Soil as deep as Greece: Rediscovering Coast Salish history

Two Coast Salish men have come together to create the Coast Salish History Project, a way to share Coast Salish history with the public

By Grace Kennedy | November 9, 2021 |6:15 am

Walking along the waterfront in Vancouver, outside the Vancouver Convention Centre, Robert Jago stopped to read a plaque. It told the story of Canada’s first general strike, led by Vancouver Island coal miner Joe Naylor. It was accompanied by other plaques developed by the BC Labour Heritage Centre, all centered around BC’s labour history. It was also, Jago said, extremely dull.

“It was just such a mundane history that you could tell they were grasping just to have content there,” he said. “Meanwhile I know that that was the site of this gigantic, epic battle between the Yuculta and the Squamish in a war of extermination.

“You don’t need to grasp for this shallow puddle of history when you’ve got thousands of years of legend and actual history,” he continued. “The historical soil here is as deep as it is in Greece.”

That historical soil is exactly what Jago, a writer from the Kwantlen First Nation and Nooksack Tribe, and Khelsilem, a Squamish Nation councillor and Indigenous advocate, are helping Lower Mainland residents uncover. The two have launched the Coast Salish History Project, a project that aims to share Indigenous history in a way that is both accessible and exciting.

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The exciting part comes naturally: Coast Salish territory stretches from Vancouver Island to the Fraser Canyon, and its history stretches to time immemorial. It includes epic battles, including one that saw 10,000 warriors cross the Salish Sea for a two-decade war (while early European settlers barely noticed). It includes tales of strange “bear people” who became shipwrecked near a coastal community. It includes the political maneuverings of a people determined to better their lives in a colonial system. It includes love stories, tragedies, and legends.

“We carry the burden of having so many non-Indigenous people living in our territory,” Khelsilem said. “If people are going to live in our territories, they need to learn the history of these lands. But we also need to be able to have a space to be able to share that.”

That is where accessibility comes in. Coast Salish history is known and documented, often by archeologists in specific nations or in obscure academic texts. The Coast Salish History Project aims to pay Indigenous writers to take those documents, oral histories, and artifacts and transform them into well-written stories. (Eventually, Jago and Khelsilem said the project will also be starting a podcast, and Jago hopes the project will move into ventures like developing plaques for places like the Vancouver Convention Centre.)

“It just feels timely, and it feels right,” Khelsilem said. “So much of what we’re dealing with today is coming out of the historical timeline, what has taken place up to now. And so when… people don’t know the stories of our successes, our challenges, and our failures, we risk not being able to learn from them as well.”

So far, the Coast Salish History Project has published one story: the historic amalgamation of the Squamish Nation in 1923, which ensured that each band member would be compensated in a time when Indian Agents were chipping away at Indigenous reserves, and ushered in an area of prosperity for the nation. Katzie linguist Cheyenne Cunningham is writing another history due out in December of this year.

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Sharing these stories will give Coast Salish people and their history the recognition they deserve, Jago said. “And I think getting that recognition is going to be something that’s important for people throughout the valley, throughout the country.”

The goal is to treat BC’s Indigenous history, and its stories, with the same respect as histories from elsewhere in the world receive. “[The stories will say]: This is something that happened here. And it was important, and it was as big a deal or as serious as what happened in ancient England or ancient France,” Jago said. “Without that, people don’t think we can do anything. And we’ve run whole nations, we’ve built bridges and highways, we had an economy and religion—which is better than some.

“We’re not just itinerant barbarians roaming around the landscape,” he continued. “We have a really deep, meaningful, and rich culture, which adds so much more to the understanding of this region than you would ever get from reading every single page of Canadian history.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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