am witness


The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (sqʷχʷúʔməʃ) or Squamish are an indigenous people of southwestern British Columbia, a part of the Salishan-speaking people. They speak the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language, which is a part of the Coast Salish linguistic grouping. When translated, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh renders into the people of the sacred water, referencing what they believe is the water in their territory and its spiritual healing properties. Their traditional territory covers the Indian Arm, along Burrard Inlet, through False Creek then English Bay and Point Grey serving as the southern border. From here, it continued northward to Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast, up the Howe Sound. The northern part included the Squamish, Cheakamus, Elaho and Mamquam rivers. Up the Cheakamus River it included land past Whistler, British Columbia. Their people live mostly in seven communities in West Vancouver, North Vancouver, and near the town of Squamish.

Their history, literature, law, and other knowledge were transmitted by oral tradition across generations without a writing system, and today forms the fundamental source for most of their history. Stories of supernatural events, creatures, and people along with stories of ancestors were passed on through oral tradition. This continued until after contact with Europeans in 1791, when drastic changes began to occur for their people and culture. Later much of the remaining oral tradition was collected by anthropologists and ethnographers, but much of the culture is still passed on orally too. Before official contact, in the 1770s, foreign diseases devastated much of the population. For decades following, more diseases, including influenza, reduced the population significantly. This, along with the influx of new foreigners, usurpation of their ancestral lands, and later policies of assimilation by the Canadian government, caused a significant shift in their culture.

Historically they lived in villages in communal houses made out of cedar poles and planks. These longhouses would be home to extended kinship families, with different branches of a family living in different quarters of the house. Permanent homes would be built during the winter months where most life was occupied either in ceremony or living in the house with minimal travel. In the springtime, families would begin work to gather resources and food and start traveling to resource sites to provide food, fiber, and other materials for their families. They would travel by dugout cedar canoes to other locations and live there during the warmer months. Fishing, hunting, trapping, gathering, and berry picking would sustain families as they began to preserve foods for the winter months to come. The summer would also be marked by travel to neighbouring nations to visit relatives and attend large events called potlatchs.


Oral tradition

Oral tradition transmits history, literature, law and other knowledges across generations without a writing system, and forms the basis for most of their history. The passing on of this history is regarded as the "responsible duty of responsible elders making those who possessed the knowledge, were regarded as aristocrats. Like other Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, they have stories of the "Transformer" brothers who went around the world transforming things and people. Other stories transmitted through generations are of ancestral characters doing things or involved in events. Oral tradition and history is continued to be passed on in this form, and events are still recorded through oral tradition.


During the 1770s, smallpox (variola major) eradicated at least 30 percent of the indigenous population on the Northwest coast of North America, including many Skwxwu7mesh. This disease was one of the most deadly that hit the region over the next 80 to 100 years. During the 80 year period from the 1770s to 1850, smallpox, measles, influenza, and other diseases had killed many villages and communities. In oral histories that survived, describes the 1770s epidemic. An "aged informant" of the Sḵwxwú7mesh, in the 1890s, related the history of a catastrophic illness to ethnographer Charles Hill-Tout. He wrote:
“[A] dreadful misfortune befell them. … One salmon season the fish were found to be covered with running sores and blotches, which rendered them unfit for food. As the people depended very largely upon these salmon for their winter’s food supply, they were obliged to catch and cure them as best they could, and store them away for food. They put off eating them till no other food was available, and then began a terrible time of sickness and distress. A dreadful skin disease, loathsome to look upon, broke out upon all alike. None were spared. Men, women, and children sickened, took the disease and died in agony by hundreds, so that when the spring arrived and fresh food was procurable, there was scarcely a person left of all their numbers to get it. Camp after camp, village after village, was left desolate. The remains of which, said the old man, in answer by my queries on this, are found today in the old camp sites or midden-heaps over which the forest has been growing for so many generations. Little by little the remnant left by the disease grew into a nation again, and when the first white men sailed up the Squamish in their big boats, the tribe was strong and numerous again”
The epidemic of the 1770s was the first and the most devastating more to follow. During the next few decades other damaging outbreaks would attack this area. A smallpox epidemic in 1800-1801, influenza in 1836-1837, measles in 1847-1848, smallpox again in 1862.


