Language & Culture
Members of the Esquimalt Nation are part of the Lekwungen peoples, belonging to the Coast Salish language group.
Traditional territories were centred in, and around, what is now the City of Victoria, and its environs. Known to have hunted, fished, and gathered across the southern portions of Vancouver Island and the lower Gulf and San Juan islands, these peoples also travelled to the coastal areas of the Lower Mainland and northwestern Washington State. Oral histories, legends and traditional place names exist that speak to Esquimalt Nation’s use of these traditional territories.
The Victoria (Matoolia) area was divided into five territories. These lands essentially belonged to settlements that were made up of extended families. Though some overlapped in places, they were as follows: Tsuli’lhchu, around Mount Douglas (P’q’a’ls); Cheko’nein, around Cadboro Bay; Chikowetch, around Oak Bay; Swenghwung, around James Bay; and Xwsepsum (sometimes spelled Kosapsum) in what is now called Esquimalt. Though each sche’chu (family) had its own territory, they all spoke the same language, Lekwungen. Lekwungen, which used to be called Songish, is similar to the Saanich, Lummi, Samish, and Sooke languages. They are dialects of what linguists call the Straits Salish language.
There were many families living around what is now Victoria, Esquimalt and Saanich. Each family lived together in villages, sqw’uqw’unukwul. Each sqw’uqw’unukwul had several longhouses (chuqew’thw). Children lived with their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents in a single large chuqew’t-hw. The neighbouring homes were more distant relations, or sche’le’chu (one family is sche’chu, more than one is sche’le’chu). For as long as our parents, grandparents and great‐grandparents could remember, knowing who we are and knowing the importance of being quiet, brought gifts and understanding. Speaking of our relationship with all living things, Chief Andrew Thomas said:
“Until we start to reach our young people so that they know how to use those mountains; how to use that beach again. Listen to the birds. Listen to the water. Listen to the winds. They all got something for all of us, each and every one of us.”
Together, a family owned a large territory, shhwule’e’, where they would hunt, trap game, and harvest food and medicine from the plants. Sqw’uqw’unukwul (villages — one village is sqw’unukwul) were almost always on the shore, giving sche’le’chu (families) access to clams, fish, and seals. They also owned reefnet sites at locations where schools of migrating salmon would pass close to the shore. Our ancestors, including Si’sunuq, understood that survival meant learning our responsibilities to all living things; a complex relationship that continues today. In speaking about these complex relationships, Chief Thomas referred to these as "self-government" and said:
“…respect...and accept us for who we are. Let us be who we are. Let us get that fish out there. Let us get that deer and those ducks. Because it’s a part of us. We have laws that govern our relationship to the land, the water and the resources.”
Some sqw’uqw’unkwul were winter villages. In the summer time, extended families often dispersed in smaller groups throughout the area to hunt and harvest elsewhere. When they did this they either set up small temporary camps with tents made from reed mats, or they would take down the plank walls of their Bighouses and move them to summer village locations. Only the supporting beams of the Bighouse remained when they did this, including qequn, house posts. These canoe trips often took our people to territories owned by other sche’le’chu (families), some as far away as the mainland or down into Puget Sound. Those sche’le’chu shared the resources of their lands, and in return they would come to this area to reefnet, hunt and harvest foods at other times of the year.
In the winter, people from neighbouring nations would often visit each other’s winter dances (smilhu) and ceremonial feasts (stl’e’eshun). Since there were strict rules against marrying people from within your own community, because they were related, dances and feasts gave regular opportunities to reconnect with sche’le’chu, families and friends, the way smilhu and stl’e’eshun still do today.