A more complete meaning of Chilliwack’s name

How Chilliwack's name highlights a special type of canoe travel

📷 Shovel-nose canoes were used around the Pacific Northwest and frequently propelled by poles. The use of such canoes is highlighted by the name of ‘Chilliwack.’ This 1921 photo is of a Duwamish family travelling by canoe near Seattle. Credit: National Museum of the American Indian N07289

One of the most common accounts of how Chilliwack got its name may be missing a key element.

Chilliwack is often said to come from a Halq’eméylem place name—“Ts’elxwéyeqw”—describing the area’s position along the Chilliwack River’s canoe route.

But a 25-year-old interview with a revered Stó:lō elder suggests those accounts—including that of the City of Chilliwack—may fail to capture a key part of the definition that also helps illustrate how people navigated the area’s waterways before settlement.

In 1996, two researchers—educator Heather Myles and researcher Tracey Joe (Hychblo)—sat down with long-time Y​eqwyeqwí:ws (Yakweakwioose) Chief Siyémches, also known as Frank Malloway, for a wide-ranging conversation.

The interview is fascinating, touching on class disputes, fishing techniques, war and raiding, and Stó:lō architecture. Siyémches himself cautioned that his viewpoint likely differs from others, though his accounts frequently refer to historical research by himself and his peers. (You can read the interview in its entirety here.)

Many accounts, including that of the City of Chilliwack itself, declare that the name Chillliwack comes from the Halq’eméylem word “Ts’elxwéyeqw.”

The City of Chilliwack and other sources say Ts’elxwéyeqw was defined by former Yakweakwioose Chief Albert Louis as meaning “as far as you can go upriver” in a canoe. It refers to the ability to travel up the Chilliwack River en route to Soowahlie, the community based near Vedder Crossing, near the Vedder Bridge.

Siyémches followed Louis as chief and became a prominent First Nation leader both locally and nationally. (His nephew, current Sema:th chief Dalton Silver, remembered him as a commanding speaker in national conversations.) Siyémches was in a uniquely knowledgeable position to interpret and expand upon his predessor’s definition of what Chilliwack, or Ts’elxwéyeqw, actually means.

Siyémches’s definition agrees with that, but adds vital additional context to the accounts of Louis’s definition.

The commonly used definition—“as far as you can go upriver”—can be read to suggest that canoe travel upriver of Ts’elxwéyeqw (Chilliwack) was impossible. But that wasn’t the case, Siyémches noted in the interview. Ts’elxwéyeqw wasn’t the place where canoe travel became impossible, he said. Rather, it was the place where travel with a paddle became unfeasible. Past that, he said, those in canoes would need to use poles.

“If you heard our Chief Louie, he would say ‘Ts’elxwéyeqw means as far as you can get up the river using a paddle. Then when you had to switch to a pole, that’s where Ts’elxwéyeqw was.’

“So that made sense to me, and that was the name of our tribe—my people.”

This definition also takes prominence on the website of the Ts'elxwéyeqw, an inter-First Nation organization.

Just as Siyémches notes, others had slightly different interpretations.

In the 1960s, local Elder Amy Cooper told an ethnographer: “Ts'elxwéyeqw comes from sts'élexw (pronounced ‘stihl-uhk’/‘stilh-uhk) and sts'élexw means backwater, and the backwater was at the Vedder [Crossing] and … up to the creek to Swí:lhcha (Cultus Lake).”

Other accounts have the name linked to the word “Tcil'Qe'uk,” described as meaning “valley of many streams.”

All accounts, though, highlight the importance of waterways and sloughs as key transportation corridors in the Fraser Valley.

“Before our country was all dikes and drainage ditches there was a lot of tributaries or sloughs and it was really easy to travel up and down the Fraser Valley because these sloughs along the Fraser,” Siyémches said in his interview.

On the Chilliwack River and the various sloughs in the area, people used “shovel-nosed canoes” for fishing. While open-water canoes are constructed with v-shaped hulls, the fishing shovel-nosed canoes had much heavier bottoms, three or four inches thick.

“It was mostly so that they wouldn’t be so tippy,” Siyémches said, attributing much of his knowledge to a contemporary named Burns Mussell. “With a heavy bottom and thin sides [a shovel-nosed canoe] would never tip. When you were pulling in nets, you could stand on the edge of it and not tip over.”

While in a river current, a shovel-nosed canoe would just ride on top of the waves,” he said. “The river wouldn’t control you, you’d control the canoe. It was just like a sled; you would ride the waves.”

As water became more rapid, poles, rather than paddles, were frequently used.

“That was a skill in itself,” Siyémches said. “A person would pole right up the Fraser along the edge of the river.”

It was a difficult skill to master though. Siyémches said he had tried to use a pole, but couldn’t master the technique and keep the canoe straight.

Relatively little has been written about the use of shovel-nosed canoes, but in a 1978 workshop, Leq'a:mel First Nation member Patrick Kelly was quoted as saying that shovel-nose canoes were built on the coast and occasionally obtained by Fraser Valley people through trade.

The shovel-nosed canoes—and the poles used to propel them—were used by Indigenous people all around the Pacific Northwest both to travel and to fish. (The photo at the top of this story comes is of Duwamish people near Seattle. You can see a photo of two recently blessed canoes in Washington here.)

Today, the canoes are relatively rare, though they do make appearances.

A 2004 photo belonging to the Chilliwack Museum and Archives shows a young boy paddling a shovel-nose canoe alongside a more-traditional boat.

📷 Photograph courtesy of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives [2004.052.2565]

And former Skowkale Chief and provincial judge Steven Point himself carved a shovel-nosed-style canoe while serving as BC’s Lieutenant Governor in Victoria. The painted canoe, described as an upland river canoe, now sits in the the lower rotunda of BC’s Parliament Buildings.

The legislature website said Coast Salish people used such canoes to fish at night.

“A fire was lit in the pit at the bow and a hunter would hide behind a bulrush blind,” the website says. “The hunter would then spear the fish that would come to the surface, having been attracted by the light.”

A shovel-nosed-style canoe carved by former Lieutenant Governor Steven Point sits in a rotunda at the BC Legislature. 📷 Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.

Sail power

Elsewhere in the valley, others used wind power for their canoes, Siyémches said.

Siyémches described conversations with Lawrence James, an Indigenous man from near Yale who he said used to travel to Hope by canoe to do his shopping.

“Oh, I’m going home in a while,” Siyémches said James once told him. “I’m just waiting for the wind.’”

“‘Waiting for the wind?,” Siyémches asked

“Yeah,” James replied. “I came down in the canoe and I’ve got to wait for the wind before I put my sail up and go back up the river.”

Siyémches said some people would use a parachute-like sail to help power their boats.

“Those sails really moved your canoe. Lawrence used to travel all over with the canoe, and go all the way down to Fort Langley and come back.”

Siyémches was asked in the interview when people began switching from canoes to different modes of transport.

“I think when they brought out the Model-T Ford,” Siyémches said, laughing. But he quickly clarified that the arrival of horses brought the first changes.

“The horse and buggy came into effect when they started damming and blocking the sloughs and putting in drainage ditches. It was when our waterways began vanishing that we switched transportation.”

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