VMC LogoFrom Camp to Community: Cowichan Forest Life


First Nations Rower at Lake Cowichan

First Nations Rower at Lake Cowichan
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The First Nations people of the Cowichan area are closely connected to their traditional lands. The vibrant culture of the Clemclemaluts, Comiaken, Kilpahlas, Khenipsen, Koksilah, Quamichan and Somena villages were part of a complex social system that thrived in the Cowichan Valley; this culture continues to shape the lives of the people of Kaatza or Lake Cowichan, Cowichan Bay and the Cowichan River.

The word Cowichan comes from Khowtzun (s'khowtsun) which means 'basking in the sun'. The legend of The Great Flood tells the story of how the people of the valley took refuge from a rising flood on the top of Mt. Tzouhalem. When the waters receded, the survivors found a giant frog warming itself on the side of the mountain, hence the word s'khowtzun .

The Cowichan people are members of the Coast Salish nation, whose territory spans the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island and the lower mainland of the province of British Columbia. Families were part of kin groups that made up the villages. Resources, such as berry patches, fishing stations and hunting grounds, were controlled by individual families. Douglas Fir and Cedar provided materials that could be woven into clothing and baskets. Trees were carefully selected from the tall stands to use for carving bowls, carving canoes and constructing longhouses carved with elaborate designs and totems.

Initially arriving while many of the Cowichan people were away at their seasonal fishing grounds, homesteaders from Europe, the United States and other parts of Canada began to divide the rich land for farms in the late 1800s. In 1858, Royal Engineers of the British Admiralty surveyed the area, clearing it into 40-hectare sections despite resistance from the Cowichan people. A native reserve was established in the area along the river, from Quamichan, Somena and Siyaykw to Strawberry Hill. The last Coast Salish residents of Siyaykw were still claiming the land when they were evicted in 1893, after the land was sold.

While many early pioneers told of how the assistance they received from the Coast Salish people helped them to survive the winter, the rich natural resources of the area created conflict over land. Restrictive policies by the Vancouver Island and later provincial governments, the impact of an earlier smallpox epidemic, residential schools and the banning of the potlatch changed the traditional Cowichan way of life.

Commercial logging soon followed the homesteaders, and logging became the major economic power in the region. The Coast Salish people were used to transport logs and spars from the land down to the water, where they worked as ships' crews. Some First Nations workers were employed by lumber mills, or they worked in forest industry road and rail construction.

The majority of waged First Nations labourers were found not in logging, but in the fishing industry. Licensing regulations in 1888 forced them to work for the canneries, requiring that they use cannery boats and equipment. The licensing of the fishery removed First Nations people from their traditional fishing patterns and created an inexpensive pool of seasonal workers for the canneries. When the numbers of fish, particularly salmon, declined, the Cowichan people were no longer able to rely on fish as a means of subsistence, and entered further into the wage economy.

The relationship between logging and fishing continued. In 1890, the first log drive down the Cowichan River took place, followed by many more. This eventually destroyed fish weirs, eroded river banks and washed away agricultural land. In more recent times, it was expected that many of the Coast Salish loggers would leave the logging site each year for the fisheries when the salmon began to run.

The Cowichan tribes, now governed by an elected chief and twelve councilors, continues to address treaty negotiations and to attempt to resolve land rights issues. Over time, the Cowichan culture has seen a resurgence, based on the potlatch, oral history, and the knowledge of elders, all rooted in the lands of s'khowtsun.

To learn more about the history of the Cowichan Valley area and First Nations people, check out the resource links: