The Legend of Knockan Hill
“Victoria is a strange place,” wrote Franz Boas in his 1886 diary. “I have never seen such a mixture of people among such a small number of inhabitants.” Just 28 years old and freshly arrived from Germany, he was impressed by the city’s Chinese residents, black settlers, and “endless Indians of various tribes” – the perfect place for an ethnographer starting a career.
Over the next eight years, Boas (right) passed through Victoria many times on journeys up the coast, collecting native folktales and other artifacts, rightly fearing they would disappear as colonialism encroached upon First Nations communities. In 1895, he published (in German) Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America – the best record of British Columbia’s early lore, and the book that launched Boas’ reputation as “the father of American anthropology.” The book was finally printed in English in 2002, thanks to Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy, directors of the Victoria-based B.C. Indian Language Project.
Unfortunately, Boas did not record many stories from the capital region. He visited the Songhees settlement on the west side of the Inner Harbour in 1886, but had difficulty finding anyone to speak with him. Many villagers mourned the recent death of a chief’s child, and feared that Boas worked for the E&N railway, which threatened to run tracks through their settlement – and ultimately did, in 1888. As he later wrote, “The close vicinity of the city has had a very detrimental influence for the Songhees.”
But Boas did hear one Songhees legend: “The Wives of the Stars,” about Knockan Hill, which rises just north of Portage Inlet.
According to the story, there once were two sisters who gazed up at the night sky and wished that two of the stars would be their husbands. When they awoke, they discovered that the stars were men, and had taken them up to the heavens. Soon they missed life on Earth, so they dug a hole in the sky, lowered a rope, and climbed down, landing on Ñga’kun – a name derived from a Salish word for “rocks on top”, Bouchard and Kennedy note, and anglicized as “Knockan”.
“A young man who obeys the laws scrupulously, bathes frequently and has never touched a woman, is able to see the rope on Mount Ñga’kun,” the tale concludes. “It is invisible for other people.”
Boas wasn’t the first white man to hear this story. Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, had also recorded a version of the Knockan Hill legend and published it in his 1873 book, The Races of Mankind. Brown superficially labelled it a variation of the fairytale of Jack and The Beanstalk – “a strange myth found among nearly all nations, savage and civilised” – but his rendering also contains some interesting differences.
Instead of landing on a hill, the sisters “found themselves near the valley of the Colquitz not far from their own home with the rope lying beside them. So they coiled it up, and Hselse [a spirit] made it into a hill [Knockan] as a monument, to remind mortals not to weary for what is not their lot. And after this the girls went back to Quonsong [the Gorge], and became great medicine-women, but remained single, all for love of the ‘little people’ above.”
(You can read Boas’ version of the legend here, and download a Word document of Brown’s complete version here.)
Today, Knockan Hill is a charming 11-hectare park straddling the Saanich-View Royal border. At its south end sits Stranton Lodge (1248 Burnside Road West), an arts-and-crafts-style cottage (left) built in 1934 by Tom and Maude Hall, two teachers originally from England. Their former back yard, purchased by Saanich in 1973, contains a trail that winds through a forest of Douglas and grand fir (with an active eagle’s nest), up to a Garry oak meadow with panoramic views of Mount Baker and downtown. The Friends of Knockan Hill clear invasive Scotch broom from this grassy peak, to preserve camas and other native food plants – good work that tries to correct both the environmental and cultural wrongs of our past.
It’s a fine spot to watch the stars, look for the rope from the heavens, and meditate upon Franz Boas’ first impressions of Victoria – a strange place, and wondrous too.