International Year 1 visit to Songhees Nation

Shelley Jones

By Holly Cheung, Sherry Guo, Shelley Jones, Mona Tang, Alex Tran, and Lydia Wang

On August 2nd, we - a group of Royal Roads International Year One students, and Shelley Jones, program head for the International Year One program – had the honour of being the first official visitors to the Songhees Nation’s new Cultural Centre in Lkwungen Territory /downtown Victoria. We were welcomed into the Songhees community for a day and had the opportunity to learn about traditional ways of life and the history of the Songhees, as well as the vibrant, thriving contemporary Songhees culture. We were greeted by the Songhees Tourism and Marketing Manager, Mark Salter, and a group of Songhees youth, who were our hosts for the day. 

The day began with a brief tour around the centre where  maps, artefacts, and historical photos provided some informative background information on the Songhees People. Then, we prepared for a canoe adventure by donning lifejackets and learning how to properly hold our paddles (the paddle end must face up to avoid bad fortune!). We walked to the dock and climbed into the Salish Seawolf canoe - the first time any of us had been in a canoe. Grant Keddie, archeology curator at the Royal BC Museum, and leading expert on Songhees history, was also along for the journey, and he shared photos and facts about the rich history of the Inner Harbour pre- and post-settlement.

As we  paddled together around the Inner Harbour, under the guidance of the Songhees youth (Jackie, Edward, and Moses), we felt that we were traversing a path that Songhees People have moved upon for thousands of years. Jackie, the lead guide, shared stories of Songhees people and their close relationship with nature. Water is important to the Songhees for food, lifestyle, and travel; it also has a very important spiritual significance. We learned that Songhees young men, in special rituals, would dance on the beach, and seek their spiritual animals. They tied rocks to their bodies to help sink deep into the sea quickly; whichever animal approached them first would become their personal spiritual animal. Jackie gave a hypothetical example of a young man who might encounter a seal, which would then become his animal spirit. Just then, a young seal popped up beside our canoe. It was a magical moment... perhaps the seal was our animal spirit. We also learned that when Songhees children reached the age when they could walk, they were brought to the water by their mothers, where their cradles were left, signifying a new stage of the child’s development, and with the hope that the children would live long, happy lives. We also paddled past a Sneq’wa (a blue heron), standing on a log, and learned the meaning of Sneq’wa E’lun (Bue Heron House) on the Royal Roads campus.

During the journey Grant told us how different places developed during the settlement period, with the arrival of Europeans. The harbour became a busy trade and economic center, and although there were some positive aspects to this development and these new relationships, there were also many problems and conflicts that came with settlement, such as territorial disputes, cultural oppression, discriminatory laws that were detrimental to the Songhees.

Following our canoe trip, we feasted on a tasty lunch of salmon sandwiches and traditional fry bread. We  then watched videos of traditional dancing and singing performances, and Diane, a woman from the Songhees community, explained their significance. Florence, another woman from the community, taught us a few Songhees expressions, such as "Hy-sh-kwa gwuns ana techel lakwunen too-nutlh" (Thank you for coming to Lekwungen Land, the land of the smoked herring) and “Hy-sh-kwa” (Thank you). We also viewed a video that featured a Songhees Elder, Joan, who talked about her experiences as a child and young woman. She recalled joyful memories with her family on Chatham Island, but she also reflected upon the traumatizing experiences of her mother being taken away and confined to an "Indian hospital", and then she herself being forcibly separated from her grandparents who raised her to attend a residential school. Her story offered us insights into the complex (and often dark) aspects of Canadian history, and strengthened our appreciation of the strength and resiliency of First Nations Peoples, as well as the importance of acknowledging historic injustices and rebuilding trust for a future that celebrates and respects all cultures and acknowledges their interdependence.

It was a great honour to travel with the Songhees upon the sea in their canoe, and feel the summer sun shine upon us as we listened to Songhees stories, bore witness to ancient sites of gathering, rituals, and sacred remembrance, and learned about how the Songhees youth are claiming and celebrating their culture. This was a learning experience that touched our minds, bodies, and hearts in ways that no lecture or powerpoint ever could! Hy-sh-kwa , Songhees Nation!