Tsawwassen Culture

It is held by the Coast Salish that the Creator made the world and all its creatures. He also made groups of people in four areas of the Lower Mainland, with mystical leaders, known as transformers, from each group. Traveling from village to village the transformers would change people, objects and animals into different forms. One transformer, known as Khaals, arrived at Boundary Bay. The legend of his encounter with the Tsawwassen people is still told today. According to the legend, Tsawwassen Bluff was once an island — a geographical fact.

We are a proud, sea-faring Coast Salish people. For thousands of years, we traveled and fished the waterways of the southern Strait of Georgia and lower Fraser River, visiting all Canadian and U.S. Gulf Islands.

Traditional Tsawwassen territory is bordered on the northeast by the watersheds that feed into Pitt Lake, down Pitt River to Pitt Meadows where they empty into the Fraser River. It includes Burns Bog and part of New Westminster, following the outflow of the river just south of Sea Island. From Sea Island it cuts across the Strait to Galiano Island and includes all of Saltspring, Pender and Saturna islands. From there, the territory continues northeast to include the Point Roberts peninsula, and the watersheds of the Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers. We have never surrendered this territory.

In earlier times, we organized ourselves in extended families living together in one longhouse. Inside, each family, including grandparents and other relatives, had its own designated space. In summer, our ancestors lived in temporary homes, built with poles and woven cedar mats. People traveled about our territory in cedar canoes.

The Tsawwassen people did not construct large totem poles, carving instead decorative house posts, spindle whorls as well as masks, decorated tools and many other objects of art. Clothing was woven from material such as cedar bark and goat hair.

Our ancestors were accomplished fishers, and salmon and sturgeon were mainstays of our traditional diet. Different methods were used to catch sturgeon: tidal traps, gaff-hooking, sack-netting and harpooning. All kinds of clams, oysters, crabs and other shellfish were harvested along the foreshore. Stewardship was closely linked to harvesting; an example of that was the First Salmon ceremony, when the salmon returned every year. The salmon, it was believed, were supernatural beings, who came every year to give their flesh to the people who were obliged to treat them properly. The salmon were cooked in a special way and their bones carefully returned to water in a sacred ritual. This ceremony is still carried out today.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of fishing in the lives of our ancestors and our community today. Salmon and many other species of fish were a central part of the diets of all Coast Salish peoples.

Our ancestors used the lands for cultivation to produce food products for themselves and others, for example in the production of camas bulbs, cranberries and medicinal plants.

Our ancestors were skilled hunters, too. Waterfowl — ducks, mallards and loons — as well as sea mammals such as porpoises, seals and sea lions formed part of their diet. The tidal flats at Westham Island and Boundary Bay were a favorite duck-hunting area.

Elk, deer, black bear and beaver were hunted in season, supplementing the regular diet of fish. Deer were caught in nets, with bow and arrow and pitfall traps. Deer-hunting areas included English Bluff, the south side of Lulu Island and the area now known as New Westminster.

Ancient Tsawwassen people greatly relied on western red and yellow cedar, which provided homes, firewood, food, tools for carving and cooking, great ocean-going canoes, clothing and ceremonial gear. Other plants, shells from inter-tidal creatures, bones from land and sea mammals and birds, and skins from bear, deer and elk provided other essential materials.

Food was abundant. A trade and barter system was in place. Specialized services were also exchanged. This resulted in a distinctive craftsmanship that was in existence prior to European contact.

Tsawwassen people participated in potlatches — important cultural events which provided the means for our ancestors to standardize critical information about marriages, deaths, and the ownership of names, songs, dances, and other ceremonial and economic privileges.

We had, and continue to have, laws and systems based on our culture and relationships with our lands and resources. We had, and continue to have, our system of self-government — hereditary institutions that determined our citizenship as well as our economic, cultural and political well-being.

Our colonial reserve, established in 1871, is located on a traditional village site. Here, we fished, hunted and gathered a rich variety of foods. At the onset of winter, our ancestors returned to the cedar longhouses in the winter village and focused on ceremonies exclusive to Coast Salish peoples.

More than 126 species of birds visited Tsawwassen territory last year. Huge flocks of migrating shorebirds, raptors and waterfowl arrive each spring and fall. Thousands of ducks, geese, western sandpipers, dunlin, plovers and many other shorebird species fly south in the fall along the Pacific Flyway, from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra to their wintering wetlands in Central and South America, and then make the return journey in the spring. Many of these birds make journeys of over 10,000 kilometers, flying for up to 70 hours (1,000 km) at a time.