June 15th, 2024

Miywasin Moment: A west coast walkabout

By JoLynn Parenteau on May 8, 2024.

The Knowledge Totem has stood watch over the Inner Harbour on the Parliament grounds since 1990. The loon, fisherman, bone game player and frog represent lessons of the past and hope for the future.--PHOTO BY JOLYNN PARENTEAU

Across this beautiful country, our vibrant urban centres and the land surrounding them are steeped in Indigenous culture and history. It is worth seeking out the stories and landmarks that enrich one’s understanding of the places we visit.

On the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island lies Matoolia, modern-day Victoria. The Lekwungen peoples – the Songhees and Xwsepsum/Kosapsum (Esquimalt) Nations – were the first caretakers of the land and waters surrounding what is now this busy harbour city. During your next stay here, take time to explore the storytelling sites and art of the many South Salish First Nations who call the island home.

Plan a day on foot or rent a bicycle, and begin your journey at the Breakwater at Montreal Street and Dallas Road. Here you’ll find one of the largest murals in northern Turtle Island (Canada): the Unity Wall, Na’Tsa’maht – a Salish phrase meaning, “unity or working together as one.” Created by Songhees Nation artist Clarence “Butch” Dick (Yux’wey’lupton) and Esquimalt Nation artist Darlene Gait together with their apprentices, it is a powerful storyboard bridging the legends and history of this region’s First Nations peoples.

From the Breakwater, head up to the end of Montreal Street and loop around Laurel Point Path to find one of seven Signs of Lekwungen. Six of these markers are found within easy walking distance around the harbour in places of cultural significance for the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Each tells a story and has a map to the next location. Cast in bronze from original cedar carvings by Butch Dick, also a renowned master carver, and his son, Mamalilikulla carver Clarence Dick Jr., the tall, tilted pillars are shaped like spindle whorls used to spin wool, a traditional practice of Coast Salish women.

Following Belleville Street, arrive at the Inner Harbour Causeway, a popular and picturesque walkway where in the warm months you’ll find Songhees and Esquimalt artisans creating and selling their traditional artwares. Storyboards with First Nations history of the immediate area line the harbour, and you’ll find another Sign of Lekwungen here.

Poised at the north corner of the Inner Harbour, on the window of the visitor centre at 812 Wharf St., passers-by will spot Lekwungen and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Brianna Bear’s oversized bright yellow dandelion. Often misunderstood as a weed, the dandelion is a resilient and nutritious plant that can be harvested for teas and salad greens, and is an early spring meal for pollinators. Learn more about the artist on Instagram @briannabearart.

Continuing north from here up Government Street’s shopping district, visit the Mark Loria Gallery at 621 Fort Street, then up to Cowichan Trading Company on the corner of Johnson Street. Between the gallery and shop, you’ll find authentic Indigenous artistry and craftsmanship from high-end art and collectibles to everyday housewares, apparel and gifts.

One block northeast from Cowichan Trading Company brings you outside city hall at Centennial Square, the location of another Sign of Lekwungen and the Two Brothers spirit poles by the same father-and-son carvers.

Indoors, city hall is home to a longstanding multimedia art display entitled Sacred. Showcasing contemporary and traditional art, the emerging and established Vancouver Island-based Indigenous artists are from many Nations: Coast Salish as well as Metis, Mohawk, Dine (Navajo), Nehiyaw (Cree), and Saanich. The gallery features indoor murals, an LED light painting, an outdoor projection, a short film, a poem, photographs and silk-screened prints. City Hall is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday to view the collection.

“Showcasing Indigenous arts in city gall reminds people of whose land we are on, and acts as a reminder of the creative work, history and talent of First Nations peoples,” says curator Rose Spahan. “The intent of these works is for the audience to experience the love, creativity, talent and ingenuity of the creations. The artists are diverse individuals, which is showcased in the diversity of their art forms.”

Making your way back to the harbour, stop on Belleville Street’s Parliament grounds to visit the Knowledge Totem pole. Its loon, fisherman, bone game player and frog have watched over the harbour since 1990 and represent lessons of the past and hope for the future.

One block east, just past the Sign of Lekwungen outside the Royal BC Museum, is Thunderbird Park, home to more totem poles and a carving studio. Totem poles are the iconic storytelling monuments of the Pacific Northwest’s First Nations peoples. Towering red cedars are masterfully carved and painted to depict animals and traditional figures, legends and ancestors, commemorating history and events.

Touring more widely around the city, you will come upon the painted monoliths in many places within and outside the downtown core. A 20-minute walk or six-minute bike ride south from Thunderbird Park will lead you to Beacon Hill Park’s 127-foot Story Pole, carved in 1956 by Kwakiutl tribal chief and renowned carver Mungo Martin, his son, David, and Henry Hunt at Thunderbird Park’s carving studio. Nearly 70 years old, the Story Pole has been restored but is nearing the end of its lifespan, when it will be returned to the earth. If you have the opportunity, see the world’s tallest free-standing totem pole while it still stands.

If time permits during your stay in the area, visit the Victoria Native Friendship Centre at 231 Regina Ave. Hych’ka Siem, Kleco Kleco and Gilakas’la, the three totem poles gracing the entrance are from Coast Salish, Nuch-chah-nulth, and Kwakwaka’wakw cultural traditions and welcome visitors to VNFC’s culturally supportive and respectful environment. The centre delivers more than 75 programs for urban Indigenous peoples of all ages.

If you arrive here by plane and will depart that way, give a greeting to T’sartlip First Nation master carver Charles W. Elliott’s three totem poles featuring a Salish welcome figure, orca and thunderbird, and raven, wolf and bear as you pass through on your journey.

One cannot fully appreciate a place’s culture without sampling the local cuisine. Before returning home, seek out the Songhees Food Truck permanently parked at 1502 Admirals Rd. for fresh local seafood, burgers and signature Bannock bread, a modern take on traditional regional fare.

Through their land stewardship and ceremonies, the First Nations peoples here honour a sacred trust with Creator. The work of protecting the lands, cultural knowledge, art and languages of the people who first cared for this bountiful region continues.

As a respectful visitor, there is more yet to see and explore here, and across this sacred land that is both one and of many Nations.

JoLynn Parenteau is a Metis writer. Column feedback can be sent to jolynn.parenteau@gmail.com.

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