What’s the First Nations History of Shawnigan Lake?
(This article is from the Curious in Cowichan newsletter, October 20, 2020)
This lake has a story that is rooted in our oldest legends, our creation stories.' Jared Qwustenuxun Williams
Here is a picture of my dog, looking very wolfish. Stories of wolves giving power and offering help are common in our ancient tales. But elders are often quick to remind us to keep a safe distance and respect wolves when we see them in the wild. We don’t need to fear the stqeeyu’; we must respect it.
Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams/The Discourse
Uy netulh siem nu siiye’yu,
Good morning my respected friends,
Today’s article began, as many of my articles do, with a question. Someone wrote in and asked, “What do you know about the pre-contact history of Shawnigan Lake? Were there any settlements here? Was it a place to gather food?”
Sometimes the world just thinks up a question and almost out of nowhere several people ask me the same question at the same time. This is one of those questions. This lake has a story that is rooted in our oldest legends, our creation stories. Naturally, the best way to answer this is with a story.
One story is told by Stutsun, as he recounts the tale to his brother Syalutsa. These two brothers are among the first Quw’utsun ancestors, who fell from the sky to become the first people of this land.
Stutsun had just returned from a great journey and told Syalutsa of all the things he’d seen in the world.
Stutsun spoke of how he encountered a large green-blue-grey creature that danced under the water and made strange zig-zag waves to try to entice him into the lake. But, after stepping out of the lake and onto the shore the creature disappeared under the water.
Even in this story the brothers have no name for the creature, and Syalutsa jests that it was now up to Stutsun to name the creature. But, at the end of the tale, Syalutsa notes specifically that the stl’elequm Stusun encountered was at Showe’luqun, now known as Shawnigan Lake.
Many stories of Stutsun, like this one, can be found in the book, Those Who Fell From The Sky Daniel P. Marshall.
Another story tells of a Saanich chief named Statloth. After many years of being unable to bear children with his wife, he was blessed with a son in his old age.
It was said that as the boy grew he would disappear for hours or days a time. Finally his father followed him in secret and found him at the north end of Showe’luqun playing with a giant wolf.
Awestruck, the father snuck away unseen. With the belief the wolf was a great spirit that would bless the family, the chief kept his son’s secret. In the years that passed the wolves bestowed many blessings upon Semmelth, son of Statloth, and the people of his community.
In one tale in particular, at the naming of Semmelth, the wolves brought and piled more meat in honour of Semmelth’s naming that had even been seen before. The people who attended the gathering were said to have feasted for weeks.
Some of this story can be found in History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians by Martha Douglas Harris.
I will share that I have heard stories of Stutsun and Syalutsa from elders and community members; I know people who wear these names; these characters and stories are prevalent in Cowichan folklore. But I have only ever found the story of Statloth in the pages of a book.
The Village at Showe’luqun
My last story has not been shared widely — the story of the village at Showe’luqun. I have met with several elders to get a complete picture of this story. One thing is certain: it’s time this story is shared.
But I want to note something here. Our stories were never designed to be written. When we write something it becomes a referenceable fact in the hwulunitum world. If I quote someone saying something they become accountable to that fact.
This thought is terrifying to some elders. Not only do their stories become rigid and static, they can sometimes lead to repercussions.
What if you found out your home was built on a village site? What if I told you who told me that? Wouldn’t you want to know more? Would your land value change? Do you need to get an archeological survey?
You can see how this train of thought can lead to knowledge keepers getting targeted for various reasons. So when I say the elders told me this, trust that I’ve asked several elders and understand why I don’t share their names.
Now, as the story goes, Showe’luqun was a trading village located on the west side of Shawnigan Lake. A place where many plants and medicines were gathered, plants that were not found everywhere else. A meeting place where South Island tribes would come to trade goods.
Now, before the hwulunitum arrived, Showe’luqun was raided by a raiding party from the West Coast. According to the story, nearly everyone was killed or enslaved, leaving the village deserted.
When such a thing would happen our ancestors would leave the area alone for an undetermined amount of time, to let the place heal spiritually and deeming it xe’xe. While the village was vacant the hwulunitim arrived.
Some have said that there was a meeting between hwulmuhw musttimuhw and hwulunitum where the story of the raid was told. During this meeting the settlers left the meeting under the impression that the village had been abandoned due to the raid, and that the land was free to be occupied.
Supposedly this is where the “lake of the dead” or “cursed lake” theory comes in. However when we look around in history we can see lots of places the hwunitums deemed places of the dead. Hwulmuhw left bodies in trees, under stones, and on select islands. This practice was foreign to the settlers, and somehow convinced them that these places were unoccupied and just abandoned villages.
These old stories are so powerful, they show us where we are and how we are connected to the land.
Thank you again for giving me this chance to share.
Huy tseep q’u siem nu siiye’yu,
Thank you my respected friends, Qwustenuxun, grandson of Qwustanulwut
Hul’q’umi’num – the language of the Cowichan people
hwulmuhw musttimuhw – First Nations people
hwulunitum – non-First Nations people
Quw’utsun – Cowichan
Semmelth – Statloth’s son
Showe’luqun – Shawnigan
Statloth – an old Sannich chef’s name
stl’elequm – a monster
stqeeyu’ – wolf
Stutsun – One of the first ancestors to fall from the sky
Syalutsa – One of the first ancestors to fall from the sky
xe’xe – Sacred or holy