SEPASS, Chief William (K'HHalserten)

Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors

"His countenance was always serene and yet stern; his faith in the Great Spirit was steadfast. In 1943 he passed into the Great Beyond, leaving behind a record of achievement unsurpassed by any Indian of his time.” -- Oliver N. Wells

Reputedly born in the 1840s at Kettle Falls, Washington, around the time touring artist Paul Kane recorded the presence of a Chief Sepayss, Chief of the Waters, the remarkable Chilliwack Chief William Sepass (aka K’HHalserten, meaning Golden Snake) of Skowkale, near Sardis in the Fraser Valley, is rarely cited in any literary context, but it’s likely Sepass is the earliest-born Aboriginal author of British Columbia.

As a boy, Sepass accompanied his tribe north into the Fraser Canyon, in the wake of an epidemic in Washington, and he was soon selected and trained to become the custodian of family and tribal knowledge. During the Cariboo gold rush, Sepass’ father built a freight canoe out of a cedar log to transport miners and their prospecting supplies across Chilliwack Lake. Sepass’ mother was the daughter of a Thompson River chief.

Around the time British Columbia became a colony, Sepass’ people, the Tcilqeuk or Tsilli-way-ukhs, became known as the Chilliwacks, a name that Sepass later maintained was derived from the word Tsilli-way-ukh, meaning Gathering Place of the People of K’HHalls, the Sun God. Fanciful attempts have been made to link Sepass, or Y-Ail-Mihth, meaning The Ancient Singer, with sun-worshipping peoples who ostensibly migrated northward from Central America and Mexico.

Sepass’ first wife Rose, the daughter of Thompson Uslick, bore him eight children but most of them died of tuberculosis. Particularly distraught about the death of his son Eddie, Sepass carved a headpiece on his son’s grave, as encouraged by Reverend Thomas Crosby. The inscription read simply, “Eddie. 1880-1886.”

Widely respected as a powerful orator, Sepass was also touted as an unsurpassed canoe-maker and a renowned hunter. Because he became partially literate, William (“Indian Billy”) Sepass was encouraged by the Indian Affairs Department to serve as spokesman for his people. He forcefully represented the land claims of the Stó:lo people to the 1913 Royal Commission and he was an active dairy farmer in the Native Farmers Association.

Concerned that his people were losing touch with their heritage, Sepass decided he wanted his stories to be preserved “in the Whiteman’s book.” He consequently related 15 traditional songs for posterity between 1911 and 1915. During four years of patient translation, Sepass recorded his songs in a rhythmic form, including a Stó:lo version of the genesis of the world.

The narrative songs were translated for him, from the Salish, by Sophia Jane White, daughter of Reverend Edward White (1822-1872), a Wesleyan missionary who had arrived in New Westminster in April of 1859. Having grown up in the Fraser Valley, Sophia White was educated in Ontario but she had returned to the Chilliwack area and married a settler named Charles Sibbald Lockwood Street.

[As a descendant of Rev. Edward White, Janet White has noted that, according to White family lore, Sepass first encountered Eloise Street, aged about seventeen, when she was seated on a log near Cultus Lak. She could not walk because she had polio and "was paralyzed in all but her left arm." Sepass supposedly “cured” her to the point that she only had to use crutches. He became fast friends with the family. Eloise later spent a year, aged 25, in Toronto Orthopedic Hospital and returned to B.C. after studying and marrying in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1927.]

As Mrs. C.L. Street, Sophia entrusted the publication of the manuscript to her daughter, Eloise Street Harries, who edited Indian Time magazine. Excerpts first appeared in the Native Voice newspaper in the late 1940s. For her rudimentary mimeographed versions, such as Sepass Poems (1955) and The Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth [The Ancient Singer] (1958), Eloise Street incorporated a charcoal sketch of Sepass done by Vancouver artist Ada Currie Robertson around 1931.

In additional versions Street added photographs of key participants and a somewhat preposterous preface by Chief Shup-She, aka Howard Lyle La Hurreau, of Fort Wayne, Indiana. More importantly, she invited amateur ethnographer Oliver Wells, a third-generation farmer whose family had long been intimate friends with Sepass, to provide a lengthy introduction. Wells' participation in Sepass’ posthumous book was a turning point in his life, prompting him to commence his alternate career as an ethnographer.

