Pre-European Contact

Pre-European Contact

Our oral tradition states the Cowichan Nation occupied and used their territory for thousands of years.

The Cowichan, as well as for other members of the Cowichan Nation, trace their origins to ancestors.  Syalutsa, fell to the earth near Koksilah Ridge and was soon followed by his younger brother Stutsun, who landed atop Swuqus, or Mount Prevost.  Other first ancestors followed, each falling down at specific locations in Cowichan territory.

Cowichan Tribes territory includes the regions of Cowichan lake, the Cowichan and Koksilah River drainages, the regions around Cowichan Bay, Maple Bay, Shawnigan Lake, the southern Gulf Islands, as well as areas on the mainland particularly the region of the south arm of the Fraser River. Cowichan traditional main winter villages included, specifically: Clemclemaluts (Lhumlhumuluts'), Comiakin (Qw'umiyiqun'), Khenipsen (Xinupsum), Kilpahlas (Tl'ulpalus), Koksilah (Xwulqw'selu), Quamichan (Kwa'mutsun), Somenos (S-amuna') and Taitka (T'aa'ka). 

Every year we were assured great riches as the spawning salmon returned to the Cowichan, Koksilah, and other rivers and streams.  Their capture and distribution was carefully managed by our Elders through the use of fish weirs, a gift from the First Ancestor Syalutsa.  The weirs ensured abundant fish for our people to eat, while allowing enough fish to reach the spawning beds to ensure future returns.  Other resources were equally managed with an eye to future abundance.

Our ancestors touched the lands, rivers, and oceans in our territory lightly and with respect.  We used only what nature provided, and only what we needed.  Today, you can walk on ancient village sites and see little evidence of our ancestors’ presence because of this respect for the earth.

We were a large population – some put the estimate at 15,000 – and we were the most powerful tribe on the southern coast of what is now called British Columbia.  We were the undisputed rulers of our territory.  Each summer, a flotilla of Cowichan canoes, along with relatives from neighbouring tribes, traveled up the Fraser River to catch and dry sockeye salmon near Yale.  We had a large summer village on Lulu Island at the mouth of the Fraser River, the site of what is now Vancouver International Airport, and another large village - Tl'uqtinus ('broad chest') at what is now Steveston.  Our homes at the summer camps were made from planks, bound together with leather strips, and we would dismantle them and take them from camp to camp.

The Cowichan of the past, like today, were anchored in our families.  Through kinship, we are related to friends and neighbours throughout our traditional territory.  Traditionally, the basis of Cowichan society was the household, which included members of several related families, all occupying a single longhouse. 

Many households traced their roots back through generations to the original ancestors, thereby earning rights to territory, resources, social, and ceremonial privileges.  The Elders, like today, were our respected leaders.  Each village had a hereditary chief.  Cowichan traditional life was also rooted in spirituality, based on rites and traditions brought by our First Ancestors.  These continue to be honoured and practiced today.

The Cowichan observed an annual round of occupation and resource gathering throughout their territory.  Generally many Cowichan Tribes members would base their winter activities from their villages in Cowichan Bay and in the Cowichan Valley. In the spring they would travel through the Gulf Island to hunt and gather various resources, including herring, salmon, camas, and sea mammals, before moving to village lands on the Fraser River. This is where most would spend many months engaged in fishing, trading, and collecting other resources like reeds and berries before returning to their winter villages.

Some Cowichan people continued to reside throughout the year at the locations in the Gulf Islands and along the lower Fraser River as well as the villages in the Cowichan Valley and Cowichan Bay. 

Cowichan Traditional Villages