During last week's #TeachingsTuesday, Culturally Committed Advisor Ašli of ƛoʔos First Nation invited us to consider the origins of the modern place names that surround us, and encouraged us to dig deeper into what those names stood for and who they represented. This week, Jared Qwustenuxun Williams of Quw'utsun shares with us the powerful meanings behind the traditional place names of familiar landmarks in the Quw'utsun region.
"I look up and I see Pi'paam as not just a mountain, but a literal collection of stories. As if the encyclopedia of our culture was written into place names and can only be unlocked by knowing these names. Pi'paam is the great frog, who saved the people from the flood. The flood story talks of Syalutsa and Stutsun, the first two ancestors who fell from the sky. These two people are connected to many other stories, including one of our origin stories. Heck, people alive right now still wear the names Syalutsa and Stutsun. The flood story also connects to Swuq'us, now known as Mt. Prevost. For to save the people from the flood, Syalutsa led half of Quw'utsun up Swuq'us, and Stutsun led the other half up Pi'paam. In this story there is even talk of Syalutsa's anchor, a massive stone atop Swuq'us, that the people tied their canoes too as the waters went higher than Swuq'us. A stone that you can hike up there and find today. But if you know local geology then you'll know that Swuq'us is taller than Pi'paam. So, when the water rose higher and higher, Pi'paam rose as well, keeping the people atop it safe and dry. It is said that this is because Pi'paam is a great frog, a great frog who saved our people from the flood. I will say that there are many versions of this story, and this is a very short "Coles Notes" version. A true telling would take hours, if not days.
Another thing I see when I look up is how it was renamed for a great warlord Tsuw'xilum (Tzouhalem). The stories of his victories, accomplishments, and legends, fill my mind. But as he existed during the early colonial phase my mind moves to colonization. How the gunships shot their cannonballs at Pi'paam as a show of force? Unknowingly shooting cannons directly at our great frog savior. Some accounts even say that some of the stone that was used to build the stone church was taken from the stone that broke away from the mountain during these blasts. Inevitably I remember that the stones that were once the foundation of Tsuw'xilum's fort, at the base of the mountain, are now on some non-Indigenous person's waterfront property.
Again, some people just see a mountain; I see so many stories. Stories that must come back, must be brought to light, must be shared with the generations to come. Stories that will only flourish if we take back our place names. Names that were collectively robbed from all of us. Names that reveal the true history of this place. With these names we can better understand where we find ourselves, and how to better move forward."
Ašli and Jared's stories prompt me to consider, what is in a name? I am guilty of passively accepting the names of things and places without considering origins. Recently, thanks to these shared reflections and stories, I’ve had my perspective flipped. I was motivated to start digging into some of the names heralded from my hometown, starting with my elementary school. That search led me to a city heritage site celebrating noteworthy residents who helped shape the city.
As I scrolled and scrolled, I saw many familiar names that currently adorn schools, streets, and parks. But what I failed to see was a single Indigenous person named.
This part of unlearning is hard…realizing the intentional suppression and exclusion of the First Peoples, and recognizing that even as individuals fully lean into the work of reconciliation, there are so many historic colonial influences that shape what we see in our world today. Who was your elementary school named after? High school? The name of the closest park where you spent your childhood? I encourage you to explore those answers and share your findings. I would love to hear what you discover.
Kim at Culturally Committed