OTHER VOICES: Renaming Siwash Rock a path to authentic past

Renaming Siwash Rock should be the start of new signage throughout the Vancouver area that finally recognizes the region’s authentic, rich history.

Erecting new signs that include First Nations place names will help fuel not only a spirit of reconciliation and inclusiveness for the area’s residents, but also create a more genuine experience for visitors who come here from around the world and seek authenticity. They want to know more about our culture and all the eras of our collective history, not just the most recent 150 years, so changing the signage to include Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh names is a good business decision. Everyone – native and non-native – stands to benefit.

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This region has a history that spans millennia with languages spoken long before Europeans settled here. We have an opportunity to capitalize on thousands of years of fascinating history and culture as we leave behind a dark time of oppression and move forward in unity.

Renaming the iconic rock in Stanley Park is a great start. The Vancouver Parks Board has decided to work with Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations to change the name of Siwash Rock, a Chinook word originating from the French “sauvage,” meaning savage. It’s a derogatory term, and we commend the parks board for deciding to change it.

I was fortunate to be raised with the Skwxwú7mesh language and elders who taught me place names as well as mythology, legends and history. After the efforts to eradicate our heritage, our language is now on the brink of extinction and we are working to revive it. We have only about a dozen fluent speakers of Skwxwú7mesh and have intensified language education in schools and universities. Having signage in Skwxwú7mesh would help us recover our language and share the wealth of a culture that has been buried for decades.

Until the early 1900s, the land that is now called Stanley Park was home to Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh people who were forcibly removed from their villages. The park still includes the remains of our ancestors, who are unearthed every time a shovel goes into the ground. In 2010, the federal heritage minister rejected the renaming of Stanley Park to reflect one of its original villages, Xwayxway. The average person going through Stanley Park learns very little about our three First Nations, and for a long time, even the totem poles did not reflect local culture, but rather a northern coastal culture.

The rock currently called Siwash is Slhxí7lsh, or “standing man,” in our language. In our legend, a man was preparing for the coming of his child by purifying himself through spiritual bathing. According to our teachings, when a child comes into the world, that child is pure, and a parent who is impure will reflect on the child. While he was bathing, transformers came from the spirit realm and told him to step aside. He wouldn’t, so they immortalized him by turning him to stone to remind everyone of the responsibility of parenthood.

Slhxí7lsh Rock is just one of many opportunities to enrich the Vancouver area’s culture with First Nations place names, which could be on signage alongside English and Musqueam or Tsleil-Waututh names. Our place names are almost exclusively in English, and even Skwxwú7mesh, Xatslanexw and Kiyaplanexw were anglicized as Squamish, Kitsilano and Capilano.

The name of the Lions, in particular, bothers many of our people. Lions have no relevance in this part of the world; they live in Africa and Asia. We call these mountain peaks Chi’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn – the twin sisters. According to our legend, the chief’s daughters were transformed into these peaks to create peace following an era of intertribal warfare on the West Coast.

Renaming Siwash, the Lions and many other place names throughout the Vancouver area would go a long way to creating peace in modern times. The horrors of the residential schools, removal of our children and attempt to annihilate our culture has left a deep wound. In this era of reconciliation, we have an opportunity to heal and move forward by telling all our stories, not just those of the European settlers.

The Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh have been invisible on our own lands in the Greater Vancouver area for far too long. Signage is just the start to bring First Nations out of the shadows.

Chief Ian Campbell Sekyú Siyám, a hereditary chief, elected councillor and spokesperson of Squamish Nation, has an executive MBA from Simon Fraser University.

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