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Indigenous Culture

Indigenous Peoples heritage and legacies live on in Victoria and Vancouver Island through ceremonies, potlatches, dances, art and masks. An Indigenous experience is an enriching and engaging addition to any Victoria visit.

2014 marked the beginning of a new festival in Victoria: the Victoria Indigenous Cultural Festival. Hosted by the Indigenous Tourism Association of BC in partnership with the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, this annual event increases community engagement with the diverse experiences offered by local Indigenous culture. These include dance, storytelling, carving, singing and food. Enjoy three days filled with colour, sound, education and appreciation of the wonders of our local Indigenous culture, held on the Royal BC Museum Mezzanine and along Victoria's Inner Harbour.

History

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 18th 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 located east of Victoria along the Saanich Peninsula.
 

Carving

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 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 how to carve, its significance and how to preserve the cultural value of carving.

Masks

Like totem poles, Indigenous 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 masks and totems are the Thunderbird, killer whale, frog, salmon, beaver, bear, wolf, raven, sun and moon.

Nahnum

The nahnum (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 practised today, although they may not be around a fire.


Potlach

The potlach is a sacred ceremony and the societal underpinning of Indigenous culture. Through this ceremony, Indigenous Peoples 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 Indigenous culture and force the assimilation of its people. Masks and regalia were confiscated, and priceless historical treasures were destroyed. Only in recent years have the traditions come to life once again, through the memories of elders and the efforts of present-day Indigenous Peoples.


Powwow

A powwow is a celebration of Indigenous culture that features traditional dance, music, food and regalia. As both ceremonial and social events, powwows hold a spiritual significance and continue customs passed through generations. Today, Powwows are often public gatherings that welcome people from all communities as a way to celebrate and share cultural traditions.


Storytelling

Indigenous culture is based on oral history and elders are responsible for sharing the stories of the ancestors. Elders are the history keepers, an important role for a culture that traditionally had no written history. Indigenous Peoples are keenly aware that, as times change, they could lose stories about their history. Now, with permission, storytelling gatherings are recorded for archival purposes.

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. Indigenous 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 beyond their own. A collection of totem poles from Indigenous communities throughout British Columbia can be found in Thunderbird Park, at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Beacon Hill Park is home to one of the world's tallest, free-standing totem poles 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. Binoculars are required to see the top.