Tunnels, whirlpools and unseen spiritual landscapes

In Re-imagining S’ólh Téméxw: Tunnel narratives in a Stó:lō spiritual geography (2010), Robbins explores ‘tunnel stories’—the hidden spiritual landscape of Stó:lō territory shaped by the unseen world of tunnels. Tunnels are literal such that for those who are trained, they represent a means for physical and metaphysical travel throughout the territory, and between human and spirit worlds. They are also metaphorical, in that they allow freedom and flexibility to negotiate permeable boundaries between seemingly rigid mental constructs within the material world. The tunnels are also active participants in the ongoing negotiation of relationships between the territory, humans, and the Spirit World.

Tunnels throughout the territory, S’ólh Téméxw, are “transformative in nature” (Robbins, 2009, p. 49), and challenge assumptions around what is possible in spiritual landscapes of seen and unseen worlds, who can claim rights of access to the environment, and what grounds a sense of belonging within territorial ‘place’. Robbins writes,

Unlike the storied topography of the above-ground world, these tunnels will not visually reveal themselves to an unaware bystander. They are part of a hidden spiritual landscape – sacred places of the mind more than sacred places of the physical terrain (2010, p. 2).

Although one cannot physically see sacred places of the mind, this does not mean they do not continue to inform what happens in the world above-ground. By reframing landscape to include what we cannot see enables different questions to emerge. In my research, the pursuit of knowledge relevant to Coast Salish economic development follows a process in which tunnels are revealed and the hidden landscape of the Coast Salish economy emerges to be seen. Reflecting on the words of Stó:lō wisdom keeper, Darren Charlie, he draws attention to the limitations of deductive reasoning.  Instead he offers that to understand Stó:lō tunnels, belief comes from an intuitive and contextual perception that what lies beyond the horizon is uncertainly defined, yet certainly there. He says,

Our spirituality and our belief in the mystical tunnels is they are mystical in the sense that I haven’t actually seen them but I believe they are there…they are for a purpose. If we have been told something about what’s happening with our world, or there’s a message, that’s when they show themselves (Robbins, 2010, p. 72).

At the outset, the interconnections are impossible to see, and without detailed knowledge and training, one cannot know where they end up. However, their purpose lies as much in their discovery as in the message they carry.

Robbins’ shares one of the unique features of Stó:lō tunnels—that they are accessible by way of portals situated throughout Coast Salish territory. As with the tunnels, portals may or may not be visible to everyone, but they are the points of access for travel in the tunnels. Robbins states,

These portals are powerful elements of a uniquely Stó:lō geography that occupies both the physical and metaphysical landscape of the Fraser Valley, a landscape that shapes, and in turn is shaped by, the history, mythology and complex identities of community members (p. 47).

An example of one type of portal discussed in Robbins’ research is as whirlpools that emerge on waterways, and in particular, on stó:lō, the Fraser River. Historically, for Stó:lō people, whirlpools can be both helpful and dangerous on the water. Their energetic momentum can be used to thrust canoes forward, but their powerful energy also pulls downward, and can be lethal if entered unskillfully. The structure of a whirlpool is a conical spiral such that momentum of water increases exponentially further down as the spiral grows tighter. The image below captures the dynamic energy of a whirlpool and shows how the water draws downward, but it also spirals upward with equal force. It represents balanced motion: in and out, up and down, chaos and order, and conveys the sense of both seen, and unseen worlds.

Whirlpool showing dynamic balanced momentum in three dimensions (Howarth, 2016)

Stó:lō oral histories tell of whirlpools in which you can see the bottom of the river. The notion that there is no water at the bottom of a whirlpool invokes a paradoxical calm, and stark contrast between the swirling chaos that engulfs and overpowers things floating in the water around it. On the other hand, there are also tunnels where bodies of water are found to have no measurable bottom (Robbins, 2010), leaving the element of the unknown as a central defining feature of their power.

In the 100th anniversary edition of E. Pauline Johnson’s book, Legends of Vancouver (2014), the story, “Deer Lake” alludes to a Coast Salish tunnel that serves as an escape for a giant seal from a long struggle with seasoned spearsman, Chief Capilano. In it, Johnson writes,

Once only did his cunning fail him, once only did Nature baffle him with her mysterious fabric of waterways and land-lures. It was when he was led to the mouth of the unknown river, which has evaded discovery through all the centuries, but which – so say the Indians – still sings on its way through some buried channel that leads from the lake to the sea….Until the day of his death the first Capilano searched for the unknown river up which the seal traveled from False Creek to Deer Lake; but its channel is a secret that even Indian eyes have not seen. But although those of the Squamish tribe tell and believe that the river still sings through its hidden trail that leads from Deer Lake to the sea, its course is as known, its channel is as hopelessly lost… (pp. 120-124).

In this legend, the experience and expertise of Chief Capilano as a spearsman is unmatched; yet, he is eluded by the world of tunnels that make up the unseen spiritual landscape of Coast Salish territory. Even though its pathway is unknown, the Squamish believe that the river still sings through the hidden tunnel.

Applied in my research, Stó:lō tunnels offers a metaphor that represents the process of knowledge production as an inductive process of discovery. In my research, each chapter represents a different phase of river navigation that leads to the discovery of tunnels that illuminate Coast Salish economy of affection. The ‘whirlpool as portal’ structures the methodological framework of the thesis. Akin to the power of the Internet today as a force that connects and flattens spatial and temporal distance, the unifying nature of the tunnels derives from their power to connect Coast Salish people with S’ólh Téméxw and the Creator.

Even though the pathway back to the Coast Salish economy as an economy of affection is yet to be fully defined and partially unseen, the potential of gatherings as the institution of the economy of affection still sing in the voices of the ancestors. Even if discovered, there remains a possibility that we may never fully understand the economy of affection and Coast Salish freedom. There will always be an element of economic life that goes unseen, and continues to be a secret—especially in the realm of the spiritual economy—but discovery and emergence of the economy of affection occurs when believing does not rely on seeing; instead, what is seen emerges from readiness to believe.

Howarth, M. (2016). Whirlpool vortex.   Retrieved 22 September, 2016, from http://morganhowarth.photoshelter.com/portfolio/G0000xjoCCx4AABw/I0000E2j69Jw8Mrs.

Robbins, M. (2010). Re-imagining S’ólh Téméxw: Tunnel narratives in a Stó:lõ spiritual geography. (Master of Arts), The University of Victoria, Victoria, CA.


  1. Manuhiri

    I love me a tunnel, metaphorical or otherwise. I’ve always seen tunnels as transformational in that it’s a journey from one end to the other, and you’re never really the same person when you come out the other side as when you entered it.


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