In 1791, with Spanish Captain Jose Maria Narvaez and British Captain George Vancouver, first contact was made between the Sḵwxwú7mesh and Europeans. European expansion during the fur-trade, gold rush, and subsequent colonization policies by the Canadian government ushered a new way of life and place for the Sḵwxwú7mesh. In the early history of Vancouver, these people were the majority, but in a manner of a few years, they quickly fell to a small minority, both because of more diseases, displacement from land, and rising European and Asian populations.

In the early 1800s, the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Langley was the first major trader. During this time, much trade went on between the people and Fort Langley. In 1858–59 the Fraser Gold Rush brought in more foreign settlers to their territory, but most major settlement did not begin until after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, bringing more foreigners from eastern Canada. During the time of construction of the railway, the treaty process by the Canadian government was attempting to settle land issues across the Prarires, but in 1876 the Indian Act was passed, and in the Joint Indian Reserve Commiision, plots of land or Indian reserves, were cordoned designating the native population to specific areas, managed and control by Indian agents from the Department of Northern and Indian Affairs. At the time, numerous reserves were plotted out from already existing village sites, and then assigned or ratified chiefs over these reserves.

During this time some reserve lands were sold off from the respective families and chiefs, both illegally and legally. One instance was the case of Kitsilano Indian Reserve, the location of which was Senakw, where portions of the reserve were expropriated, both in 1886, and again in 1902. Families were forced into leaving, and promised pay for the "sale". The families that lived in the village were placed on a barge and sent out to sea, with the intent for them to move up to the Squamish River area. It wasn't until 1923 when the reserve chiefs amalgamated into becoming the singular Squamish Band to manage all reserves.

In 1906, a delegation of chiefs from British Columbia, traveled to London to seek an audience with King Edward VII regarding the land confiscated by the government of Canada with the reserve system. Joe Capilano traveled with Cowichan Chief Charley Isipaymilt and Secwepemc Chief Basil David, but their requests to see the King were denied.

Assimilation and discrimination

Sḵwxwú7mesh have experienced oppression, displacement, and cultural assimilation attempts with a series of attempts at conquering by the Canadian government and foreign Settlers. This was ushered through the theft of land, displacement from economic resources, and resulted in cultural identity and language loss. Through all of this, they have held on strong ties to their cultural and currently engage in many cultural revivial initiatives.


The vegetation of their homeland is a dense temperate rain forest, formed up of conifers with a spread of maple and alder, as well as large areas of swampland. The trees are typical coast British Columbia mix of Douglas-fir, Western red cedar and Western Hemlock;. The largest trees of old growth forest were around the Burrard Inlet and around the slopes of Senakw and present day False Creek area. This abundance in natural resources fueled their affluent culture.

Their territory Sḵwxwú7mesh extends over 673,540 hectares. On the southern part, it includes the Indian Arm, along Burrard Inlet, through False Creek then English Bay and Point Grey serving as the border southward. From here, it moved northward to Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast, up the Howe Sound. Then the northern part included the Squamish, Cheakamus, Elaho and Mamquam Rivers. Up the Cheakamus River it included land past Whistler, British Columbia.

Sḵwxwú7mesh territory also overlaps with the territories of neighboring indigenous peoples. Their land was situated on shared territory between Xwméthkwyiem, Tseil-waututh, Shishalh, and Lil'wat (main southern branch of the St'at'imc). In their language, the Tseil-waututh are Sel’it’wetulh, the Shishalh are the Shishá7lh, the Xwméthkwyiem are Xwmets'kwiyam, and the Lil'wat are xwels. Roberts Creek, on the Sunshine Coast, is considered the boarder with the Shishalh. They are culturally similar, but politically different from their kin, the Tseil-waututh. A large portion of Sḵwxwú7mesh territory is shared with the Lil'wat. Through family inter-marriage and the land rights that sometimes came with it, many places for resource gathering were shared.

