"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 [sic], 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 Indigenous 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:lō 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:lō 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]