A Woman Weaving a Blanket by Paul Kane

A Woman Weaving a Blanket by Paul Kane
Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum

Among the foremost of our harbour’s heroes are the generations of Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations who have weathered a tsunami of the “newcomer’s” ways, allowing for the present day Renaissance of their culture.

The Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations share a common dialect with the Sooke, Saanich, and the American Gulf Islands’ Lummi Nations. They are members of the Coast Salish, the group of ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lekwungen is currently classified a sleeping language though is being reawakened by the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples as they continue to reassert their culture. The earliest evidence of settlement in the region occurred in c. 3000 BCE. However, there is currently no indication of how those early settlers are related to today’s First Nations.

The peoples of Lekwungen govern themselves through their family groups. Family leadership passes through the hereditary male line with important decisions being made by the heads of families or by groups of elders. Each village within the family had its own fishing, hunting and gathering territory.

Cultural Practice

Animism was practiced by everyone. The world was perceived as a place (with powers) that could be controlled by individuals who had gained special powers, or knew the proper ritual sayings. The transformer or creator, a person of legend, visited the existing world and changed things – though sometimes failing.  Christian First Nations peoples have tried to morph the transformer into a God-like figure to demonstrate that they believed in a single creator, though the transformer of tradition is a much different being.

The Lekwungen passed their history from generation to generation through story and song. They buried their dead in canoes, surface boxes or in trees. In earlier times, they buried their dead in the ground – often under burial cairns of stone or soil. The mention of the dead was taboo.

Historically, the Lekwungen relied heavily upon the western red cedar for clothing, shelter, and transportation. They were sophisticated fishers, hunters, and foragers. Their primary foods included a wide variety of fish, particularly herring and salmon. Their diet also included shellfish, deer, local bird species, berries, herbs and camas bulbs. They foraged for camas bulbs on the shoulders of Beacon Hill In the spring. Crabs were harvested along Whosaykum or “muddy place”, (James Bay) The James Bay Causeway was flung across the mouth of Whosaykum in 1906 and “muddy place” was filled in, eliminating a valuable food source. In 1908 the the Empress Hotel sank its foundations deep into “muddy place.”

A significant aspect of the Coast Salish’s traditional economy has always been the Potlatch – the recognition and reinforcement of hierarchical relations within and between families, villages, and nations through the distribution – or occasionally the destruction – of wealth. Status is raised not by who has the most but by who distributed the most.

Living Arrangements

Lekwungen families lived in family-owned communal shed-roofed cedar plank houses. The plank houses were designed to be easily disassembled as families moved from seasonal site to seasonal site. The houses had no carved posts. Some had small carvings on posts that were exposed during ceremonies. The carved posts on the old Songhees reserve, inherited through marriage with outside groups, consisted of recent historic figures. The only traditional carvings seen on the Old Songhees reserve were house posts held by hereditary chiefs. To commemorate marriage outside the family two identical house posts were carved and exchanged between the two newly related families.

There were no villages in the inner or outer harbour when the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) arrived in 1842. The historic village, just inside the east side of Laurel Point, was a mixed Klallam/Kosampson village. The Camossung (“Camosun”), forebears of today’s Esquimalt Nation, lived on Craigflower Creek, Portage Inlet and along The Gorge. They took their name in commemoration of a girl who, legend has it, was turned to stone at Gorge Falls.

In the early days of Fort Victoria the name Camossung (“Camosun”) came to be used by the newcomers to refer to the general area and resulted in the original name of Fort Victoria, that being Fort Camosun.

Songhees plank houses once lined the shore along Pallastsis – today’s Songhees Point on the west side of the harbour northwest of the narrows now spanned by the Johnson Street bridge. Pallastsis, or Place of Cradles is sacred for the Songhees. Once a child had learned to walk, their cradle was ceremoniously placed along the shore there to ensure the child enjoyed a long life. Individuals on a path to strengthen their spirituality would jump into the harbour from Pallaasis within a ceremony holding a selected stone.

The Newcomers Arrive

Although the Spanish briefly visited Esquimalt harbour in 1791, the first European to enter  Victoria’s harbour was William McNeil  in 1837. It wasn’t until Fort Victoria was established in 1842 that the European trade period began. Che-a-thluc, known as “Chief Freezy,” managed Songhees relations and negotiations with James Douglas of the HBC. Douglas had arrived in 1842 to establish the HBC’s Fort Victoria. The Songhees and Esquimalt traded knowledge, food, labour, and land for the HBC’s thick warm wool blankets.