Vancouver and adjacent municipalities are located within their territory, making the Sḵwxwú7mesh one of the few indigenous peoples in Canada to have communities near or in metropolitan area's. Of the 673,540 km, currently 0.4230% of this is reserve land allotted to the Squamish Nation. It is on these reserves that most of the current communities exist.


Sḵwx̱wú7mesh are populated in villages throughout their territory. Historically they lived in numerous villages through the Burrard Inlet, Howe Sound, and Squamish region, but current live on 7 different villages. The rest are all historical sites and considered "village-sites." Historically each village was populated by numerous longhouses, with the longhouse being home to many families. One house in the village of Xwáýxway was recorded in 1880s at being 60 meters long and near 20 meters wide, and 11 families were said to live in the house. This is considered quite large. The size of villages varied from a handful of houses to large communities with dozens of houses. The largest villages were along the Burrard Inlet, False Creek, Howe Sound, and Squamish River.

Pre-contact times they also sometimes had multiple village sites for living. During the winter months, they would travel up river, and in the sumer months, come down for economic resources to be gathered. There were exceptions to this with some villages being occupied throughout the whole year. These camp sites proved valuable for resources, like food or mineral deposits, and multiple families with travel to these places. Other camp sites were safe havens in time of need if weather did not permit travel on the water because of rough waters.

Below is a list of villages, both present and past, their reserve designation, and other information.

Sḵwxwú7mesh place-name International Phonetics Alphabet Translation Indian Reserve location Location English
Eslha7an /əsɬaʔan/ Head-bay Mission Indian Reserve No.6 North Vancouver Ustlawn, Eslahan, Uslawn
X̱wemelch'stn /xʷəməltʃ’stn/ Swift rolling water of fish Capilano Indian Reserve No.5 West Vancouver (near Lions Gate Bridge) Homulchesan, Whulmechosan
Chi'ch'elxwikw' /tʃiʔtʃ’əlxʷikʷ’/(?) Village near the narrows Seymour Creek Indian Reserve No.2 North Vancouver (near Second Narrows Bridge) (No English name)
X̱wáýx̱way /xʷajxʷaj/ Place of masks Lumbermans Arch, Stanley Park Whoi-whoi, Qwhy-qwhy, Kwoi kwoi, Quoiquoi
Senakw /sənakʷ/ Inside village Kitsilano Indian Reserve No.6 Kitsilano (Near Vanier Park) Snauq, Snawk
Schenks /stʃənks/ Chekwelp Indian Reserve No.26A Gibsons, British Columbia Schenks
Chekwelhp /tʃəkʷəɬp/ Chekwelp Indian Reserve No.26 Gibsons, British Columbia Chekwelp
K'ik'elx̱n /k’ik’əlxn/ Little fort Kaikalahun Indian Reserve No.25 Port Mellon I.R. No.24 Kaikalahun
Kywetin /kjwətin/ Kowtain Indian Reserve No.17 Squamish, British Columbia) Kowtain
Yekw'apsem /jəkʷ’apsəm/ Yekwaupsum Indian Reserve No.18 Yekwaupsum
Wiwkem /wiwkəm/ Waiwakum Indian Reserve No.14 Brackendale, British Columbia (Squamish, British Columbia) Waiwakum
Chiyakmesh /tʃijakməʃ/ People of the fish weir Cheakamus Indian Reserve No.11 Brackendale, British Columbia (Squamish, British Columbia) Cheakamus
T'ekw'takwemey /t’əkʷ’takʷəməj/ Place of thimbleberry bushes (No English name)
Ch'wkech'ekts /tʃ’wkətʃ’əkts/ (No English name)
Puyam /pujam/ Blackened from smoke Puyam
Tsitsusem /tsitsusəm/ Potlatch Creek, (Howe Sound) (No English name)
St'a7mes /staʔməs/ Stawamus Indian Reserve No. 24 Below Stawamus Chief Mountain Stawamus



The leadership is grouped with each family having a siyam, which translates to, a highly respected person. This person would act in the best interest of his family, and make decision based on the group consensus of the family he represented, or best described as "...the best talker - not chairman, (our people) have no chairman -- but man who says the most wise things". Then through potlatching, his status among the villages, and other Indigenous nations, would rise in respect based on how many characteristics of a noble person. These characteristics would be humbleness, respect, generosity, and wisdom. The wealth of these individuals, and their family, is based on how resources they give away, not how much they collect.

