Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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By Nancy Turner (BSc ’69) with Cheryl Bryce and Brenda Beckwith
Illustration by Sam Shoichet (BFA ’96)

Campus and its Coast Salish heritage.


Outside the Engineering Faculty is a magnificent Coast Salish Welcoming Figure, over seven metres high. This figure is said to encourage the joy of knowledge and learning. More than this, the sculpture symbolizes the traditional generosity and hospitality of local First Nations to those coming in peace to their territory.

Few of us who pass this work of Coast Salish artist Floyd Joseph or wander around the buildings, open spaces and woodlands of campus may realize the antiquity of the human relationships with the landscape. For thousands of years the ancestors of the Lekwungen (Songhees) and WSANEC’ (Saanich) Nations travelled these lands, conducting ceremonies, hunting, fishing, camping and harvesting a bounty of wild root vegetables, greens and berries, woods, fibres and other materials, and medicinal and ceremonial plants. Until the establishment of Fort Victoria by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1843, there was a permanent Lekwungen winter village situated at Sungayka (“snowpatches”), below campus at the site of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club. In the “Douglas Treaties”—established in 1850 by Chief Factor for Fort Victoria, James Douglas—the campus lands were identified as belonging to the “Che-ko-nein Tribe—Point Gonzales to Cedar Hill.” The entire tract was purchased for 79 pounds, 10 shillings sterling.

The landscape has changed but campus is still imbued with cultural history. Mystic Vale, with its spring-fed waters, has always had special significance as a sacred place. WSANEC’ oral traditions identify the spring and ravine with girls’ puberty rites and with enhancing the fertility of young couples unable to bear children. Mount Tolmie, or SNAXE, rising above campus on the south-west, is a place where, according to a WSANEC’ narrative, XALS, the Creator, turned a man and his wife into stone because the man had transgressed a cultural taboo and revealed a secret to his wife. Such stories, told over generations, reinforce peoples’ connections with their landscapes and their histories.

Many of the plants relied upon so heavily in the past still grow here. Among the most important were the carbohydrate-rich bulbs of the edible blue camas. These were pried out with digging sticks, cooked for hours in earth-ovens, then eaten at feasts or dried for winter use. Families would congregate around the camas meadows to dig bulbs in the summer-time, harvesting thousands of bulbs for winter or trading with neighbouring groups. Wild fruits, ripening from late spring to fall, include Indian plums, salmonberries, wild strawberries, trailing blackberries, and Saskatoon berries. The juicier berries were dried in cakes, to be reconstituted in winter. Crabapples and elderberries would be stored fresh or buried in underground caches. Today, the berries of campus are eaten fresh or made into jams, jellies or preserves.

Of traditional plant materials of the campus, western red-cedar is a keystone species. Mount Douglas, north of campus, was aptly known as “Cedar Hill” in the old days. For the Lekwungen and WSANEC’ peoples, cedar provides planking and posts for houses, its logs are crafted into giant dugout canoes, its branches used for rope and basketry, its fibrous bark for mats, cordage, clothing and baskets, and its roots for binding and as coiling for beautiful imbricated baskets.

Herbal medicines have also been sought from this area. Bark—from red alder, cascara, western hemlock, trembling aspen and Pacific yew—is used in traditional medicinal preparations, as are waxberry, Indian consumption plant, wild lily of the valley, cottonwood buds, arbutus leaves, and numerous others.

Most of these plants are found along the chip trail that winds through the wetland woods behind the Fraser Building parking lot, along the edge of the Garry oak parkland near the intersection of Gordon Head and Cedar Hill X roads, and into the Douglas-fir woods across Ring Road from the Cunningham and Petch buildings, and down in Mystic Vale. We often overlook these wild species and take them for granted, paying greater attention to the tulips, rhododendrons and other domesticated flowers and shrubs planted in our landscaped areas and garden beds.

The university has links with traditional leaders in the region for protocol and graduation ceremonies and we hope that in the future there will be even closer relationships between the campus community and the First Nations. Perhaps the Garry oak parkland will become a Lekwungen interpretive area, with a self-guided ethnobotany walk.







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