Opinion: Tzouhalem – a must-watch film about a legend


As local producers of the film and television company, Orca Cove Media, we are excited for viewers to experience the important journey of our feature documentary, Tzouhalem, on CHEK TV this Sunday at 8 p.m.

This documentary examines, through interviews and creative re-enactments, the near-mythic figure of Cowichan Chief Tzouhalem, the account of his life from both historians and First Nations Elders, the folkloric tales concerning him, his impact on the modern relationship between the Crown and First Nations, and how his legend remains alive to this day, examining critically how his story has been told and passed down to us.

For us, a main priority for this film was to use it as an educational tool for folks who may not know the intricacies of First Nations culture. It focuses on a local legend that shares an important part of history about the Pacific West Coast, told from a First Nations perspective.

Not only does Tzouhalem’s story involve the biggest naval battle in recorded history in this part of the world, but his story shows us countless dimensions of a man who was a war chief, a leader, and a strategist who many believed wielded spirit powers, such as the ability to shape shift.

Although some of the histories portray him as a villain, we discover that Tzouhalem had multiple facets to his personality, and was in many ways a product of his time – a period where smallpox was wiping out entire communities, when colonizers were having huge impacts on Indigenous ways of life, and when First Nations communities all along the West Coast were raiding each other’s communities. It was one of these raids that set Tzouhalem on his path of vengeance, a Haida raid that killed his father, mother, and brother.

Through Tzouhalem’s story, we begin to view our local community through fresh eyes. There had never been an opportunity to tell a story like this before – an oral history shared primarily through the voices of local elders and community members, supported by an old, handwritten book by the late Abel Joe. We have given this tale another life through the world of film. It is important to reflect not only on the story of Tzouhalem itself, but how this story has been passed on, and by who.

Our local community directly participated in bringing this story to life on film. In addition to interviews by First Nations Elders and Knowledge Keepers, we had many people from our local Indigenous communities participate as actors for the re-enactment segments. They were portraying individuals in battles, mythic beings, and community members in key scenes from Abel Joe’s version of Tzouhalem’s life.

This was a huge part of the filming process: lifting up the voices of our local First Nations communities, preserving histories for generations to come, and sharing the pride that these communities have in who they are, where they come from, and how they want their stories to be shared. Paraphrasing what one of our young interviewees shares with us in the film, it is exciting to have an important figure who looks like you up on a screen, fighting and formulating highly strategic battles.

Up until now, you’ve hardly seen yourself reflected in the local history. Our hope is that as many youth as possible – both First Nations and non-First Nations – watch this film in the coming years, and begin wondering about other snippets of history in their local community that they may not know about. We hope they become hungry for more knowledge, ask questions, listen, and begin exploring our history and the land from multiple perspectives.

A still from Tzouhalem, airing at 8 p.m. on CHEK TV Sunday, March 13, at 8 p.m.

In taking the time to view this film, you are choosing to join us on the journey of Reconciliation in learning a bit more about settler society’s impacts on our First Nations. Through Tzouahlem’s story we branch off and touch on other relevant topics such as Indigenous self-governance – systems that were in place long before colonizers walked this land, and which enabled communities to manage their own leadership, customs, and protocols. We briefly touch on local landmarks, and why it is important to recognize original First Nations place names, which in turn reflect a deeper history and respect for where we live.

We also speak with community members who felt the harsh impacts of other, later chapters of colonialization after Tzouhalem’s time, such as the residential school system, braiding together Tzouhalem’s fight to continue practicing culture, building strength within community, and not standing down when you and your Nation are threatened. We reflect on what Tzouhalem would have done today if he were still alive, along with the practices and customs that currently stand strong in the Cowichan community.

For all the projects we produce, Orca Cove Media’s aim is to celebrate and share First Nations storytelling. We aspire to empower Indigenous people to share their stories – from the perspective they want them to be told – with audiences far and wide. Our production of Tzouhalem reflects this mandate, and we are equally excited for future projects we have on the go that will follow in this tradition.

Another project that is led by First Nations voices, and from the heart of our local communities, that we are currently wrapping up production on, is our feature documentary, A Cedar Is Life. It 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 will explore the practical use of the cedar tree, which was used for pretty much everything, from canoes, totems, longhouses, masks, drums, rattles, to clothing and medicinal herbs. 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.

Another film about to commence production is inspired by Harold’s work as an archaeological consultant. The Reclamation of Steve Joe features a Coast Salish Archeologist, like Harold, getting a ragtag crew together from his Rez to break into a museum to take back sacred artifacts that rightly belong to their people.

All of these projects bring First Nations voices and storytelling to the forefront on topics and issues that need to be catching peoples’ attention. And we pride ourselves in telling those stories in the right way; consulting with knowledge keepers, cultural workers, educators within their field, who deliver authentic, engaging content that is universally appealing to wide audiences. This is our goal: to reach as many people as possible with our projects; to build understanding; and to celebrate First Nations culture, spirit, and pride of place.

Tzouhalem airs Sunday night at 8 p.m. on CHEK TV and will also be available for viewing on the CHEK+ app. Watch the trailer below.

Xulputstun (Harold C. Joe)Xulputstun (Harold C. Joe)
Leslie D. BlandLeslie D. Bland

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