Burnt Embers blog: Oak Bay Cairns Mark Songhees History

Cropped screenshot of detail of cairn marking Sahsima, south Oak Bay. Source: Burnt Embers blog; click to visit.

I recently have started following a wonderful new blog called Burnt Embers.  It’s mostly a photo blog of the author’s surroundings – which appear to be deepest south Oak Bay, which is a municipality adjacent to Victoria, B.C. It’s a wealthy municipality not really known for being sensitive to archaeological concerns or First Nations history: for example, it’s the locale of the rather messy Esplanade controversy I documented last year (1, 2, 3).

Anyway, the blogger at Burnt Embers, one “ehpem”, has recently done a great service by bringing to light a series of attractive cairns, emblazoned with art by Tsartlip artist Charles Elliot (Temoseng), which pay tribute to Songhees and Straits Salish places, history, and names.  As ehpem points out, Oak Bay Council has erected these cairns but provides no other information about them, whether on their website or anywhere else.  They’ve  been sort of bolted onto the Oak Bay landscape.  No matter: ehpem has photographed them beautifully and assembled a great series of pages documenting each one and also created a google map which is really handy for getting around from cairn to cairn. The cairns are, in the order which ehpem documents them:

Sahsima – a transformer stone near the Chinese Cemetery.  Sahsima, meaning “harpoon”, was the original name identified by Songhees elder James Fraser for the point where the Chinese Cemetery is located: Hayls the Transformer, with spirit companions, Raven and Mink, came by in his canoe, frightening away the seal the harpooner had been stalking. The harpooner rebuked them, Hayls turned him to stone as he stood there poised to throw the harpoon, saying “You’ll be the boss for seals … from Sooke to Nanaimo.”

Cropped screenshot of photo of Tliwaynung cairn. Source: Burnt Embers blog, click to visit.

Chikawich – “McNeil Bay” (same blog post as above): To the east (left) lies McNeill Bay, called Chikawich, meaning “big hips”, where an early indigenous village was located.

Tliwaynung – “Kitty Islet” : the site of a Songhees camp that was associated with the main village site of Chikawich located further west in the bay. (ehpem asks for information on the archaeological content of this cairn – all I know is it was the site of a small excavation about 1980 under the general direction of Don Mitchell – and – to this day the introductory archaeology field trips at UVic make a visit here.)

Spewhung “Turkey Head”: included on the plaque are names for Chatham Island (Stsnaang) and Discovery Island (Tlchess).

Sitchanalth “Willows Beach”: The indigenous people called Willows Beach Sitchanalth, which according to Songhees elder Ned Williams referred to the drift logs and trees lodged in the sand. ehpem notes the proximity of this cairn to the property at the centre of the Esplanade controversy I mention above.

Sungayka “Loon Bay”:  Cadboro Bay was called Sungayka, meaning “patches of snow.” A village existed here in Loon Bay for at least parts of the last 1500 years. Qoqwialls, a game similar to lacrosse, was played on its shores, and berries were picked nearby.

Thaywun “Bowker Creek”: ehpem notes, “Bowker Creek and it’s salmon run are marked by a cairn on Cadboro Bay Road where Bowker Creek passes beneath it and Foul Bay Road. The cairn is crowded by a narrow sidewalk, businesses and parked cars. It, like Bowker Creek, is walled in and controlled by a modern world in a rush towards prosperity. In some ways this seems like appropriate symbolism for the Songhees First Nation way of life that has been heavily constrained by the settlement of their lands.”

Anderson HillPeople once sat here making stone tools, perhaps while watching for approaching enemies during warfare, or locating groups of sea mammals needed for food. Bulbs of blue camas, valued for food and trade, were gathered in nearby lowlands.

In a related vein, there is a good post on a Songhees history sign a Cattle Point, which includes a rather clever clickable PDF file whereby you can zoom in on the text content.

Clicking on any of the links above takes you to a short piece about each cairn, with photos and the text of the inscription included.  As I noted, there is also an excellent Google Map which shows each cairn’s location – and clicking on the map symbol reveals a picture and a link to the Burnt Embers page. This is a great portal to the cairns: ehpem has done a great service to Oak Bay by consolidating and documenting this excellent commemorative project, making it navigable to locals and accessible to the global community interested in the rich history and contemporary expression of Songhees and Straits Salish culture.  The blogging, in fact, is almost as impressive as the cairn project – which itself is one of the few such projects of explicit recognition of First Nations culture in the Victoria area. (See these posts of mine, for example, 1, 2).

