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First Nations on Gulf Islands

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 7 months ago

An introduction to First Nations' history in the Gulf Islands

By Chris Arnett



For more on the story read Chris Arnett's book The Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849-1863 (Talon Books, 1999)


Salt Spring Island First Nations


Salt Spring Island is literally covered with evidence of First Nations habitation. At Fulford Harbour a village site used by Saanich people into the 1900’s was destroyed by commercial removal of gravel. The new Provincial Park at Burgoyne Bay encompasses several archaeological sites, including two large, deep middens and, on the southwest slopes of Mount Maxwell, rock shelters and caves that once served as dwellings and training areas. An archaeological dig at the head of Long Harbour found house posts 2000 - 3800 years old. On the southeast shore of St. Mary’s Lake there is another huge shell midden containing many artefacts. Near Churchill beach on Ganges Harbour, archaeologists excavated a burial site where twenty-three skeletons were still dressed in elaborate beadwork. The women had lip labrets, indicating their high status. Where the Harbour House Hotel and Moby’s Pub now stand, there is evidence of yet another village site with its graveyard. Forty-five skeletons were dug up during construction of the hotel’s tennis courts. Walker Hook Road bisects another huge, deep midden and burial ground. In places the soil is so deeply embedded with cultural material it is known by geologists as “Neptune Soil.” Salt Spring Island has no beach without evidence of shellfish processing by First Nations. Every estuary was an important duck-hunting and fishing area. On the shores of each lake, people harvested reeds for making the finely-woven mats that they traded for goat hair robes and other goods. On Salt Spring’s mountain slopes, wool dogs were herded and berries gathered. Garry oak meadows would not exist if not for First Nations cultivation of camas bulbs; they are anthropogenic ecosystems, created in part by crop tending and burning. Salt Spring Island has over 100 registered archaeological sites. No doubt many other sites remain unregistered, as landowners fear an “archaeological” designation will impede development of the land. First Nations people lived and died here before pyramids were built in Egypt. Yet nowhere on the island is there a marker, monument, or explanation of the many thousands of years of human habitation that preceded the first non-native settlements in 1859. Middens are bulldozed. Graveyards are dug up and turned into parking lots. Training grounds marked by vulnerable pictographs or petroglyphs are logged and subdivided. Ancient village sites are made into ferry terminal or supermarket.


In interviews with Saanich and Hul’qumi’num elders, Chris Arnett found that First Nations on Salt Spring Island cherished the land not only for its life-giving resources, but also for its spiritual values: “The landscape preserved the teachings of Heel’s in strange rock formations, contained the bones of ancestors, and was the abode of stlutle’luqum (dangerous little beings). . . . Salt Spring Island . . . harboured many sacred sites in its mountains and lakes where youth sought supernatural power.”


Historically the south end of Salt Spring Island was controlled by Saanich-speaking families, while Hul’qumi’num families owned Burgoyne Bay and the North Island. These groups intermarried. Their languages, while distinct, were closely related. “A complex web of family relations links people and place to a broad landscape,” Albert (Sonny) McHalsie explains. Saanich people had – and have – kin throughout the San Juan Islands and in Washington. Hul’qumi’num people had village sites on the Fraser River. Their family connections reach far into the B.C. Interior. Huge extended families traditionally owned territories on which no other family would trespass without permission.


The history of people connected for many thousands of years with the place we call Salt Spring Island is contained in place names referring to stories, resources, and the shape of the land. Anthropologist and Salish historian Brian Thom points out that Salish places are connected to people by kinship. Places can be ancestors, and there is “a long standing Coast Salish cultural tradition of imbuing places with a sense of history, community, and spiritual power.” Salt Spring Island’s Mount Maxwell, for example, is Hwumat’etsum, “bent over place.” At the beginning of time it stood in the way of Smokwets, one of the first people, who lived in Tsawwassen, on the bluffs overlooking the ferry terminal. Smokwets used a slingshot to try to kill a powerful sea creature in Sansum Narrows who killed and ate passing canoeists. Smokwets fired three massive boulders, but missed, until he called on Mount Maxwell to bend over so that the people might be saved. The mountain listened and bent down, assuming its present shape. Smokwets’ fourth shot was true, and a huge bolder hit the monster, shattering its jaw.


