Saanich people launch campaign to restore traditional landmark names

Published in Windspeaker & Raven’s Eye newspapers | June 2013 | Circulation: 145,000

The name of Vancouver Island’s Saanich nation – WSÁNEC, as they spell it – means “emerging people.” And today, a remarkable re-emergence of traditional names is occurring in the peninsula they call home.

More than 10,000 years ago, explained elder WEC’KINEM (Eric Pelkey), the Creator warned inhabitants of an impending Great Flood, but only a handful heeded his warning: Build giant canoes and tether them with long cedar ropes to the arbutus tree atop the highest mountain in the land, LÁU,WELNEW.

The flood waters rose and receded. Those in the canoe were the only survivors, emerging to become the WSÁNEC, or emerging, people. LÁU,WELNEW mountain became a sacred site, but when Europeans arrived it was christened Mount Newton after a Hudsons Bay Company surveyor.

Today, the mountain remains one of the most revered places for the Indigenous peoples in the area, central to their history, spirituality and survival.

“That is the place our people survived the Great Flood,” WEC’KINEM told Windspeaker. “It’s a sacred mountain … right in the middle of all our communities of the WSÁNEC nation.”

This autumn, WEC’KINEM and other Elders plan to formally restore the mountain its ancient title. The plans follow a dramatic re-naming ceremony on May 22 at the summit of another important landmark, further south in their territory.

In what is predicted to be just the first of a string of traditional naming events, more than 600 people reclaimed the traditional name of Mount Douglas–PKOLS, or “white rock” – by praying and planting a sturdy wooden sign carved by renowned local artist Charles Elliott.

The participants also re-enacted the 1852 signing of a treaty with Governor and Hudson’s Bay Company official James Douglas on that very mountaintop, remembering one of only 14 historic agreements with First Nations in a province that remains largely unceded.

But like many treaties today, the Douglas Treaty was never upheld.

“When Sir James Douglas brought us into treaty, it was primarily supposed to be a peace treaty between our nations,” WEC’KINEM said. “Nation-to-nation.

“It wasn’t honoured, and as far as we’re concerned we’re still living with the effects of that treaty, alienation from our lands, the loss of our village sites, and still persecuted for carrying our Aboriginal rights like hunting and fishing.”

The May 22 ceremony also attracted local authorities, politicians and police, who stood by as Elliot’s hefty thunderbird sign was sunk into cement-filled holes. The event and sign-raising were held without authorization or permit, a fact that author Taiaiake Alfred, with the Indigenous Nationhood Movement, argues is significant for Indigenous rights.

“We did not ask permission,” Alfred, an Indigenous Governance professor at the University of Victoria, told Windspeaker. “One of the biggest problems in Canadian politics is we’re always asking for permission.

“The agenda of Idle No More is to ask permission or to demand something from the government, when in fact I think the strongest move you can make is just to act Indigenous, and to act on your teachings… In fact, I think the authorities respected how well-organized we were.”

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