Tzouhalem, A Legend or a Man? An Interview

Chief Tzouhalem is a local hero of the Coast Salish people around British Columbia and this is his story….

Tzouhalem_KeyArt_Final_1.1Screening in British Columbia
(Please scroll down to end for locations)

World Broadcast Premiere
March 13th at 7:30 pm

Chief Tzouhalem is a local legend not everyone knows about. This hero of the Coast Salish people was feared and revered. But for filmmakers Leslie D. Bland and Harold Joe, their goal in the documentary simply titled Tzouhalem is to educate viewers about this person–and distinguish fact from fiction. One day, they hope to recreate his role in the bloody Battle of Maple Bay on the same cinematic scale as Lord of the Rings. Many tribes were involved in this naval battle done riding canoes and welding spears.

After Joe finished film studies at Capilano, he partnered up with Bland to create works about First Nations culture. The latter often executive produced. Dust and Bones looks at Harold’s work as an archaeological consultant. Before, he worked as a traditional gravedigger for his nation, and after that documentary, he was an actor in the web series, Ollie and Emma.

“Now, my focus is on cultural repatriation of ancestral peoples from the Comox Valley, Mainland and the States,” said Joe. He advises clients on what to do when indigenous bones or artefacts are found. When they need to be moved, the additional paperwork involved can easily stack up and often a ceremony is required.

Leslie worked in live theatre before taking to the camera. He’s better known for Gone South: How Canada Invented Hollywood, a hilarious and insightful look at the invasion of “Northerners” into Los Angeles (My review can be read here), and since then, he’s produced Tips and Tricks for Everyday Living and The Wine Guys: Grape Escapes.

These two are out to change the world. I had the opportunity to chat with them about why their projects matter.


Was it difficult to get clearance?

HJ: I talked to our elders and more or less got their blessing. The big priority was to make an educational film for folks who don’t know First Nations culture. It’s a rare film where you get to see the complexity of my work and it’s difficult when you’re fighting a government, municipality or landowner.

LB: We have another feature documentary in production called A Cedar is Life, which is an investigation into the cultural significance of what most Pacific Northwest First Nations (from Oregon and to Alaska) call the Tree of Life. [It’ll consider] the practical use of the cedar tree, which was used for pretty much everything. Everything from the obvious things like canoes, totems, longhouses, masks, drums, rattles, but clothing as well. It’s integral to the West Coast First Nations’ way of life. And it’s under threat; whether that’s from climate change, or from logging practices, people do not understand.

Another film coming up is inspired by Harold’s work as an archaeological consultant. It’s called The Reclamation of Steve Joe. It’s about a person, like Harold, getting a ragtag crew together to break into a museum to take back sacred artefacts and put them in the ground.

Would you say this is a global problem rather than specific?

HJ: Yes. I spoke with a lot of Native people in the States. But on a bigger scale, that I mean, hundreds 1000s of ancestral people are desecrated because of developments, the pipeline, gas lines, huge developments of stores and so forth, and areas that their people are trying to protect.

When you go on eBay, or some other site, and you bring up artefacts, you’ll see stuff for sale. It’s just ridiculous. That arrowhead has significance. Some people just sell stuff and have no care for our culture or our ancestors, period.

IMG_1070 (

LB: Nobody wants their grandmother strung up in a museum, right? It’s interesting to work with Harold. He’s opened my eyes to many issues. And it’s a big learning curve for me, but it’s a really rewarding journey of education on First Nations culture.

Regarding Tzouhalem, why focus on him and his legacy?

HJ: He has been on the top of my list after I got out of film school in early 2000. Even in class, I knew that was a documentary to make, no matter what. I’m nervous about screening it later this week. There’s going to be hundreds of First Nations people, relatives, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I’m like, “Oh, God.”

Working with Leslie was amazing. He doesn’t stop. His understanding of our culture, traditions and values shows. It’s a learning curve for him as well. I welcome that and welcome him with open arms to walk with us on this journey.

LB: Harold brought me this story, and I was stunned that no one had ever put it on screen before. He had me when he revealed how he was a war chief, an architect, strategist and victor of the biggest naval battle in recorded history in this part of the world. That alone is worth the documentary.

Harold wants to make a historic drama on the scale of Last of the Mohicans. So that’s the dream, right? But we started with what we can.

Was it hard to find people to interview?

HJ: No. Both native and non native. Those elders carry the history of who this man was. No, it wasn’t hard at all.

LB: We did a pretty good job at finding people who knew something of substance. On the academic side, several people were quite excited to talk about the history. Also, there were things written down. There were references about Tzouhalem in the Fort Victoria journals. He’s a real historical figure. We reached out to other nations too and didn’t explore it since they don’t want to talk about how badly it went for them.

