Jan. 14, 2022

Vancouver Island names have many Indigenous origins

Historians have been telling glowing stories about Snuneymuxw Chief Coal Tyee, who introduced the first settlers to the coal in abundance here. That discovery played a large part in the creation of the first village here.

But in the eyes of modern-day Snuneymuxw he’s a villain. Some present-day Snuneymuxw members see Chief Coal Tyee as a traitor for inviting and bringing in colonializing European settlers.

That has led the school board to look at changing the name of Coal Tyee school and has a committee looking into a possible name change.

This initiative to attach new names to well-known areas and landmarks got me thinking how some of the Indigenous names came into being, even though Anglicized in spelling and pronunciation. My curiousity led me to Google.

We won’t have to change the Nanaimo city letterheads any time soon. But the naming of Nanaimo is an interesting story.

The first Europeans here were members of the 1791 Spanish voyage of Juan Carrasco. They gave it the name Bocas de Winthuysen after naval officer Francisco Javier Winthuysen y Pineda. Thank goodness when the Hudson's Bay Company established a settlement in 1852, they named it Colvile Town after HBC governor Andrew Colvile.

In 1858 it became Nanaimo, a modernization of Snuneymuxw. There are various translations meaning “a big, strong tribe” or a “great and mighty people.” 

Cowichan appears safe from a name change. “Quw'utsun,” was the name given by its original inhabitants, the Quw'utsun people. It is rooted in the Hul'q'umi'num word “shquw'utsun” meanings “to warm one's back in the sun,” and is why The Cowichan Valley is known as The Warm Land. 

Qualicum is a Straits Salish word meaning "where the dog salmon run”. I love the original spelling – “Xwkwa’luxwum”. Try that with a mouth full of marbles. Pentlatch is a Salish language related to the Hul’qumi’num language where early settlers first heard of the Qualicum area from local Indigenous people in Nanaimo who told stories a trail that led to the West Coast of the Island.

For thousands of years the Coast Salish people inhabited the Saanich Peninsula. In the 1850s the Saanich Peninsula was bought from the Coast Saanich people for 386 wool blankets. Saanich is derived from the Native word meaning “elevated” or “upraised”, possibly describing what Mount Newton looked like when approached by sea from the east.

Malahat comes from the SENĆOŦEN word “MÁLEXEȽ” and Hul'q'umi'num' word “Ma'le-'h'xe'l'”, both of which are derived from the words for caterpillars, a reference to a historic infestation in the area. 

Ucluelet is a Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) word meaning "people of the safe harbour". It was 100 km north of Ucluelet that Captain James Cook first set foot in 1778. Ucluelet is situated on the Ucluth peninsula and has been inhabited by the Yuu-tluth-aht Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ peoples for thousands of years.

Tillicum has a number of spellings, but none so interesting as from  Chinook tilikhum ‘people.’ Commonly spelled “tillicum”, and sometimes pluralized in the English style as tillikums, meaning “person” or “people,” and often has the connotation of a friend, relative or a friend or ally. It usually means those who are not a “tyee” (chief), but rather common people, and can be used to signify one’s social group, band, tribe, or even nation.

Chemainus comes from the native shaman and prophet "Tsa-meeun-is" meaning broken chest. Legend says that the man survived a massive wound in his chest from an arrow in battle to become a powerful chief.

Shawnigan is an adaptation of the Hul'qumi'num name Showe'luqun, for the lake and the village.

Esquimalt is an anglicized version of the First Nation's word “es-whoy-malth,” meaning “the place of gradually shoaling water.” In 1790, the Spanish ship Princesa Real entered Esquimalt Harbour under the command of Lt. Don Manuel Quimper, who named the harbour Puerto de Cordova, thus Cordova Bay.

Sooke is derived from "T'Sou-ke" from the Sook tribe of Straits Salishans. Their name was derived from the SENĆOŦEN language word T'Sou-ke, the name of the species of Stickleback fish that live in the estuary of the river. The T'Sou-ke came into contact with Europeans through the Hudson's Bay Company.

The Snaw-Naw-As people of the Coast Salish First Nations originally referred to the area as "Nanoose", meaning "to work or push inwards", hence Nanoose Bay.

 Comox is derived from the Indian word “Koumuckthay”, meaning “Land of Plenty”. The Port of Comox was founded in the mid-1800's on the slopes of the Comox Peninsula.

And doubtless, many readers will have their own translations and connections to those names.