Indigenous History of Salt Spring Island

In this series we will look at the Indigenous history of Salt Spring Island from the perspective of snuwuyulh (“snuh-WHY-ulth” approximately)—a Hul’q’umi’num’ word broadly translated as “cultural teachings.” The word has a literal meaning of “putting the thought into the child’s head”—a reference to a learning process that occurred from an early, indeed, prenatal stage of life to those born here. Early exposure to cultural teachings through stories and place-names produced knowledgeable people and a sustainable economy that persisted for thousands of years until the 19th century. Snuwuyulh reminds us that learning is an ongoing process and that everyone here is “like a child” when it comes to the human history of the island. Salt Spring Time offers some bare grounding in local “cultural teachings”—putting the thought in there— thanks to the many teachers past and present from Salt Spring Island, Saanich, Cowichan, Penelakut and Nanaimo.

Salt Spring Now and Then

Salt Spring Island today is home to people of diverse cultural backgrounds from all over the world. This diversity is most noticeable in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United Church, Baptist, Community Gospel, Bible Study, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Buddhist, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, New Age, aetheist and agnostic congregations found on the island since 1859. While each of these belief systems has its own culturally constituted validity (worldview) all are foreign to this place. To understand Salt Spring Island we must first acknowledge our vulnerability to ethnocentrism—in this case our cultural assumptions about the history of a place.

On Salt Spring Island there is an amazingly resilient myth that indigenous people never lived here. Nothing could be further from the truth. I heard this story before I moved here, after I got here and just the other day. The physical evidence alone is pretty obvious—so obvious that a 1987 study of island sediments identified a unique soil type (“Neptune”) based on certain areas of long term indigenous occupation.

The myth that “the Indians never lived here” began 156 years ago with the arrival of the first Europeans and Blacks in Ganges Harbour who seemed surprised when indigenous people showed up on “their” lands and became “troublesome.” In early 1860 there were reports that several Black settlers had been “robbed” and a Royal Navy gunboat was sent from Esquimalt to investigate. One of its officers was Lieutenant Richard Mayne (of Mayne Island fame). He later wrote that “the Indians had done nothing more than tell the settlers everywhere, that they (whites) had no business there except as their guests, and that all the land belonged to them.” When Mayne asked the residents of Shiya’hwt (“be cautious,” the name for Ganges) about allegations by the settlers that Indigenous people never lived on the island, they showed him the graves of their predecessors. One of them, Mayne recalled, “pointed to a small stump by which we were standing, and said it marked his father’s grave, where he had buried him three years ago—long before any white settler came to the place.”

Mayne, an educated man, did not deny the existence of Indigenous title and sympathized with the local indigenous population: “It appeared to be most desirable here, as at other places,” he wrote, “that the Indians should be duly paid for the land.” He also acknowledged the difficulty of “selling” land used by so many different groups according to long term intergenerational matrilineal inheritance. Mayne himself identified four broad groups—Cowichan, Saanich, Lyackson, Penelakut and Nanaimo—with proprietary rights to Ganges Harbour as of April 1860.

Ancient Salt Spring

Salt Spring was not “settled” recently and its history is ancient. The earliest radiocarbon dated site (in Long Harbour, or stsat’h “halibut”) is almost 4,000 years old but human activity on the Island could go back much further. Manufactured landscapes are not just piles of shells harvested seasonally (although there is certainly some of that), these are stl’ultnup (stl-UTL-nup)—covered ancient ground— the physical remains of houses, people, tools and ceremonies, the total physical accumulation of all manner of activities that are the result of everyday practices in one place over thousands of years. On Salt Spring Island we live, drive and walk over manufactured landscapes meters above the original surface everyday.

To give meaning to stl’ultnup we will first consider swiem (shWHY-m), “ancient stories” connected to Salt Spring Island handed down publically over time. They are not secret but meant to be shared. As one elder told me, “Without these stories how would we have survived?” These ancient stories are part of snuwuyulh and a good place to start— at the beginning (to be continued).

Christopher Anderson Arnett
PhD Candidate
Department of Anthropology
University of British Columbia

Salt Spring - Indigenous History of Salt Spring Island - Shiya’hwt Grace Point and Grace Islet in the 1920s.

Photo showing a part of Shiya’hwt (Grace Point and Grace Islet) in the 1920’s. Credit: Salt Spring Island Archives


February 3, 2016 1:07 PM