Social structure

The Skwxu7mesh class structure is similar to other Coast Salish. Unlike European class structure, characterized as a pyramid, Sḵwxwú7mesh classes were structured in a manner similar to an inverted pear. Nobility, aristocrats, and the like were the most populated, with commons make a sizable but smaller portion of society compared to the nobility. The smallest group were slaves, held only by high ranking nobles.

The nobility was recognized by three ways; the amount of wealth distributed amongst the people, how much one or ones family emulates the values of the people, the knowledge through history, traditions, and culture and the sharing of those, and knowledge of skills, whether practical or spiritual.

The distribution of wealth was the most regarded and most practiced by high ranking and wealthy families. This distribution of wealth takes place with the potlatching or through the display of values celebrated in the culture such as generosity, humbleness and respect. Some families come from nobility because of connection to spiritual powers or ceremonialism. Shamans, prophets and medicine doctors were also considered nobility because of the training and expertise they possessed. Some jobs or positions, taken up by members of the community, also signified members of this class. These jobs and positions would be things related to the mountain goat, like hunting and weaving of mountain goat wool blankets. Before contact commoners or slaves could rise through the ranks to one day also become nobility through this system.

In emulating the values of the culture, of respect for each other, wisdom or knowledge to be passed on in teachings, and generosity of ones own wealth. In Western concepts of wealth, the poor are regarded by those who have nothing. Andy Paull noted, "It was the duty of the more responsible Indians to see that the history and traditions of our race were properly handed down to posterity. A knowledge of our history and legends was similar as an education is regarded among whitemen. Those who possessed it were regarded as aristocrats. Those who were indifferent, whether adults or children, were rascals. Being without means of transmitting it into writing, much time was spent by the aristocrats in importing this knowledge to the youth. It was the responsible duty of responsible elders.

A practice historically done by Sḵwxwú7mesh was a custom called flat-foreheading. Infants heads would be placed in a wooden bust model of his head and shoulders to transform the shape of their head into something more "flat". This would a sign of nobility and considered attractive. The last Sḵwxwú7mesh to do this practice was Tim Moody.



In Sḵwxwú7mesh society, many things are considered property which are not in European societies. This included names, stories, ceremonies, and songs. These notions of property are similar to those considered under modern intellectual property law. Other property included fishing spots and hunting trap lines, as well as berry patches, canoes, and works of art. Through this, rights to places to hunt, fish, or gather food, could be added in marriage with people from other villages or nations. Names are property of a somewhat different kind. Names, given to a young person after going through rites of passage, would most likely be taken from a deceased ancestor of the same family. Before given this name, children would be given nick names or pet names which would hold until they attained a ancestral name. These names are considered important as many have been passed down through generations. It is through this that only blood connection to the ancestor can names be passed down. Places and resources are also considered property, though in a much less clearly defined way than is found in the European legal tradition. Locations typically did not carry clearly drawn bounded lines, although sometimes certain landmarks serve as boundary markers. Ownership of places is usually correlated with a valuable resource in that location rather than overt physical characteristics. Usually the resources in question are food sources, such as salmon streams, herring spawning grounds, berry patches, and fishing holes.

Family and kinship

The Sḵwxwú7mesh kinship is based on a loose patrilineal structure, with large extended families and communal village life. Numerous villages populated the territory, with each village holding many longhouses. Each longhouse was a community in itself, with a number of related families living in the same home. The number of families varied with size of the house. During the warmer and gathering seasons, there would be numerous fires within each house for each family. During the winter season, one fire was used for ceremonies and spiritual work taking place in the house.