It’s like they say, history is written by the victors.

I liked how Isaiah Harris compared Tzouhalem to European counterparts, especially King Arthur, but what other figures are there?

LB: This figure is kind of like Shakespeare’s Richard the Third. Interestingly, parallel wise, he wasn’t the figure Shakespeare painted him to be. He was turned into a villain, right? In truth, he wasn’t a villain during his reign.

How many layers are in this work? There are a lot of segments which shift from supernatural to historical to folklore.

HJ: There’s some big stories going on within this tale of one man. We don’t have time to cover everything like where Tzouhalem could shape shift. Some believed he can turn into mist.

LB: And how do you stop a war leader? He’s taking vengeance on a nation that took his mother and his father and his brother out.


Were there segments cut or taken out?

HJ and LB: Yes, there were several scenes. The original cut was about two months long… Due to the need for additional content on social media, we discussed what will make it into the doc and what will end up as extras. For example, we filmed a couple divers in Maple Bay to see if they could retrieve artefacts from the Battle of Maple Bay. That scene can be found on our Orca Cove Media Facebook page.

The same [can be said] with the day Harold, his brother Phil, and cellist Erin Tinney created the music for the documentary’s soundscape in the Quamichan Longhouse.

And how about his resting place and the mountain that bears his name?

HJ: To this day, when I hike up and get near, there’s an energy. There’s graveyards–three burials and his immediate family–and his cache of weapons. There’s no markings. There’s nothing there. To me, the monument you see is white, a Christian Catholic thing.

LB: These places aren’t accessible. Any markers left behind by others, Harold took down. He’s even visited the spot several times and yet, sometimes he can’t find it [This suggests sometimes the spirits don’t want to talk today –Ed]. Given the history, we have an obligation to keep these locations vague to fully protect them from curiousity seekers.

Tzouhalem Stand Off at Fort Victoria Green Screen
Tzouhalem Stand Off at Fort Victoria Green Screen

I can’t help but think of his exploits when challenging Fort Victoria. I liken him to Robin Hood after all he did to help neighbouring villages. Would that be a fair assessment?

LB: Like most legends, there probably is a grain of truth. So what I learned from our examination of his story was that the smallpox European encroachment into the area resulted in an imbalance. The Coast Salish community was hit harder than it did the northerners. So they took advantage of that.

HJ: The Haida nation raided on an early and nasty morning, with rain and thunder going on, when he was born. They got his mum, older brother and killed his father, who was our chief, and then his grandmother took them into the mountains and kept them safe; He spent 90% of his years living on that mountain, and she also instilled the idea of vengeance as he was growing up into becoming a young man. He became quite a leader in a community. I heard from every side about who he was. He helped smaller communities–nations–and supported them, hunted for them, gathered for them, and made sure they were safe. He did really good things for our people.

LB: As a settler society person, what happened was like a mob hit. Tzouhalem fought back to protect his people. He did it because of the imbalances brought about through Europeans coming into contact with First Nations. We explored that very clearly in the film.

I sense he’s being elevated to a status that he can’t fulfil, correct?

LB: Tzouhalem was being squeezed from all sides. He was in a tough spot, and he abused that power granted to him [from the entities living on this land -Ed]. And it comes back to get him.

And there’s that mystical incident where he met three mysterious women in an underwater cave, right?

HJ: Yes, they said, “We’re going to give you this power. But it’s how you use it and how you have to be with it. Well, he takes that gift and he abuses it. The leader told him, ‘If you don’t stop what you’re doing. It’s going to take a woman to kill you.'” How does he die? Yeah, a woman takes him out. He didn’t heed the message.

Mount Tzouhalem - Wikipedia

Do you think his spirit still lives on that mountain?

HJ: We played a lot on that mountain, at Stone Church and in the caves. You’ll hear and see things when you go up there to be with the ancestors. The dead don’t move away. They don’t move far, so when I say that, where he lies–he sleeps–prior to us pulling the trigger on making this documentary, I spent some time with him. I talked to him about what I’m going to partake in. I’m going to tell your story from our perspective.

This film’s personal for me. I looked for elements that may disrupt production and had nothing but good things. I know we’ve done it right, and that’s the honourable part about talking about an iconic figure like Tzouhalem.

Tzouhalem Movie Trailer

Below are the confirmed theatrical dates for Tzouhalem and they include Q&A. (All pending COVID; links are to ticket purchases):

Author: Ed Sum

I'm a freelance videographer and entertainment journalist (Absolute Underground Magazine, Two Hungry Blokes, and Otaku no Culture) with a wide range of interests. From archaeology to popular culture to paranormal studies, there's no stone unturned. Digging for the past and embracing "The Future" is my mantra.

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