For over 4000 years, the area now known as the City of Victoria and the local territories, waterways and islands were occupied by ancestors of the people who became known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. When Europeans first arrived in the area, the Songhees were not the single unified group we know today, but were comprised of several local groups who collectively referred to themselves as Lekwungen. The Lekwungen speak a dialect of Northern Straits Coast Salish, other dialects of this language are spoken by the Saanich people on the Saanich Peninsula and adjacent islands, the Semiahmoo on the mainland around Semiahmoo Bay, the Lummi with their principal territory in Hale Passage near Bellingham, and the Samish in the area of Samish and Guemes Islands. A more divergant dialect is spoken by the Klallam on the Olympic Peninsula.
At the time of contact with Europeans, each Lekwungen household consisted of extended families who owned areas in which they could hunt, fish, collect plants, and build houses. Other areas were shared as commons amongst the different household groups.
In 1843, the Hudson's Bay Company charged James Douglas with the duty of setting up a new trading post on the southern end of Vancouver Island. Douglas chose the Victoria area, then called Camosack, because of its prarie like qualities and the ease with which the land could be ploughed and livestock could graze. Little did he know that the land he perceived to be "an uncultivated waste" was actually the work of the Lekwungen people who had maintained the land as camas praries through their burning and cultivating practices.
With the spot chosen and the arrival of Fort Victoria, most Lekwungen families came together to form a main village on the northwest shore of today's Victoria Inner Harbour. It was at this time that the Lekwungen came to be identified as "Songhees" or "Songish", which is the anglicised name of the westernmost Lekwungen group and most prominent group of Lekwungen people who settled near Fort Victoria.
As illustrated above, the early Songhees village was located directly across the water from Fort Victoria and occupied the land from where the Inner Harbour narrows at Laurel Point to just north of what is now Johnson Street Bridge. The village featured two rows of large traditional shed-roof style houses that were built along the shore. These permanent structures featured a framework made of posts and beams with removable roof and wall planks. Some of the house posts were carved or painted. The houses were said to be anywhere from 6 to 18 metres in width, and more than double that in length.
In 1862-63, British Columbia was hit by the greatest tragedy it has ever known and Victoria was ground zero. Previous smallpox epidemics in the 1770s and 1830s were surely devastating, but the 1862 epidemic spread wider and packed a more crushing blow to First Nations communities along the coast and throughout the mainland. As infected First Nations people were forced out of Victoria, the pandemic spread quickly up the coast from its staging ground. Fortunately for the Songhees, many of them received vaccination prior to the outbreak and/or retreated to Discovery and San Juan Islands to escape the disease. Due to these factors, the Songhees did not suffer the devestating losses that many Northern First Nations did.
Following the smallpox epidemic, the loss of human life in the north had an impact on the local trade and economy of Victoria. Songhees men were being employed in construction, manufacturing, and in shipping. Songhees women were working as housekeepers and selling food. However, as more and more northerners began to return to Victoria, the trade eventually began to pick up again. By 1881, the villages surrounding Victoria were almost entirely abandoned. At this time, the Songhees began receiving offers to move from their land. In the following years, many unsuccessful attempts were made to purchase land from the Songhees and Esquimalt people.
In 1911, after decades of pressure by municipal, provincial, and federal governments to move the Songhees people from their land, the Old Songhees reserve was relocated just east of Esquimalt Harbour. The Songhees exchanged the land of their old reserve for two reserves located along the northwestern border of Esquimalt. Due to legal agreements made over 150 years earlier, the Songhees people still maintain the right to fish, hunt and gather food on their traditional territories.
Today, the main Songhees community still lives on the New Songhees Reserve in what is now the Township of Esquimalt. The Songhees First Nation is self-governed and a member of both the Te’mexw Treaty Association and the Naut’sa Mawt Tribal Council. In 2008, Signs of Lekwungen, an interpretive walkway along Victoria’s Inner Harbour and surrounding areas was established. Each unique marker celebrates and honours the art, history and culture of the Coast Salish people who have resided in Victoria and area for thousands of years. Coast Salish artist Butch Dick created seven large original wood carvings depicting spindle whorls that were cast in bronze and used as the site markers.
Recently, the Songhees First Nation openned The Songhees Wellness Centre to begin building a new foundation for the community. The development of the centre has involved artists who have designed and created art that is uniquely Lekwungen for both the inside and the outside of the building.
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Keddie, Grant. 2003. Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as seen by Outsiders, 1790 - 1912. Royal BC Museum: Victoria.
Keddie, Grant. 2003. Supplement to Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as seen by Outsiders, 1790 - 1912. Royal BC Museum: Victoria.
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