Located on a faded game trail on the uninhabited island of Portland, the orchard waited. Although the trees were gnarled and twisted, covered in moss and forgotten, the apples were surprisingly crisp; tasting the kind of nostalgia you don’t find in a modern supermarket apple. The orchard also held a story. But over time, as the forest encroached and the trees aged, the story itself threatened to fade away.
But the weather turned out to be on the side of the old orchard, and recently in September when I returned from a 15-year absence on Portland Island, B.C., the land around the orchard had been cleared.
In 2003, Portland Island, with its winding trails, sandstone cliffs, and seashell-covered beaches, was part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (GINPR), a large national park made up of protected lands spread over 15 islands and many islets and reefs in the Salish Sea. Over the next 15 years, 17 abandoned orchards on eight of the islands were surveyed by archaeologists and cultural workers from Parks Canada to gain insight into the lives of the area’s first settlers. On the Isle of Portland, a new park sign told me, heirloom apples including Lemon Pippin, Northwest Greening, Winter Banana, and Yellow Bellflower had been planted by a man called John Palau, one of hundreds of ‘Hawaiians who were among the region’s early settlers.
The Gulf Islands include dozens of islands scattered between Vancouver and southern Vancouver Island. With a mild climate and bucolic landscapes, it has been the continuous and unceded territory of the Coast Salish nations for at least 7,000 years. The Spanish visited in 1791, then Captain George Vancouver showed up, claiming the Gulf Islands for the British Crown. Soon after, settlers began to arrive from all parts of the world. Many of them were Hawaiians, while black Americans, Portuguese, Japanese and East Europeans also settled on the islands.
I found the story by chance during a cocktail party
The story, however, can become clouded. And the history of the Gulf Islands has become English history. “People think of the islands as a white place,” BC historian Joan Barman told me over the phone. “Time erases stories that don’t match the preferred narrative.”
During my early fall visit to the Isle of Portland, I began to read more about its early Hawaiian settlers, sometimes known as Kanakas, after the Hawaiian word for no one. I learned that in the late 1700s, during a time of conflict when Native Hawaiians (including royalty) were losing their rights and autonomy at home, many men joined the maritime trade of furs.
Employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, hundreds, if not thousands, of Hawaiians made their way to the west coast of Canada. In 1851, by some estimates, half of the settler population of the Gulf Islands was Hawaiian. Then, in the late 1850s, as the border between Canada and the United States solidified, many Hawaiians who lived in the south moved north, where they were granted citizenship rights.
Once in British Columbia, they became landowners, farmers and fishermen. Gradually, they married local First Nations or other immigrant groups and their Hawaiian identity was almost lost. But during the years that the lands containing the orchards were researched and studied, their history was revived and Hawaiian Canadians began to reclaim their heritage.
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Curious as to why this part of the island’s history had disappeared from general knowledge – and how it had been rediscovered – I asked Barman. As a historian, she has made a career out of researching excluded stories. “I came across the story by chance at a cocktail party,” she says. In the late 1980s, a provincial politician named Mel Couvelier told her he believed he had Aboriginal ancestors and asked her what she could find out.
From a two-line obituary, Barman began his research. She learned that Couvelier had an ancestor named Maria Mahoi, a woman born on Vancouver Island around 1855 to a Hawaiian man and a local Aboriginal woman. The story of Mahoi intrigued Barman. “Her ordinary life adds to the history of the diversity of British Columbia,” Barman told me – what she says is more important than ever.
“When people share stories of who they are, they are partial stories. What repeats itself is based on your ambivalence or your pride, ”said Barman, explaining that this is why many of the deceased British Columbians in Hawaii that she spoke of claim royal heritage. It was a story they were proud of.
While royal legacy is likely (Hawaiians in the royal family have certainly come), it is more difficult to trace. Part of the problem is that the records of the Hawaiians who have come to the West Coast are particularly difficult. Newly arrived Hawaiians often had only one name or just one nickname. Even when a first and last name were recorded, the spelling of a name often changed over time. So it has become difficult to follow a specific Hawaiian royal throughout their life.
For Barman, the stories of ordinary people like Mahoi have more to offer. In her 2004 book, Maria Mahoi of the Islands, she writes that: “As we reflect on the life of Maria Mahoi, we realize that each of us, each of us matters. Stories about everyday life are as important to our collective memory as a society as drama and glamor. Maybe the easy rejection of Maria’s worth doesn’t depend on her, but on how we think about the past.
Restoring Mahoi’s history ended up helping to shape part of a national park.
Maria Mahoi spent her youth sailing a 40-foot whaling schooner with her first husband, US Captain Abel Douglas. As they had children and their families were growing, they settled on Salt Spring Island. Here, a large number of Hawaiian families had formed a community on the West Rim stretching south from Fulford Harbor to Isabella Point, overlooking the islands of Russell, Portland and Cole.
Mahoi’s first marriage ended, leaving him a single mother with seven children. She then married a man named George Fisher, the son of a wealthy Englishman named Edward Fisher and an indigenous Cowichan woman named Sara. The two had six more children and made their home in a 139-acre log cabin near Fulford Harbor.
Restoring Mahoi’s history ended up helping to shape part of a national park
That changed in 1902, when Hawaiian farmer and fruit grower William Haumea moved from 40 acres of Mahoi to Russell Island. This land was superior to their land on Salt Spring Island so the family moved out, and within a few years they had built a house and expanded the orchard to six to eight rows of four kinds of apples and three kinds of plums. (some from neighboring Portland Island and farmer John Palau). They also had berry fields and raised chickens and sheep. The family remained in the house until 1959, enjoying a legacy of apple pies and dried apples as well as clam and fish chowders.
Much of what we consider Hawaiian culture – hula dancing, lei making, and traditional cooking – is the customary domain of women. So these parts of the Hawaiian culture did not arrive in the Gulf Islands with the first male arrivals. But Hawaiians left their mark in another way. The community provided both the land and volunteer builders for St Paul’s Catholic Church in Fulford Harbor; and Chinook Jargon, the local business language of the day, included many Hawaiian words. The culture also showed where Hawaiians chose to live: most settled on the islands where they were able to continue their fishing and farming practices.
In Mahoi’s case, she also left the family home. The tiny house – with doors that were only 5’6 ” – reflects the small size of the original inhabitants, which intrigued subsequent owners. Over time, as the unique history of Russell Island became clear, it was acquired by the Pacific Marine Heritage Legacy in 1997 and then considered culturally distinct enough to be part of GINPR in 2003.
I visited Russell Island in the midst of learning about the Hawaiian heritage in the islands. Wandering on a gentle path that winds through a forest of Douglas-fir, strawberry trees, Garry oaks, and shore pines, I gazed at the white-shelled beaches where native people once had their clam gardens. Stepping over the wild flowers that bloomed on the rocky outcrops, I took the path through the forest that leads to the small house where Mahoi’s family had lived. These days, the descendants present their story (in the non-Covid era) by inviting visitors to the tiny house where they share their memories and tell stories about Mahoi’s life on the island.
Next to the house is what remains of the large orchard. A sign invited me to pick a handful of small apples. Crunchy and tangy, the flavor was similar to the apples I had tasted on the Isle of Portland so many years ago. Yet this time they tasted sweeter. Later, when I baked them in an apple crumble, I wondered if the added sweetness came from knowing the history and understanding a little more about the various cultures that built this province that I call home. I wondered if the richer flavor had just finally learned the name of Maria Mahoi.
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