The rest of the blog is also good value, containing some evocative pictures of local events such as Moss Street Market and, as advertised, the author’s surroundings including his blue gate and a complex construction of chain mail, using beer can pull-tabs.  It’s a diverse blog and well worth checking out for local history and beautiful photos.

Cropped screenshot of cairn at Spewhung, Turkey Head. Source: Burnt Embers blog. Click to visit.

5 responses to “Burnt Embers blog: Oak Bay Cairns Mark Songhees History

  1. Thanks so much for covering my blog, and for your kind words. I welcome your readers that link over to look at my pictures and information about each cairn. Feedback is most welcome.


  2. Thanks quentin for posting this. Thanks ehpem, you are good! I like the way you look at your world.

    The cairn project reminds me of something similar that the Ahousaht on Flores Island did in the mid to late 90’s. Together with the Western Wilderness Committee the band developed a trail on Flores Island. http://www.wildsidetrail.com The idea was to encourage tourist to explore the island and provide employment for band members. The other reason was that the area was slated to be logged. Instead the government of that time saw the light and created a Provincial Park. After much of the trail was completed, the elders identified significant historic locations along the trail. Artists were committed to create images and name texts for each location. Unfortunately the material and construction method employed at that time was not permanent enough for the signs to survive long. I have not been back there for a number of years so i do not know if this project has beenupgraded. While it was in place it sure told a story connecting oral history through the images and place names to the location these event s took place.


  3. ehpem – thanks for the comment and the nice blog

    Edgewater – that’s a cool and apt example. Too bad about the non-durable signs although I’ve seen cedar that had been on the ground for almost a century (dated the nurse trees) then have shake blocks cut out of. It’s an incredible wood as you know, and so maybe using good cedar and keeping it elevated might be the answer. Another part of the answer, applicable everywhere, is that putting up the sign is one thing, maintaining it requires longer term planning. ehpehm notes this in the case of the Cattle Point archaeology sign.


    In this genre, I’m also reminded of the kiosks I covered on the blog before:

    It takes so little, really, to create enhanced awareness of the 10,000 years or more of aboriginal history.

    As I quoted on another topic, in an earlier post:

    As of April, 2008, there was still no sign. Acknowledgment of more than 1,000 years of native occupation and use of Beacon Hill Park land is limited to one sentence–sandwiched between information about Roderick Finlayson and a gun emplacement–on a Finlayson Point monument. By contrast, at least thirty-six park monuments, markers and plaques focus on the white culture’s 162 year presence. Nine of those markers honour the British Royal Family.

    (from: https://qmackie.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/camas-and-cairns/ )


  4. Thanks Edgewater – I have wanted to poke around on Flores Island for decades now, but have never had the chance.
    qmackie – in one of my cairn blogs I remark on cairn fatigue which I was definitely suffering from by the end of documenting the Songhees cairns. The fatigue was not from the Songhees cairns – after all there are a limited number of them. It is all the other cairns and memorials that are all over the place, once you open your eyes to see them. For instance, the image you feature at the bottom of your blog is at Turkey Head. That is a very tiny headland, mostly occupied by a car park. Even so, it has the Songhees cairn, a cairn marking the departure of the Tilikum on a voyage around the world (I might blog on that one sometime, its an interesting story), a cairn memorialising two people in the Courtnall family, and plaques on benches and a picnic table in memory of another 9 people. Makes it pretty difficult for one monument to stand out from all the others – they end up blending into the landscape and getting much less attention than anyone of them might deserve, even those marking the British Royal Family’s activities in the area. There must be an academic study lurking in there somewhere, this impetus to scatter bronze and copper plaques at viewpoints all over the place.


  5. ehpem – yes it would be amenable to Anthropological analysis. The Courtnall cairns, ofr example, as material memorials of the dead that have somehow slipped the bounds of the normal memorial space: cemeteries. Equally the other cairns which memorialize exploits. If only there were a mortuary archaeology specialist reading the blog who might be able to put this sort of ineffable sense there is something interesting about the (apparently cross-cultural) urge to pile rocks up in order to make memories / spirits / exploits permanent.

    cf: Giza, Stonehenge, Scowlitz, Turkey Head. Compare and Contrast, showing your work. 5 points.


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