The important relationship between the Wells family at their Edenbank farm and Chief Sepass was predated by the relationship of Chief Sepass with the White/Street family. It was Reverend White who first recommended to the Methodist Church that a permanent missionary should be sent to the Chilliwack River, whereupon the young Reverend Thomas Crosby was duly sent from Nanaimo in a dugout canoe in January of 1869. Able to speak the Halkomelem language fluently, Crosby, later a famous missionary on the West Coast, recorded meeting Sepass in his memoirs, published in 1907, and supposedly converted William Sepass to Christianity.

The Reverends White and Crosby both visited Edenbank, the Fraser River home of white pioneer farmer A.C. Wells, who employed William Sepass in 1882. Wells’ son Ed Wells, in turn, was a lifelong friend of Sepass. Ed Wells hunted with the chief and was frequently taken to visit the trapline that Chief Sepass maintained throughout his life. Ed Wells’ son, in turn, was Oliver Wells, who recalled in his memoirs, "In compiling a brief sketch of the life of Chief Sepass, I became intrigued by the early history of the native people with whom the family had been friendly for three generations. Realizing it would not be long before the older natives, born during the early days of white settlement, would all be dead, I purchased a large reel-to-reel tape recorder and spent considerable time away from the farm on visits to the homes of old native friends."

Eloise [Elouise] Street was once interviewed by Oliver Wells. His notes from that conversation provide an inventory of subjects discussed: "She recalls seeing Chief Sepass at the hop fields, giving an oratory to his people. Elouise [sic] recalls Chief Sepass giving her a volume of poems to be published for his people. Elouise recalls her mother translating for Chief Sepass. She speaks to the difference of speaking 'High Indian' for rituals and sacred traditions. Sepass would translate the High Indian into Salish and Elouise's mother would translate the Salish into English. Elouise speaks of the poems being published in three versions, hers and two others, which are all very similar. Elouise attests to Sepass' confessions to her of his family's origin and history. From Kettle Falls in the South, Sepass claimed his family was pushed up North into Chehalis country. Elouise recognizes the imperfection of translating Indian into English; you lose connotation and intended meaning. Elouise gives a preface to the Coyote poem. She speaks about the importance of Coyote in Native tradition. Three hemispheres to cross to reach the home of the salmon people. Elouise speaks of the conflicting nature of Sepass' life as an Indian cultural leader, and as a worker in the newly intruding white world of commerce and trade. Chief Sepass name: Te'hol'ts'e'gin (in Thompson dialect)."

Robert Sepass Jr., grandson of Chief William Sepass, died in 2006.


Sepass, Chief Khalserten. The Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth (Chilliwack, B.C.: ca. 1949). Translated by Mrs. C.L. Street.

Sepass, Khalserten The Songs of the Y-Ail-Mihth (Vancouver: 1958). Translated by Mrs. C.L. Street.

Sepass, William. Sepass Poems: Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth (New York: Vantage, 1963).
Translated by Mrs. C.L. Street. Edited by Eloise Street.

Sepass, William. Sepass Tales: Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth (Chilliwack: Sepass Trust, 1974). Translated by Mrs. C.L. Street. Edited by Eloise Street.

Sepass, William. Sepass Poems: The Ancient Songs of Y-ail-mihth (Mission, B.C.: Longhouse Publishing, 2009). Translated by Mrs. C.L. Street. Edited by Eloise Street. See press release below.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2016]

Anthropological transcription
oral history


Once the only salmon that came up the Fraser River was the steelhead. Beaver and some companions made a weir in the Chilliwack River to catch them. When the others had set their bag nets there was no room for Beaver's, so he dug a trench at one end. They caught many salmon and ate them on the spot, taking none home to their wives.

The women sent a boy down to the weir to see what their husbands were doing. He pretended to be chasing butterflies, but unseen, he tied two bunches of salmon eggs round his legs like short leggings and went home. When the women asked him what the men were doing he said "They have caught a lot of salmon and are eating them. See, I have brought you some of the eggs that were hung up to dry." Then the women were very angry. They pounded up cedar-bark and made from it belts, and head-bands for themselves. Then they lashed together two canoes, dressed themselves up, put quantities of down on their heads, and with two women paddling, went off to find their husbands.

The wind blew the down from their heads towards the men, who sent out two of their number - two Woodpeckers of different species - to fly up the river and see who was coming. When they reported back, the men debated what they should do. Their leader said "We had better go away to the home of the Salmon and steal their babies." They embarked in a canoe, Beaver, Mouse, the two Woodpeckers, and two yuwilmat [Indian doctors] who know how to make fine weather, and they paddled far away to where the sky alternately dips down to earth and rises again, causing the tides. The yuwilmat prayed to the sky to move slowly so that they would have time to pass under it without being caught. They passed under, and approached some houses, the home of the Salmon. As they drew near Beaver jumped overboard, after arranging with the two Woodpeckers to fly after him when he had drawn the attention of the Salmon. He swam to shore, and lay at the edge of the waves, seemingly dead.

