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Vancouver History: The Lions, The Two Sisters

January 28th, 2008 @ 10:33am (PT) by Rebecca Bollwitt

They sit above Vancouver and are the namesake for many things Vancouver-related, from bridges to movie production studios but not everyone would refer to these two majestic peaks, reigning over our region as “The Lions”.


Photo credit: penmachine on Flickr

Legend has it that these are actually two sisters of a great nation that existed long before any of us were here. They are a part of a story and tradition that honors women and their peaceful nation, the following are excepts from the legend of “The Two Sisters”, written in 1911 by E. Pauline Johnson:

Perhaps the greatest of these traditions is the story of ‘The Two Sisters,’ for they are known to us as ‘The Chief’s Daughters,’ and to them we owe the Great Peace in which we live, and have lived for many countless moons. There is an ancient custom amongst the coast tribes that, when our daughters step from childhood into the great world of womanhood, the occasion must be made one of extreme rejoicing. The being who possesses the possibility of some day mothering a man-child, a warrior, a brave, receives much consideration in most nations; but to us, the Sunset tribes, she is honored above all people.

These two daughters were young, lovable, and oh! very beautiful. Their father, the great Tyee, prepared to make a feast such as the Coast had never seen. There were to be days and days of rejoicing, the people were to come for many leagues, were to bring gifts to the girls and to receive gifts of great value from the chief, and hospitality was to reign as long as pleasuring feet could dance, and enjoying lips could laugh, and mouths partake of the excellence of the chief’s fish, game, and ollallies.

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, near what is named by the Paleface as the port of Prince Rupert. Giant war-canoes slipped along the entire coast, war parties paddled up and down, war-songs broke the silences of the nights, hatred, vengeance, strife, horror festered everywhere like sores on the surface of the earth.

But seven suns before the great feast these two maidens came before him [the great Tyee], hand clasped in hand. “‘Oh! our father,’ they said, ‘may we speak?’ – “‘Speak, my daughters, my girls with the eyes of April, the hearts of June'” (early spring and early summer would be the more accurate Indian phrasing).

“‘Will you, for our sakes, invite the great northern hostile tribe–the tribe you war upon–to this, our feast?” they asked fearlessly. “To a peaceful feast, a feast in the honor of women?” he exclaimed incredulously. “So we would desire it,” they answered.

“And so shall it be,” he declared. “I can deny you nothing this day, and some time you may bear sons to bless this peace you have asked, and to bless their mother’s sire for granting it.”

And when the northern tribes got this 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, gold and white stone beads, baskets and carven ladles, and wonderful woven blankets to lay at the feet of their now acknowledged ruler, the great Tyee.

The war-canoes were emptied of their deadly weapons and filled with the daily catch of salmon. The hostile war-songs ceased, and in their place were heard the soft shuffle of dancing feet, the singing voices of women, the play-games of the children of two powerful tribes which had been until now ancient enemies, for a great and lasting brotherhood was sealed between them–their war-songs were ended forever.

Then the Sagalie Tyee smiled on His Indian children: “I will make these young-eyed maidens immortal,” He said. In the cup of His hands He lifted the chief’s two daughters and set them forever in a high place, for they had borne two offspring–Peace and Brotherhood–each of which is now a great Tyee ruling this land.

And on the mountain crest the chief’s daughters can be seen wrapped in the suns, the snows, the stars of all seasons, for they have stood in this high place for thousands of years, and will stand for thousands of years to come, guarding the peace of the Pacific Coast and the quiet of the Capilano Canyon.

The Lions HDR
Photo credit: Ken Hall on Flickr

This is only a part of the story, for the entire legend I suggest reading the book, Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson [amazon.ca]. The author passed away in 1913, but you can find her gravesite in Stanley Park that was dedicated in 1922 – in “memory of one whose life and writings were an uplift and a blessing to our nation”. She remains to this day a very important writer in Canadian history and tells tales of Vancouver and Stanley Park that are both uplifting, informative, and can cause you to shiver on even the warmest of days.

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13 comments

  1. mom604 says:

    What a beautiful tale. Even though I grew up in this area,I have never heard it before (but I certainly have heard of the author) Thanks for sharing.

  2. fotoeins says:

    Beck, thanks for reminding people about E. Pauline Johnson, whose work I read as a wae lad growing up in Funcouver. It’s about time to add her work to my Amazon wish list …

    It’s also worth reminding that the two peaks we call the Lions (or the Sisters) are two separate peaks. As seen from Vancouver and projected onto the sky, the two peaks appear to be spatially coincident or conjoined. Obviously, the separation becomes very apparent when one drives north along the Sea-to-Sky.

  3. Sean Orr says:

    But what are they? Are they remnants of a volcano or something?

  4. Miss604 says:

    Didn’t Mr Milross tell you, Sean? “Geologically The Lions are composed of hornblende diorite, the oldest plutonic rock on the West Coast of Canada.” :-D

  5. keefer says:

    Glad they’re plutonic not platonic… ;)
    Pauline Johnson’s Legends are an essential read for any Vancouverite, imho. I had the honour of hearing this particular story spoken by a S?wxwú7mesh elder about ten years ago at the Friendship Centre.
    Johnson’s tales don’t always reflect the S?wxwú7mesh stories that closely but they are an inspiration. The Lost Island and the sea serpent are my other faves…
    Good for you to post this. :)

  6. [...] posting some photos from Mount Seymour recently I was asked about the North Shore Mountains. The Lions fit in the middle somewhere, but those not from around here (or maybe even some locals) might not know just exactly where they [...]

  7. [...] Hal Wake contributed a list of Top 5 Influential BC Writers and I’m more than pleased to see Pauline Johnson on the list (I won’t tell you where, I wouldn’t want to ruin the [...]

  8. david says:

    Great post! I have often wondered about their history and the names people used to have for these peaks (and others). Thanks for this.
    I posted this link for more info on my flickr image of the Lions. Cheers!

  9. [...] At first I was surprised that they didn’t say anything about the current scenery e.g. The Lions. However they share much more about BC history as a whole and actually contain some pretty neat [...]

  10. [...] descended on the gondola as the sun was setting behind the Lions and I wondered why I don’t make these quick escapes more [...]

  11. [...] details on the history is in this blog, and of course on wiki. We got back around 3pm. We had a late lunch at BBQues Bar and Grill on [...]

  12. mny says:

    Naah- this telling is not the historically factual narrative of the two sisters. Ask the actual families who were involved and there will be a more fulsome telling

  13. @mny This is the 1911 telling of the legend by E. Pauline Johnson so I’m certain it’s not 100% historically accurate. I would absolutely love to hear the history of the two sisters from sources!

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