human condition,” says Sinixt elder and storyteller Marilyn James. “We are capable of some pretty miraculous behaviour, but we can rarely get beyond ourselves to perform at anything other than our most mundane capacities. We almost wouldn’t be human if we weren’t fallible, frustrating and endearing. Like Coyote.”

A condensed version of Marilyn’s oral rendition of “How the Columbia River Came to Be” © Marilyn James, Sinixt Nation "As a result of the dams on the Lower Kootenay River, the shelves of rock that once formed the foaming waterfalls beside Coyote’s Rock sit today like bones chewed bare. The falls are dry and inactive. They await Coyote’s return, when everything will be set right: for water, for fish and for the beautiful mountain landscape the Sinixt call home." Eileen Delehanty Pearkes