Historically, marriage would occur through either arranged marriage, or the groom proposing to the father of the prospecting wife. If a father endorsed the marriage, he would invite the groom into his house after a trial conducted on the young man. Polygamy was also practiced, but only the most wealthy individuals would practice this.


Historical and cultural context

Through their history, their culture has gone through a great deal of change in the past few hundred years since contact and colonization started. The history of the Residential Schools and the potlatch ban was a part where the Canadian government tried to exterminate their cultural practices. This caused decades of effects with the near extinction of their language, the assimilation into mainstream Western society, and inter-generational trauma. Despite these points in their history, much of their culture is still intact. Some parts of their culture are nonexistent but historical, some parts have changed because of the modern world, and some parts are cultural occurrences but are not historical in a "pre-contact" sense.

Customs and daily life

Skwxwu7mesh daily life is revolved around the village community. Before contact, a village would consist of multiple dwellings called Longhouses, which would hold a large extended family. Within a typical longhouse, different branches of an extended family would operate in different parts of the house. A standard house would be 30 feet wide, 40 feet long and from 19-13 feet high, but they could vary in size depending on how big the family was. Within their territory many villages lived near resource or culturally significant places. Kinship ties would connect each of the villages, and neighboring indigenous nations. Salmon was the main staple of food, found at one time to be in abundance in the area. Other seafood such as herring, shell-fish, and seal. Berries and plant roots also filled the diet. This made up the basis of daily life.

In large longhouses festivities and ceremonies take place. Things such as naming ceremonies, funerals, memorials for the deceased, weddings, and spiritual events, happen in their longhouses. Elaborate events called a "potlatch", a word meaning to give that comes from the Chinook Jargon, is where a host or host family invites guests to participate in societal events. A persons position in the community is based on how much they gave of themselves to their people. As such, potlatches are hosted where gifts and material wealth is shared with the community. Food is prepared and a large feast is given to the community. All the foods ate by their ancestors are considered "traditional foods", and are usually accompanied in the feast celebrating their indigenous culture. It was this event that was banned and made illegal by the Canadian government from 1884 to 1951. During that time, their ceremonies and events went underground, only to be revived years later.

Prior to contact, travel was primarily done by canoe. Large cedar tree's are cut down and carved into a single cedar dug-out canoe.. Families would travel to different villages or nations to visit their relatives, or in the summer months journey to resource rich camping sites to gather food and materials for the colder winter months. In 1992 the construction and revitalization of the canoe culture came back when they construct an ocean-travel canoe. This canoe is measured at 52 feat and was carved from a single cedar tree. Since that time multiple canoes have been carved, either for single family use, or community-wide use.



The Sḵwxwú7mesh snichim, or Sḵwxwú7mesh language, is the ancestral language of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people. It's considered an important part of cultural revitalization. Although nearing language extinction, it's still used in ceremonies, events, and basic conversation among some. With the language dead, as in no children learning it as a first language and all language speakers over the age of 65, much work is being done to preserve and revitalize it. The language is part the Coast Salish linguistic group, and most closely related to Sháshíshálh (Sechelt), and Sḵ'emin'em (Halkomelem) and Xwsa7km,(Lhéchalosem). Many anthropologists and linguists have worked with Sḵwxwú7mesh people and their language including Franz Boas, Charles Hill-Tout, Homer Barnett, and Aert J. Kuipers.

Since the late 1800s the language has had a history. Before contact, it was the prominent language of all the villages, along with the Chinook Jargon. Most children would learn Chinook as a first language because it was so basic, then Sḵwxwú7mesh language as they become older. After the spread of diseases causing massive population drops and colonizations of their territory, the language became a minority language in their lands. When the Canadian government enforced an assimilationist policies regarding their culture and language, a Residential School were set up in the village of Eslha7an with children coming from many Skwxwu7mesh villages, plus some Church officials sending children to another school in Sechelt. The school, a home for many children 10 months out of the year, were forbade to speak their language. Any children speaking the language were punished and beaten. This cause a deep resentment about speaking the language, and so the next generation grew up without any knowledge of their native-tongue.

