Long before the first European settlers arrived in Victoria, this region was home to Aboriginal people. By taking great care to share knowledge by gathering and telling stories, the Coast Salish people of southern Vancouver Island have ensured that Aboriginal heritage, history and traditions continue to be practiced, remembered and celebrated here.  

If you have ever been to Victoria, you’ll know that Aboriginal culture is still a huge part of the city’s identity. Here are the top 5 ways to experience Aboriginal culture while you’re in Victoria. 

1. Take the Songhees Islands Cultural Tour

One of the best ways to gain insight into Victoria’s Aboriginal history and culture is to take a guided interpretive tour. Learn first-hand from Coast Salish elders about indigenous plants and local areas of interest while sightseeing and wildlife watching or taking in Aboriginal ceremonies and performances.

Songhees First Nation has partnered with Eagle Wing Tours to bring an exciting First Nations Cultural Tour that includes whale and wildlife viewing. The tour encompasses the waters south and east of Victoria and includes island belonging to the Songhees Nation.

Fact: These islands have been inhabited by their members for over 5,000 years of recorded history!

Image: Aboriginal artwork in Cowichan, just north of Victoria. 

2. Experience the Our Living Languages Exhibit at the Royal BC Museum

At the Royal BC Museum, you’ll find a ton of fun, interactive and educational exhibits on a whole range of topics including natural history and BC’s native plants.

For a comprehensive account of human activity on Vancouver Island over thousands of years, spend a day at the Royal BC Museum immersed in the human and natural history of British Columbia. The Our Living Languages exhibit is an interactive exhibition that celebrates the resilience and diversity of First Nations languages in the face of change. When you visit, you’ll learn what First Nations communities around BC are doing to help their languages survive and flourish.

While you’re at the museum, make sure to spend some time exploring the First Peoples Galleries as well! They’re interactive and super informative.

 Image: Our Living Languages exhibit, photo courtesy of the Royal BC Museum.

3. See all of Victoria’s Totem Poles

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.

The best way to experience a totem pole is in person. Photos just don’t do them justice. We recommend that you “carve” out some time to check out the beautiful totems around Victoria on your next Visit. 

Did you know? 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.

Image: Thunderbird Park, just behind the Royal BC Museum in Downtown Victoria 

One of the finest collections in the world can be found in Thunderbird Park, just behind the Royal BC Museum. As well, Beacon Hill Park is home to the world’s tallest, free-standing totem pole carved from a single log.

Fact: 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.

4. Attend the 2016 Aboriginal Cultural Festival

If you’re visiting Victoria in June, consider attending the 2016 Aboriginal Cultural Festival. You’ll join the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations in celebrating National Aboriginal Day weekend with music, dance, food and arts. The best part? It’s completely free to attend.

The festival will include three days of performances on an outdoor stage in the plaza at the Royal BC Museum, located right in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Each day will start with performances from the two local Host Nations and will be followed by free live shows from Aboriginal performers from across the province.

 Image: An Aboriginal performer at the 2015 Aboriginal Cultural Festival in Victoria 

5. Check out Authentic Aboriginal Art

Victoria offers plenty of chances to admire and purchase Aboriginal art pieces such as masks, Cowichan sweaters, jewelry and totems. Government Street and Fort Street contain several souvenir shops and galleries where you can purchase your very own piece of Aboriginal art to take home with you. Victoria’s historic Swans Brewpub is also a great place to stop and grab a bite to eat while taking in Aboriginal art.

The Legacy Art Gallery in downtown Victoria also contains a huge collection of Aboriginal art pieces.

Image: Legacy Gallery in downtown Victoria. Photographer: Deddeda Stemler.

The home of Emily Carr, an artist best known for her paintings of Vancouver Island’s rainforests and totemic Aboriginal sculptures, is a National Historic Site of Canada located near downtown Victoria. Her work is on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.  

Whether you prefer museums, galleries, festivals or shopping, there are lots of opportunities to experience Aboriginal culture the next time you’re in Victoria. 

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Destination Greater Victoria is honoured to be based on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples of the Songhees Nation and the Esquimalt Nation, whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day.