We managed our affairs according to our traditional laws for thousands of years before the arrival of the hwunitum (white people). At first we welcomed the hwunitum to our shores. We were glad to sell them our furs and fish at the settlements they established, first at Fort Langley, then at Victoria. In return, we purchased wonderful new merchandise: tools, clothing, guns, and more.
However, we soon learned that these hwunitum would cost us dearly in other ways. First, they brought new diseases amongst us. Smallpox, measles and other sicknesses, previously unknown to us, carried away 90% our people. Many Cowichan houses became empty. At one point, only about 1000 members survived. Sadly, we lost many of our most important and knowledgeable Elders. Imagine what it would be like if 9 out of every 10 people you knew were to die within a generation.
The hwunitum settlement at Victoria, established in 1843, began to grow. Sir James Douglas, the Governor of the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island in the 1850's, followed British government policy when he negotiated treaties with several First Nations on Vancouver Island, near Victoria, Nanaimo and Fort Rupert. Although it is recorded that he recognized that we Cowichan held title to our territory, and Cowichan was prepared to negotiate a treaty, the government would not make one with us.
Soon, the hwunitum settlers wanted to live in our lands. First the missionaries came. Then, in 1853, and again in 1856, Douglas came to our lands with gunboats, soldiers, and cannons to show their military might. They saw the rich lands of the Cowichan Valley – our homelands – and wanted it for themselves. In 1862, 100 hwunitum settlers, accompanied by a gunboat, arrived in the Cowichan Valley to take some of our lands. Governor Douglas accompanied them, and promised our Cowichan ancestors that they would be paid for the land the hwunitum settler occupied. The gunboat kept watch in Cowichan Bay. However, Governor Douglas’ promise to us remains dishonoured to this day.
After 1862, more and more hwunitum settlers came to live in our territory. All our petitions to Governor Douglas and his successors, demanding that they keep their promises to us, were ignored. As time passed, the hwunitum came to believe that they owned our lands. They ‘set aside’ a small part of our lands, made Reserves for us. They said the rest of our territory was theirs.