First Nations people's heritage and legacies live on in Victoria and Vancouver Island, with a variety of ceremonies, potlatches, dances and masks. A First Nations experience adds value to any visit to Victoria.
2014 marked the beginning of a new festival in Victoria: the Aboriginal Cultural Festival, which took place June 19-21. Hosted by the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC in partnership with the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, this annual event increases community engagement with the diverse experiences offered by local indigenous culture. These include dance, story telling, carving, singing, and food. It is three days filled with colour, sound, education and appreciation of the wonders of our local Aboriginal culture, held on the Royal BC Mezzanine and along Victoria's Inner Harbour.
All part of the Saanich Nation of Coast Salish peoples, the Songhees, Esquimalt, Tsartlip, Tseycum, Pauquachin, Scia'new, Tsawout and T'Sou-ke Nations are all important bands that have long called Southeastern Vancouver Island home.
Prior to European arrival in the late eighteenth century, a Songees fortified village existed at Finlayson Point in Beacon Hill Park. After the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1854, the village was moved across the harbour into what is now Victoria West. Currently the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations reserves lie at the Southwestern edge of Victoria, bordering each other and the Town of View Royal. With their traditional lands lying northwest of Victoria, reserves of the T'Souke and Scia'new bands lie along the Sooke Basin while the Tseycum, Tsartlip, Tsawout and Pauquachin bands are all located east of Victoria along the Saanich Peninsula.
The Khenipsen Artisan Centre at the Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre in Duncan is the world's largest carving house. In the Khenipsen Artisan Centre, visitors learn the historic and traditional uses of natural materials found in the local area and used for transportation, housing, clothing, foods and medicines. Visitors can watch the carving of a totem, mask or war canoe and can carve for themselves on the Visitor's Carving Pole. Today, anyone interested in carving has the opportunity to learn not only how to carve, but also the significance of carving, and how to preserve the cultural value of carving.
Like totem poles, Aboriginal masks depict different symbols used in the stories of a tribe. The masks carved for a tribe are used for ceremonial purposes. The most common symbols on both masks and totems are: the thunderbird, killer whale, frog, salmon, beaver, bear, wolf, sun, moon and raven.
The nahnum (or fire circle) is a gathering place where stories and teachings are shared. The circular seating and fire are traditions that started in tribes' winter homes, where members of all generations would sit and talk with elders. More formal gatherings are held to discuss business matters. During those meetings, a talking stick is used to indicate which person will speak. Gatherings are still practiced today, although they may not be around a fire.
The potlach is a sacred ceremony and the societal underpinning of Aboriginal culture. Through this ceremony, Native people unite families in marriage, name children, right wrongs, pass on rights and responsibilities to the next generation and share wealth. From 1884 to 1951, the potlach was outlawed by the Canadian government as part of an attempt to destroy Aboriginal culture and force the assimilation of its people. Masks and regalia were confiscated, destroying priceless historical treasures. Only in recent years have the traditions come to life once again, through the memories of elders and the efforts of present-day Native people.
A powwow is a gathering of Aboriginal people for a celebration of singing, drumming and dancing where all are welcome. There is a spiritual component to powwows and many traditions are inherent in the dances. Elders teach the dancers the spiritual knowledge they need to know to be good people and effective leaders. To be a true powwow dancer involves more than just the movements in the dance; it is a way of life.
Aboriginal culture is based on oral history and it is elders who are responsible for sharing the stories of the ancestors. Elders are the history keepers, an important role for a culture who traditionally had no written history. Aboriginal people are keenly aware that, as times change, they could lose stories about their history. Now, with permission of the individual elders, storytelling gatherings are recorded for archival purposes.
A totem is defined as an object, such as an animal or plant that serves as the emblem or symbol of a kinship group or person. First Nations cultures carve wooden poles to display these totems. Each animal carved represents a creature associated with family history, notable ancestors or events which displayed the ancestors' spiritual powers or magical privileges of the families. Each different totem belongs to the particular family or person carving it; in other words, the carver cannot use totems belonging to families outside his own. One of the finest collections in the world can be found in Thunderbird Park, at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. As well, Beacon Hill Park is home to the world's tallest, free-standing totem pole carved from a single log. Alert Bay on Northern Vancouver Island is home to the tallest totem pole in the world, at 53 metres (two parts) and features 22 figures, requiring binoculars to see the top.