Over the years, English became the prominent language. Then during the 1960s, a great deal of documentation and work took place to help in the revitalization. The BC Language Project with Randy Bouchard and Dorthy Kennedy undertook more documentation and were the main collaborators on this project. They devised the present writing system that is used for the Sḵwxwú7mesh language. Eventually local Elementary and a High School included language classes as opposed to the normal French language option. A children's school called Xwemelch'stn Estimxwataxw School, meaning Xwmelch'stn Littleones School, with grades Kindergarten to 3, was built to assist in language immersion, with plans to expand it into a full immersion programed school.

Food and cuisine


Their geographical territory was abundant in rich food sources from land animals to sea life and plants and animals. For game, deer, bear, elk, duck, swan, and small rodents such as squirrel. With ocean food it was mussels, sea eggs, cockles, clams, seaweed, herring, trout, crab, urchin, sea lion, seal, all kinds of salmon. For berries and plants, it was different kinds of wild blueberry, blackberry, salmon berry, slalal berry, five different kinds of grass and the roots of different plants. Ooligan's were once in their river system and Ooligan grease was once made from it. Sea food, particularly salmon was their main staple. It was this abundance of sea food and salmon that their diet was considerably heavy on natural fats and oils. This left relatively small amounts of carbohydrates in the diet. To ensure that essentials vitamins are acquired, they eat almost all parts of animals which they harvest. Bones used for soup stock provide leached calcium, as do ground calcined shells. Vitamin A is obtained from liver. Vitamin C is primarily found in berries and some other plants, such as skunk cabbage leaves. Bone marrow provides valuable iron and vitamin D. Intestines and stomachs can be eaten to provide vitamin E and the vitamin B complexes. Recent shifts away from a traditional diet, relatively low in carbs and sugar has led to a pletora of health problems in the present day Sḵwxwú7mesh community. Diabetes and cholesterol run high compared to North American averages.


As the most important food staple, salmon had esteemed respect within Sḵwxwú7mesh culture. At a yearly springtime Thanksgiving Ceremony or First Salmon Ceremony, specially prepared fish was made for community gatherings. After the community feasted, they would follow a time-honored ritual as they returned the bones to the water. A story recounts how the salmon come to the Sḵwxwú7mesh people; the salmon have their own world, and an island far out in the ocean. They appear every year to sacrifice themselves to feed the people, but the people asked that after the people are done with them, they return the salmon bones back to the ocean so they can come back.

Salmon was caught using a variety of methods, the most common being the fishing weir. These traps allowed skilled hunters to easily spear a good amount of fish with little effort. Fish weirs were regularly used on the Cheakamus River, which takes its name from the village of Chiyakmesh. This translates into People of the Fish Weir, denoting the weir utilized in this area. This method of fishing required extensive cooperation between the men fishing and the women on the shore doing the cleaning.

In the past, salmon would be roasted over fires and eaten fresh, or dried for preservation. Using smoke over alder or hemlock fires preserved salmon so it could be stored for up two years. It could be soaked in water and prepared for eating. Over time, this evolved into a method preserving salmon through canning. Canned salmon are jarred or pickled, then stored for winter months.

Notable Sḵwxwú7mesh

See also



  • Barman, Jean. Stanley Park's Secrets. Habour Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978155074205.
  • Mathews, Major J.S. Conversations with Khahtsahlano, 1932-1954. Out-of-Print, 1955. ASIN: B0007K39O2.
  • Clark, Ella E. Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest. University of California Press, 2003. ISBN 0520239261.
  • Hill-tout, Charles. "Salish People: Volume II: the Squamish and the Lillooet". Talonbooks, 1978. ISBN 0889221499
  • Efron, Sarah. Squamish Speakers Keep Language Alive Georgia Straight. Retrieved January, 28th, 2008.
  • First Heritage Archaeological Consulting Squamish Traditional Study - Retrieved April 15, 2008

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