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  • A path to our First Nations’ past

    By Danda Humphreys

    Spindle whorls are unique reminders of Victoria’s history.



    Spindle whorl historical marker at Songhees Point (p’al?c’?s)


    What do the spirit poles at the south-west corner of Centennial Square have in common with seven striking works of art in and around Victoria’s Harbour? They are reminders of the original custodians of this land—the Lekwungen, known today as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.

    When the HBC’s James Douglas stepped ashore here in 1842, he saw the result of the Lekwungen people’s careful land management, which included controlled burning and food cultivation. The Lekwungen had hunted and gathered here for thousands of years, and this area was a resource-rich trading centre for a diversity of First Nations.

    The Lekwungen helped the HBC men build Fort Victoria. They watched as the small settlement became a commercial centre and eventually a provincial capital. And they mourned as the hills, creeks and marshlands they had known and cared for slowly disappeared, replaced by the city we see today.

    Victoria’s Inner Harbour is at the heart of Lekwungen territory. It’s impossible to experience the landscape the Lekwungen knew all those years ago. However, thanks to an innovative 150th year project, we can learn much about their traditions and their way of life.

    Local Coast Salish artist Butch Dick was nominated by the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations to carve seven enlarged spindle whorls—small discs used traditionally for spinning wool—for historical markers in and around our Inner Harbour. The whorls mark places of special importance to the Lekwungen people. Following a path from one to the other is a wonderful way to learn about this land, its culture, and the spirit of its people. Here’s where you’ll find them, and what they signify:

    Songhees Point (p’al?c’?s)

    PAH-lu-tsuss means “cradle-board.” Once infants had learned to walk, their cradles were placed at this sacred headland because of the spiritual power of the water. In the mid-1840s, the nearby village was home to more than 300 people. Fifty years later, they were gone—forced through political pressure to move to a reserve on Esquimalt Harbour, their once-vibrant community replaced by industrial buildings and an untidy tangle of railway lines, and more recently by high-priced condominiums.

    Wharf Park, opposite the foot of Broughton Street

    In the early 1840s, the HBC’s Fort Victoria was built on this waterfront. Lekwungen men and women helped build the fort in exchange for trade goods. As the settlement grew, a large forested area around the fort was destroyed, marking a drastic change in traditional ways and traditional sustainable land use.

    Outside City Hall (skwc’?njí?c)

    skwu-tsu-KNEE-lth-ch means “bitter cherry tree.” Willow-lined, berry-rich creeks and meadows once flowed from the food-gathering areas now contained by Fort, View, Vancouver and Quadra streets, down through present-day Centennial Square and Market Square and into the harbour.

    Lower Causeway (xws? yq’?m)

    whu-SEI-kum, “place of mud,” marked wide tidal mudflats and some of the best clam beds on the coast—buried when the area was filled in for construction of the Empress Hotel. This was also one end of a canoe portage that started at the eastern edge of today’s Ross Bay Cemetery and enabled paddlers to avoid the harbour entrance during heavy seas.

    Beside the “Lookout” on Beacon Hill (miq?n)

    MEE-qan means “warmed by the sun.” At the bottom of the hill, a small, palisaded village was occupied intermittently from 1,000 AD until around 300 years ago. The settlement provided defence, reef net fishing abounded, and the starchy bulbs of the camas flowers were an important food source.

    Royal British Columbia Museum (q’emas?nj)

    The spindle whorl here reminds us that the Lekwungen have loaned many unique cultural objects from this area to the museum, so that their traditions can be shared as they share the land. Some of these objects are on display inside.

    Laurel Point

    Early European explorers mistook salal for laurel, and named this area Laurel Point; it has no traditional name. The carving here commemorates a 19th-century First Nations burial ground. Small burial shelters, with different carved mortuary figures placed in front of the graves, stood here until the 1850s.


    Thanks to the combined efforts of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, along with local, municipal, provincial and federal government agencies, these markers remind us of the people who once roamed this land. And in Centennial Square, the Two Brothers— recently erected spirit poles carved by Butch Dick and his sons Clarence and Bradley—honour the first people who called this place home.

    Danda Humphreys is a storyteller and guide who has written several books about the early history of Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com.

    The story was published in the September 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.



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