Many visitors to Victoria, British Columbia, find themselves meandering along the Inner Harbour. On a recent visit, the area was a fizzy commotion of sound and activity as water taxis whizzed by and a group of boisterous teenagers chattered and laughed. I heard the battery drum of propellors from the seaplanes that use the harbor as an airstrip.

In addition to its modern importance to the region, the Victoria Inner Harbour is also culturally and historically significant to the Lekwungen Nation. The Lekwungen, often called the Songhees, is an Indigenous Coast Salish Nation who live in Greater Victoria. The Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations have hunted and gathered in this waterway for millennia.

One of the better ways for visitors to learn about this connection and history in a way that respects Indigenous communities is by letting people tell their own stories.

The Seven Signs of the Lekwungen Tour

learning about first nation history in victoria, british columbia

Photo: Tykesha Burton

The Lekwungen Nation’s connection to this harbor is why the Songhees-led tourism group, Explore Songhees, chose this busy waterway as the departure point for the Seven Signs of the Lekwungen Tour. The excursion traces footprints of the traditional land, and can be experienced as a walking tour or through a cultural canoe tour.

The tour, which operates spring through fall, stops at seven culturally significant locations marked by large bronze spindle whorls. Spindle whorls were traditionally used by Coast Salish women to spin wool and are considered the foundation of their families. Each spindle whorl is uniquely designed. The bronze art is made from castings of original cedar carvings created by Coast Salish artist Butch Dick.

Melissa Barnard and Cyril Morris were the Songhees First Nation Knowledge Keepers and guides for my group’s afternoon walking tour. Barnard started by asking each group member to share their name and hometown. After we completed our side of the introduction, both Barnard and Morris proceeded to bestow a traditional Lekwungen welcome on us.

Our guide then directed our attention to three sidewalk billboards. Barnard explained the historical scenes in the blown-up images of a First Nations canoe race and a traditional Coast Salish bighouse. She expounded on the significant role these homes played in the communal culture of the Songhees people and the detrimental impact forced relocation had on the community. But she also joked that the bighouses were the original mobile homes, since they were made of cedar planks that could be broken down.

After a short ride on a small water taxi, we continued our tour on the other side of the harbor, starting with the importance of the spindle whorl symbols and their connection to each location. At one stop, Morris described a rite of passage ceremony for boys. At the same stop, Barnard shared that the site is significant in the mourning traditions for women.

As we learned the historical significance of each location, the Knowledge Keepers shared their personal and familial stories. They succinctly and poignantly conveyed unvarnished personal accounts of the impact of Indian residential schools, inequities in health care, and many more systemic discriminatory practices the Songhees people have and still endure.

Though challenging at times, our guides could balance the subjects’ weight with a bit of humor. Both Knowledge Keepers excitedly shared that they’d just learned to write the traditional Lekwungen names, and Morris joked that he gets excited every time he gets to whip out his Lekwungen keyboard.

The importance of making connections

Photo: Tykesha Burton

The Seven Signs of the Lekwungen Tour experience isn’t just about hearing stories. It’s also about support. In addition to the walking and canoe tour, visitors can purchase Indigenous art or try a salmon Bannock burger from the Songhees food truck. The company is slated to add a traditional medicine nature walk to the list of offerings in 2023.

Indigenous people in Canada are reclaiming their cultures through the reconciliation process. Explore Songhees is one of 22 Indigenous Experiences led by Indigenous people throughout Canada as part of Destination Indigenous.

At the outset of our tour, we were told that the Songhees Nation’s history is not written.
It is shared through stories. These endowments are handed down from one generation to the next. The knowledge shared during these tours is a gift. If you’re looking to form a meaningful connection with Victoria, or any destination, create space in your itinerary and book an Indigenous tourism activity.