Douglas’ trade policy was rooted in his desire to maintain good relations, although the results of his land negotiations were mixed. On the one hand Douglas, who had married a woman whose mother was Cree and father was a Scotsman, had a respect and understanding of indigenous peoples that led to many close relationships. On the other, The Victoria Treaties later proved Douglas’s provided woefully inadequate compensation to the Songhees for large swaths of their territory. From 1850 to 1852 the treaties resulted in the acquisition of 14 parcels of land totalling 570 square kilometers.

The bad years

As trade grew, culturally disruptive technologies such as muskets and alcohol were introduced into the lives of the Songhees and Esquimalt in increasing quantities. During this time many gave up pursuit of their traditional economy to gather around the new economic engine, Fort Victoria’s Indian Store. In 1844 fear of fire led to the HBC to require the Songhees to move across the narrow neck of water to today’s Songhees Point. That settlement was not a traditional village. In 1853 the Songhees were moved to their current reserve with the freedom to fish and hunt throughout the area. It was fortunate that five years later few Songhees and Esquimalt people fell to the deadly the 1862 smallpox epidemic that killed many northern visitors.

In 1864 James Squameyugs succeeded Cheethlum as Chief of the Songhees. He faced further repression of his people. In 1876 the Dominion and Provincial Governments set up the Joint Commission on Indian Land. The commission broke up First Nations land holdings across the province into small parcels. This left the Songhees – for millennia a people profoundly connected broadly to the land – with little to no cultural or economic bases. In 1885 the Dominion Government’s Canadian Indian Act banned the Potlatch. The ban was roundly ignored and the practice continued.

The year 1911 brought profoundly negative changes to the two nations when the word “Reserve” was introduced to their vocabulary and their relationship with the British. The Reserve mechanism stripped the them of their ancient freedom to move freely through their world by limiting them to a Reserve far from their traditional homelands. The Reserve mechanism was instrumental in destroying an effective economy based on seasonal migration, following nature’s bounty. In addition,  the British system of “voting” undermined the leadership of the Nations’ Chiefs… leaving them rudderless in a sea of profound change,

It is stark evidence of the mishandling of the First Nations by all levels of government that while in 1859 the Songhees, a vibrant and successful people with a population of approximately 8,500, was reduced to less than 200 by 1920 .


It is a tribute to the strength of character, determination, and cultural vibrancy of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations that since the dark days of 1914 they are flourishing once again. Today over 530 Songhees are dedicated to the re-establishment of their traditional culture, language, and community. They currently host over 2,000 tenants on their lands.

Signs of Lekwungen.

Signs of Lekwungen. Sculpture by Butch Dick

Long overdue, the Potlatch Laws were rescinded in 1951. During the Commonwealth Games in 1995, a pole was erected in acknowledgment of the pre-1911 Songhees village and ceremonial site at Pallatsis, “place of the cradle.”

The development of British Columbia’s capital city caused profound disruption to the Songhees’ traditional economy and livelihood. The Songhees said the government of British Columbia had failed to honour the 1850 treaty the nation had signed with James Douglas. In 2006 Songhees Chief Robert Sam, Federal Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jim Prentice, and Provincial Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, Mike de Jong finally settled the treaty.

In 2006, the chiefs of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations took founding chairs on the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) Board of Governors, the non-profit organization charged with managing Victoria’s harbour, the traditional territory of the both nations.

A Woman Weaving a Blanket by Paul Kane

A Woman Weaving a Blanket by Paul Kane
Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum

As illustrated above in Paul Kane’s painting, the women of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations wove blankets from yarn spun from dog hair, duck down, and mountain goat wool. The spindle whorls used to create the yarn remain an enduring symbol of Coast Salish family life. To celebrate their art, history, and culture the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples commissioned seven monumental bronze sculptures of spindle whorls. These Signs of Lekwungen were created by Songhees artist Butch Dick. The sculptures were placed in the Royal British Columbia Museum to recognize traditional uses of the landscape by the Lekwungen peoples after consultation with Dr. Grant Keddie, Chief Archeologist the museum’s chief archeologist. The project was unveiled in 2008.

In 2012, the Songhees and Esquimalt collaborated with the GVHA to paint a depiction of a traditional blessing on the Ogden Point breakwater, welcoming vessels to the sheltered home of the Songhees and Esquimalt.

In 2013, the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, in collaboration with the GVHA, created Skwin’ang’eth Se’las, or the Helping Hand Development Company. This not-for-profit corporation assists First Nations people in managing businesses, in building technical skills, and in increasing employment among First Nations peoples.

In 2014, the Songhees Nation opened its magnificent Wellness Centre, the new and cultural heart of this proud nation.

Adding to the significance of each new cruise ship that docks at Ogden Point, the captain of the vessel joins with  the Chiefs of both nations in a traditional ceremony in which the ship, her crew, and her passengers are welcomed into the traditional territory of these strong and gentle peoples.

The “sleeping language” is awakening!

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