Mount Tuam is Sheluqun -- a place of power -- named for the story a greedy youth who gained awesome powers through a supernatural encounter with Thunderbird. He was finally killed when his excessive demands on the people became too much to bear. “Mount Tuam is still a story about greed,” comments naturalist Briony Penn. If we learn these names and admit these stories into our understanding of the land, will it undermine present land tenures? Traditional stories may in fact constitute legal evidence of aboriginal title. Brian Thom remarks, “Considered as a body of common law, traditional stories provide a straight forward proof for a society being organized and holding title over the land.”


Today First Nations land issues are at the forefront of community consciousness on Salt Spring Island, as they are elsewhere in British Columbia. The Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, representing some of the First Nations with land claims over Salt Spring Island, has negotiated a framework agreement. Native people are winning rights to lands and resources through the courts, with painstaking treaty negotiations, and by way of parliamentary changes to the Indian Act. Among non-native people, there is much fear and uncertainty. How will these changes affect property rights, taxes, and employment in resource industries? What will happen, as First Nations gain control of reserve land, crown land and parks? On Salt Spring a small group called “Salt Spring Islanders for Justice and Reconciliation” attempts to allay fears and support local Native bands. Other islanders have helped to elect a provincial government committed to subverting the treaty process.


Mapping Salt Spring Island has hitherto meant “mapping out” the existence and land tenure of First Nations. Salt Spring is, as Chris Arnett points out, an ancient land, “with a history disguised by a thin veneer of English place names commemorating Royal Navy officers and their ships.” Place names preserving thousands of years of history were replaced by the names of colonial surveyors, settlers, agents of oppression. 140 years of non-native settlement is celebrated while thousands of years of First Nations settlement is ignored.


There is a persistent myth, comforting to present-day residents, that there were no First Nations settlements on Salt Spring Island. Long before the first non-native settlers landed on the island, smallpox arrived through overland trading routes to Mexico. The resulting devastation can hardly be imagined. Whole villages disappeared. In some areas 90% of the population died. Northern native people took advantage of weakened condition of their historic enemies to launch raids. As a security measure, those who survived the epidemic moved to more protected areas. By 1859 the large village sites on Salt Spring Island were gone, though people still visited regularly and maintained rights to the land in particular families. When the first settlers arrived on Salt Spring in 1859, it was summertime, and local native people were at their Fraser River villages, harvesting salmon.


Despite the decimation of the population through smallpox and war, non-native settlers found themselves far outnumbered by local Indians. Chris Arnett estimates that a population of 15,000 local First Nations in the 1850’s would have constituted an enormous threat to the white and black settlers who were offered land on Salt Spring Island by the colonial government. Those who married into First Nations families stayed and prospered, as happened in the Burgoyne Valley and in the area of Walker Hook to Fernwood. In the Ganges-Vesuvius area, non-native settlers did not do well. First Nations people continued to hunt and fish on the land, and to use the important canoe portage between Booth Bay and Ganges Harbour. A Hul’qumi’num village site was re-established on Ganges Harbour. Settlers were threatened. One was murdered; a local Indian was blamed. Frightened pioneer families gave up their claims and moved off the island.


The early 1860’s was a period of unprecedented violence. In July 1860, Ganges Harbour was the scene of a massacre of northern from the Kitmaat area by local Hul’qumi’num people. In 1862, two groups of white settlers were attacked on the Gulf Islands. A father and daughter were murdered on Saturna Island. In retaliation, Governor James Douglas launched huge military attack on village of Lamalcha, Kuper Island. The village was destroyed and half the population was apprehended. Four Lamalcha leaders were hung in Bastion Square in 1863. Three black settlers were killed over the next 5 years by First Nations.

Indians prevented from owning land while non-native could pre-empt 160 acres. Reserve – an arbitrary designation c. 1870.

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