Reflections on Thetis and Penelakut Islands

We sailed into Telegraph Harbour, between Penelakut and Thetis Islands, crossing behind a ferry pulling into a dock on Penelakut Island. Ascending the hill beyond the dock was a staircase leading to what looked like quite a grand location, overlooking Stuart Channel. However, it was but an empty slash.

We sailed deeper into the Harbour, passed the “Cut”, which allows the passage of small shallow boats from Clam Bay on the east side of the islands into Telegraph Harbour, and tied up at a small marina on the southern edge of Thetis Island.

Thetis and Penelakut Islands. Telegraph Harbour is in the center

Thetis Island’s history begins with its name: it was named for a British frigate, HMS Thetis, in 1851. The other island was named after the Thetis’s commander, Augustus Leopold Kuyper at the same time (but was renamed “Penelakut Island” for the First Nation that had lived—and still lived—on it in 2010). Thetis Island’s written history really begins in 1874, but permanent White settlements were established in the 1890s. If one searches popular media, one finds nothing prior to those early settlements, though anyone with eyes to see will observe—from the water—any number of shell middens that would have taken hundreds of years to create. Geographically, Thetis Island isn’t really an independent island. Prior to 1905, Thetis and Penelakut Islands were connected by a drying flat that was only covered at high tide. Thus, even though Thetis’s pre-colonial history has been cancelled by the settler culture, it remains in the history of Penelakut Island.

Penelakut is an anglicization of “penálaxeth’ ”, the name of the primary village on the islands—at the southeast shore of Clam Bay—and is a reference to the nation’s creation story. The first Penelakut people were created “between two logs in the sand,” and the name may also refer to the longhouses in the village which would have looked as if they were buried on the shore. After settlement, the Penelakut people retained a reserve of the northernmost third of Kuyper Island. Facing away from the village, looking out over Stuart Channel towards Vancouver Island, the government of Canada built the Kuyper Island Indian Industrial School.

The Penelakut School (unknown date) from the ferry dock

A census in 1896 showed that 107 of the 264 children who had been sent to the school since it started seven years previously had died. That same year, the students (unsuccessfully) tried to burn the school down. Children at the school were used as guinea pigs for medical experiments in the 1930s. A number of students are known to have drowned attempting to cross Stuart Channel by swimming, paddling logs, or by small boat.

The school was listed for most of its history as a “Catholic Boarding School,” not an Indian Affairs residential school. It was initially operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria, BC (until 1907). At that point, the Montfort Missionaries (the Company of Mary, or SMM) took over. Sometime in the 1950s (prior to 1957, but these relations between orders were always fluid), the Oblates of Mary Immaculate took over. Both orders seem to have used the Kuyper School as a dumping ground for priests and nuns accused in east coast dioceses for sexual and physical abuse that could no longer be hidden. The Canadian government assumed control in 1969. The school was closed in 1976, and, as one newspaper account puts it, was torn down by the Penelakut people “board by board.”

In June, 2021, 160 unmarked graves of children, probably from the school, were found scattered around the school location, none of them in what could be considered “consecrated ground.” What an ignominious end for children that both orders and the Catholic Diocese of Victoria proudly proclaimed as “loyal baptized Christians.”

One last bit of history, one that shows the true religion of the settler culture: In 1905, a channel was dredged, separating Penelakut and Thetis Islands. It’s the dark line in the northwest of the satellite photo.

(from left) Thetis Island, Telegraph Harbour, Penelakut Island, The “Cut”, and Clam Bay

Ostensibly, it was to provide a safe passage from Clam Bay (in the northeast of the photo) to Telegraph Harbour (the body of water running NW to SE in the west third of the photo), but even when it was newly dredged, little more than a row boat could make it through at high tide. We must wonder if the two other consequences of the “Cut” were not the true intentions. The drying flats (the lighter area between the two islands) were no longer passable, even at low tides. This isolated the Penelakut from what were traditional shellfish grounds on Thetis Island (remember those middens?). The second major effect was to destroy one of the major accomplishments of Coast First Nations aquaculture. There are still signs of “clam gardens” in the southern part of those flats. Allowing the tide to flow through the “Cut” would damage both the ecology of the area and the structures that directed nutrient-rich water to the shellfish beds.

As a postlude to the history, Penelakut Island is now a First Nations Reserve, and one of the poorest areas in the country. The descendants of those first farmers on Thetis Island can’t afford to continue farming—little cottage lots and homes are well over $1M, and even the marinas are having a hard time.

I call this year’s journey a pilgrimage. Maybe it would be better to call it a wander (but remember that Gandalf told his Hobbit friends “Not all those who wander are lost.”). We are still in the “making sure everything is working” phase of the trip, and while we could have done everything with day trips out of Anacortes, we really needed to begin the journey. I knew about the Kuyper Island School, but I really didn’t expect to sail into Telegraph Harbour under its scar (after all, the working plan was to sail west of Vancouver Island, not east, but weather did that in). Being there demonstrated the wisdom of “just being there.”

As we motored up Telegraph Harbour, I felt the depth of sadness in that beautiful place. As I sat in the cockpit of my sailboat, I rode an emotional and intellectual roller coaster. How could priests and nuns, pledged to the honor of the Blessed Mother of Jesus, vowed to the Mother and first daughter of the church have participated in the genocide of Penelakut people? How could priests and nuns, vowed to the mission of Christ’s loving gospel worship Satan and all his evil hosts by desecrating the Body of Christ in the bodies of Christ’s own children by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and, how could others commit crimes even worse than those of the abusers, by turning a blind eye, for their own advancement, and ignore the evil being done? How could bishops and religious superiors engage in this terror for the simple advancement of their own power and the wealth of their institutions?

I want to scream anathema sit! I want to insist that these people cannot be Christians; that they worship some other God. I want to join a crusade to destroy such a den of evildoers and wipe it from the memory of all living people. I want to chant every imprecatory psalm over and over and over again. And then I remember the paragraph which introduces Baptism in my own Book of Common Prayer:

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.

The abusers of Penelakut Island School are bound to me forever. And even if I could somehow excommunicate them from Christianity, I’d have to admit that, as an Anglican, I’m implicated by my denomination’s participation in the Residential School system. And even if I could cut off Canadian Anglicans, I’m implicated in the United States’ treatment of its first nations. I must remember that at the very center of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was an Episcopalian general attacking Episcopalian Lakota Sioux at worship. There is no way I am not implicated in those 160 unmarked graves on Penelakut Island, and it is only a short thread that binds you, as a human person regardless of your faith, to that evil as well.

I should also never forget that I am bound forever through baptism to those children in their nearly forgotten graves. And I cannot forget that I am also bound to the Penelakut people: the same rich oligarchs who cut down the Penelakut legacy of old-growth forest drove my family (of loggers and millworkers) from Grays Harbor County. Those same oligarchs are commemorated in the name of the parish hall at St Mark’s Cathedral in the diocese where I serve as a priest. What god do Episcopalians worship?

On April 1, 2022, Pope Francis apologized to representatives of Canadian First Nations. It is far too little and far too late. Righting this wrong will require the overturning of a doctrine, one that is shared by all institutions (secular and religious, both) in all time, that of the indefectibility of the church (or state, or company, or…), but it is a start.

This pilgrimage is part of a project in which I invite you to join. It asks the question “How do we say we are sorry for such great wrongs, and how do we express such sorrow in ways that do not simply repeat the wrong as we attempt to right the wrong?”

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