The Salmon people came out of their houses and called to one another "Have you ever seen a creature like this before?" None of them recognized him. At last they said "Let us call Coho." Coho walked down to the beach and examined Beaver. "Oh yes," he said, "I know him. It is Beaver. He dug a trench up on the Chilliwack River in which to set his net. Bring me a knife and I will cut him open to see what is inside him." Someone went for a knife, while Beaver lay praying that the Woodpeckers would arrive in time. Just as Coho received the knife the woodpeckers landed on the beach behind the people, who turned to look at them. "What beautiful creatures," they exclaimed. "Let us catch them." They all tried to catch them, but the Woodpeckers eluded them. While their attention was thus distracted, Beaver and Mouse entered their houses, and while Beaver searched for their richest baby, Mouse ate their bow-strings, the lashing of their weapons, and bored holes in their canoes. Beaver found the baby of Sockeye, the prince of the Salmon, and, tucking it under his arm, fled to the canoe.

Mouse and the Woodpeckers joined him and they fled away to the Fraser River, the Salmon being unable to overtake them because their canoes leaked too badly. They put the head-pad of the baby in the Chilliwack River; that is why sockeye are so plentiful there, and so good to eat. Farther up towards Yale they placed its diaper; sockeye are plentiful there also, but are not so good to eat. The baby itself they set at the bottom of a deep hole in the River near Yale. You can still see it there at low water - a rock that exactly resembles a human being and seems to have long hair on its head.

Meanwhile the Salmon discussed what they should do. Sockeye said "We had better follow them." Humpback announced that he would follow them on the morrow, which meant the next year. So Sockeye and the other salmon went up the Fraser River, and the Humpback followed them a year later.

The women then debated what they would do. They decided to go down to the salt water, but before leaving they threw an old couple, a man and a woman, into two creeks that unite at Vedder Crossing. You can see them there today - two rocks, one in one creek, one in the other. Children used to be warned to keep away from them, for if flies gathered round these rocks they would become sick. When the women reached the salt water they leaped and changed into oolachan. That is why the Chilliwack Indians would not eat oolachan.

Sepass Poems re-published
Press Release (2009)

Sepass Poems~Ancient Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth

Chief William K’HHalserten Sepass; Commemorative edition; $135 with case sleeve cloth; $65 with dust jacket cloth 978-09686046-4-9, 156 pp., 6.5x10, Longhouse Publishing, November 2009.

Chief William K’HHalserten Sepass (1841-1943) was the last of the great orators; a storyteller, a philosopher and a spiritual person, carefully selected and trained as a young boy to carry the traditional teachings of his culture, the knowledge of his lands, and the stories and songs of the beginning of the world and how the lands were shaped by the emotions and adventures of mankind upon the earth.
Surviving the devastating effects of western diseases, witnessing the influx of European settlers, two world wars, the automobile, the iron lung, telephone, running water and the Indian residential schools, Chief Sepass witnessed the demise of his culture and language. He knew that these teachings would not survive in their original oral tradition.
He saw the different priests of the newly formed churches come and go, but they always read from the same book. He noticed these stories from the Bible being given great respect and ceremony. It was this method (a written form) that Chief Sepass saw as the only way to save these priceless poems for his people; that knowing them, Indians would remember their greatness for all time.
These stories, widely heard at the annual summer sun ceremonies and gatherings, were always told in the Coast Salish language. Over four years (1911-1915), they were meticulously translated, recited and recorded and transcribed in English, with the assistance of Sophia Jane White, the daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist missionary. Sophia had been raised with Halq’emeylem nannies, becoming fluent in the everyday language of these women. She understood the importance of adhering to the original rhythm and cadence of the 16 ancient songs.
This Commemorative edition, due for release November 2009, has been published in honour of this great man. It is a fitting tribute to the importance and value of these poems among aboriginal people. As described by His Honour, Grand Chief Steven Point, Lieutenant Governor of BC, in his foreword to the book, “… like the Homeric legends of Western thought, the Sepass Poems are a profound legacy to future Xwelmexw generations as they continue to seek meaning and stability in an ever-changing modern world.”

The uncluttered design of 156 pages of text with 18 pieces of original artwork creates a treasured keepsake. These poems, Chief Sepass’ legacy, will capture and change the reader forever.

-- From Longhouse Publishing