Legends of the Capilano: Introduction and The Legend of the Two Sisters

The following excerpt is from Alix Shield’s introduction to Legends of the Capilano, pages 3 – 4.

Though Mohawk poet, performer, and writer Emily Pauline Johnson first met Chief Joe Capilano in London in 1906, it wasn’t until Johnson’s retirement and relocation to Vancouver in 1909 that their collaborative relationship would begin. It was during this time that Joe and Mary Capilano shared their traditional Sḵwx̱wú7mesh stories with Johnson, which she later penned from memory for publication and as a form of cultural safekeeping. When Johnson became ill with inoperable breast cancer in 1909, a selection of these stories was gathered from The Daily Province by a group who called themselves “the Pauline Johnson Trust,” and the book Legends of Vancouver was published in 1911—with all proceeds going towards Johnson’s medical bills. Though Johnson would die from breast cancer within two years of the book’s publication, Legends has remained in print ever since; it has been reissued approximately thirty times.


Despite the longevity of Legends within the Canadian publishing industry, my research into its publishing history revealed how the authorial contributions of Joe and Mary Capilano have been gradually dismissed from the book entirely. For instance, in over 100 years of publication, neither Joe or Mary Capilano has been acknowledged alongside Johnson on the cover as co-authors; and only in the most recent edition of Legends (2013) did biographical information appear for Chief Capilano. Furthermore, despite Mary Capilano’s recurring role as narrator in Johnson’s stories, very little is known of her life and accomplishments. On a research trip in 2017 to McMaster University’s Special Collections, I found a letter written by Johnson’s sister, Evelyn, in which she explicitly states, “The name ‘ Legends of Vancouver ‘ was given the book by the Trustees of the Fund in the hope that it would prove a better seller. My sister was greatly disappointed as she had called it ‘Legends of the Capilano‘ —the tribe of Indians on the Coast.”

In determining that Johnson’s wishes for a different title had been documented, and that due to various factors these wishes were not observed, I decided to undertake the project of republishing this book as Johnson had intended.

The following excerpt is from “The Legends of the Two Sisters,” a story told to Johnson by Mary Capilano, pages 166 – 168

“More than thousands of years ago that the great Tyee of our tribe had two daughters, young, lovable, and oh! very beautiful. They grew to womanhood the same time, and a mighty feast was to be given, such a feast as the Coast had never yet seen. The only shadow on the joy of it all was war, for the tribe of the great Tyee was at war with the Upper Coast Indians—those who lived north of what is now named by the white men the Port of Prince Rupert.

“Giant war canoes fretted the entire coastline, war parties paddled their way up and down, war songs broke the silences of the nights, strife, hatred, vengeance festered everywhere, like sores on the surface of the earth. But the great Tyee snatched a week away from the bloodshed and battle, for he must make this feast in his daughter’s honour, nor permit any mere enemy to come between him and the traditions of his race and household. So he turned deaf ears to their war songs, he ignored their insulting paddle-dips, which encroached within his own coast waters, and he prepared, as a great Tyee should, to celebrate in honour of his daughters.

“But five suns before the feast these two maidens came to him, hand within hand.

“‘Some day we may mother a man-child,’ they said, ‘a man-child who may grow to be just such a great Tyee as you are, oh, our father, and for this honour that may some day be ours, we have come to crave a favour of you.’

“‘What favour, children of mine, and of your mother? It is yours for the asking, this day,’ he answered.

“‘Will you, for our sakes, invite the hostile tribe, the tribe you war upon, to our feast?’ they asked.

“‘To a peaceful feast, a feast in the honour of women?’ he exclaimed.

“‘So we would have it,’ they replied.

“‘And so shall it be,’ he declared. ‘I can deny you nothing this day, and sometime your sons may be born to bless this peace you have asked, and to bless their mothers’ sire for giving it.’

“Then he turned to the young men of the tribe and said, ‘Build fires this night on all the coast headlines, fires of welcome. Go forth in your canoes, face the north, and greet the enemy, and tell them that I, the Tyee of the Capilanos, bid them join me for a feast in honour of my two daughters.’
“And when the Northern tribes got the invitation they flocked down the coast to this feast of a great Peace. They brought their women and their children, they brought game and fish and o-lil-lie, as gifts. Never was such a Potlatch (a gift feast), never was such joyousness, such long, glad days, such soft, sweet nights. The war canoes were emptied of deadly weapons and filled with the daily catch of salmon. The hostile war songs ceased, and in their place were heard laughter and singing, and the play-games of the children of two tribes which had been until now ancient enemies, and a great and lasting brotherhood was sealed between them. The war songs were ended forever.”

The Klootchman’s voice fell very low, and the last words were almost whispered.

“And what of the two sweet daughters of the great Tyee?” I asked, slipping my hand in hers.

“They are there,” she said, pointing to the twin peaks which rose far above us. “The Great Spirit made them immortal. They will always be there in that high place. Their offspring now rule these tribes, for were not Peace and Brotherhood born of them? And there the two Sisters have stood these thousands of years, and will stand for thousands of years to come, guarding the Peace of the Pacific coast, and the serenity of the Capilano Canyon.”

E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (Author), Joe Capilano (Sahp-luk) (Author), Mary Agnes Capilano (Lixwelut) (Author) + others

Legends of the Capilano updates E. Pauline Johnson’s 1911 classic Legends of Vancouver, restoring Johnson’s intended title for the first time, and celebrating the storytelling abilities of Johnson’s Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) collaborators, Joe and Mary Capilano.