Coast Salish oral histories record a deep knowledge of territory and settlement going back to time immemorial. Archaeological excavations reveal the continuous occupation of Coast Salish territories going back more than 10,000 years in Puget Sound and the Fraser River region. Works of art in the form of carved bone, stone, horn and basketry have been found and dated back to 5,000 years ago.
The oldest examples of Coast Salish art take the form of human and animal figures carved in antler, bone and stone. Some of these sculptures continue to be important to Coast Salish people today, and are thought of as ancestors rather than being considered to be “art” or “sculpture."
One such ancestor is known as T'xwelatse. Sto:lo history tells of T'xwelatse, a medicine man who settled on the shores of the Chilliwack River before being turned to stone in a transformation contest. “His story was passed down through time – even after the man was lost,” said Herb Joe, the former chief of the Tzeachten First Nation band. It has been 15 years since Joe inherited the name T'xwelatse and took on the responsibility of finding the statue.
“The god who turned T'xwelatse to stone told his wife to take the statue back to the village to put in front of her home as a reminder to all that we should live together in a good way. This was done, and T'xwelatse was used as a teaching icon for many years before he disappeared.”
In 1892, the statue, which is about 1.2 metres tall and 270 kilograms, was found by a farmer in a field in the Sumas Prairie. Eventually, a group of young naturalists acquired the statue and donated it to the Burke Museum in Seattle in 1904. “It was rediscovered by Herb Joe, who made it his life mission to return the stone to his people,” recalled Peter Lape, the museum's curator of archaeology. In 2006, the Burke Museum returned it to the Nooksak tribe, who in turn returned it to the Sto:lo people in British Columbia, where it originated.