Documentary of Cowichan’s legendary Chief hits the big screen

Culture Film

Tzouhalem doc told from the community’s perspective

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Some know him as a bad-tempered war hero. Some know him as a caring leader. Who truly was the legendary Chief Tzouhalem (Ts’uwxilum) of Cowichan? 

The new feature documentary, Tzouhalem, allows audiences to examine the life of this legend through reenactments and interviews with First Nation Elders and historians. It’s a type of film that has never been told in such a unique way.  The film was selected for seven film festivals, debuting in Canada at the Whistler Film Festival last December. 

Growing up, Cowichan Tribes filmmaker and actor Harold Joe (Xulputstun) was surrounded by the many tales of Chief Tzouhalem and often compared himself to the legend. The stories he heard from his grandma were particularly striking and he knew he had to bring them to life. 

“I’m honoured that I had this opportunity to tell this small little piece of the story about someone who meant so much to me,” said Joe, who both plays Tzouhalem in the reenactments and is interviewed in the documentary. “I hope [people] can gain an understanding from the First Nations’ point of view on the quality of [this] one figure.”  

Straight out of film school, Joe began drafting the script for Tzouhalem while seeking a partner to create the film with. Harold first met producer Leslie D. Bland working on another project. They talked about forming a production company together, soon birthing Orca Cove Media. According to their website, the company values producing “authentic First Nations content” to strengthen Indigenous storytelling in the community. 

After hearing the idea for Tzouhalem, Bland recalls being shocked that a local story  this big hadn’t been done in film before. 

Joe expressed his gratitude for Bland’s partnership and the connection they had immediately formed. Similarly, Bland has learned quite a bit from Joe through this journey. “I’ve had a chance to enter these worlds that come from [Joe’s] community and his culture,”said Bland, who is a sessional instructor at UVic. 

Finally, Tzouhalem got the green light to begin production. 

Chief Tzouhalem is a prominent figure in the Cowichan community and Indigenous history, known for his warrior mindset and mythical powers. From the stormy night of his birth to his tragic death, many misconceptions were formed. However, Joe and Bland capture the many tales of Tzouhalem from a humanizing perspective.

The documentary consists of reenactments and interviews with members of the Cowichan Tribes Community. Joe explained that the story is told through Indigenous Elders and voices to ensure that there are no misinterpretations about the legend. Tzouhalem’s story is told exactly the way it needs to be told — through his own culture.

“I grew up knowing this man, knowing his story and legend,” said Joe. “It’s our side, so there’s no misconception.” 

The filmmakers used Abel Joe’s transcribed story of the legend as a resource in production, as well as Elders as most histories and stories were passed down orally. 

From Elders, the filmmakers gathered Tzouhalem’s  backstory and analyzed how he came to be the man he was. They highlight the multifaceted persona of the legend — a protective and caring leader, yet ruthless. From his triumphs to downfalls, the legend has a memorable reputation in history. 

During the mid-1800s, Chief Tzouhalem lived among and led the Quw’utsun people here on so-called Vancouver Island. 

When he was a young boy, Tzouhalem’s mother and brother were taken away during an attack. His grandma began to raise him as a warrior; she told him to never forget the pain and to seek revenge. 

According to the film, Tzouhalem trained in the forest alone, meeting spiritual guides and gaining supernatural powers. Tzouhalem grew stronger and eventually became Chief. Evoked by his past trauma and revenge-seeking mindset, he led successful and brutal attacks on invaders from the north. He assumed command of the Hwutl’upnets (Maple Bay) Battle — one of the bloodiest battles in coastal Indigenous history. The fight brought southern tribes together to form a strong Coast Salish Nation. 

According to the film, Tzouhalem, still fed by power and ego, continued to lead attacks. He was known to have at least nine wives at a time. Some say 12, while others say 13. It’s even known to be 14. He began killing other leaders for their wives. His ruthless and tyrant-like behaviour frightened his own people, forcing them to banish him through a setup. Chief Tzouhalem was killed, ironically, by a woman after attempting to take the wife of another strong leader. His skull was brought back to his people where he was laid to rest on Mount Tzouhalem, as it is known today. 

There are many different stories of Chief Tzouhalem, but many people often only saw one side. Joe and Bland’s documentary humanizes this figure by highlighting his every flaw and strength. 

Tzouhalem was a strong and powerful leader, one who would fight for his people, protect them, and stand up for his rights. Those who saw him as a tyrant never fully understood the pivotal point in time he lived in, and how his past trauma impacted his behaviour. Joe knew that Tzouhalem’s story would be the best source of education to inform the public about Indigenous history from an authentic Indigenous voice; not a colonists’ perspective. 

“Tzouhalem has been vilified because in part his story had been told through a settler society lens,” said Bland. “So in this film we actually have a chance to support Harold and his community to tell this story.” 

The directors hope their viewers are inspired by Chief Tzouhalem; to live their lives as a leader. To learn from his strengths, abilities, and passion. Tzouhalem is the perfect figure to represent the intricacies of Indigenous strength and self-government. 

Bland commented that there is a lot of talk about reconciliation at UVic, and that watching Tzouhalem is a concrete way to get educated. “You come for the war chief; you leave with an appreciation of Indigenous self-government.” 

Orca Cove Media is in the midst of producing a few more films. A Cedar is Life is currently in production; a story about how the cedar tree influenced the culture of western First Nations throughout generations. Joe and Bland also mentioned that they would like to one day create a scripted film of Tzouhalem. With these films, Orca Cove Media hopes to provide education to better understand the impact that colonization had on Indigenous history.