The Squamish Nation lost one of its most beloved members with the recent death of Jerry Nahanee (November 13, 1948 – March 27, 2015). His full name was Gerald Richard Nahanee, but family and friends fondly knew him as Kanaka in respect of his family’s deep Hawaiian roots. Kanaka is a Polynesian term which simply means person or human being. Yet Jerry was far from an ordinary human being.
We sat down with brothers Larry (“Shucks”) and Wes Nahanee in the Mosquito Creek Marina and Squamish Ocean Canoe Family Clubhouse to reminisce about their cousin Jerry who was a fixture at The Creek Marina. Their mother Leona and Kanaka were first cousins.
“His first job at the marina was as night watchman, his first job out of school 43 years ago,” Larry explained.
Over the many decades of working here Jerry would volunteer, coordinate, and mastermind many projects that bear his handiwork.
“He was so good with his hands. He was humble and if you needed help he was glad to help but would wait to be asked. His mind already knew how it should be done, all you had to do was ask. If a project was being started he would never jump in front of anybody and say ‘this is what I did’. He didn’t ask for glory. He did it from his heart and he didn’t need recognition.”
Kanaka’s hands touched so much on the marina grounds, from the carved canoe and marina sign at the entrance to the marina near the railway tracks to the welcome figures along the trail. His work shop was where he carved and painted his paddles and other handicrafts. He made weaving looms for the women, and dance paddles for their regalia. Although few knew it, Kanaka loved to work with cedar, but he was allergic to the aromatic wood. After working on projects, despite wearing masks and protective gear, his lungs would be infected, but he was driven to continue creating.
Larry remarked with a deep laugh that their cousin was an entertaining speaker and a jokester. “All the Nahanees make light of life. Kanaka was always like that; he would joke about things all the time to keep the mood light.
Sadly, unbeknownst to his family, Kanaka was suffering from an advanced disease—ALS. He would be diagnosed in October and die in March. In 25 years of treating ALS patients, his doctor said he had never seen ALS take a person so fast.
“He was getting pretty sick in early fall and that’s how humble he was: he just stayed at home and was sick. He didn’t go to the doctors. I don’t like going to the doctor but I have a five-year-old son Kaleo and I have to stay healthy for him.”
Kanaka’s legacy will live on, especially at the canoe club that is within view of the work shop that was his place to contemplate and ponder, while listening to his Hawiian CD’s while completing his next project. From his late teens to early 30s, Kanaka would race canoes, but he never sang the traditional Squamish songs until he came to the canoe family.
“Kanaka loved singing our songs. He would come to all of our gatherings. He and his wife went to his granddaughter’s school to share some Squamish traditional songs. Like myself as a youngster I was not encouraged to keep up my traditions. In fact, my mother was a residential school survivor who only knew the harsh back of a hand. I didn’t know how to hug anyone until I came to this club. The club has made a positive difference in people’s lives”, remembers Shucks.
Larry has worked for the North Vancouver RCMP for the past 34 years and knows the benefits of community: “This club is not just for Nahanees. It’s for anyone inside or outside our nation. Anyone who wants to experience a drug, alcohol, and violence-free experience.” Jerry Nahanee thrived during his years at the Squamish Ocean Canoe Family, and the club reaped immeasurable rewards from his contributions.
Jerry Nahanee is survived by Theresa Anne (nee Thomas, granddaughter of Chief Dan George), his wife of 45 years; his children Amy and John and many grandchildren and nieces and nephews.
Kanaka Nahanee’s legacy will continue for those who knew him and for those who wish they had.