Cowichan first nation ceremony
The forest is filled with creeks that burst forth from the wilds to feed the Cowichan River. These mountain creeks are sacred places to Quw’utsun Mustiimuhw and have been for time immemorial. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams/The Discourse

What were those people in regalia doing?

This question is a gateway to the world of Cowichan culture.
August 25, 2020

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Uy netulh siem nu siiye’yu,

Good morning my respected friends,

I’ve once again set about the task of answering a local’s question about our world from the Quw’utsun perspective. Our reader wrote in asking, “ I grew up in Glenora (Deerholme) during the 1970-80’s. I remember seeing, in 1976 on my way to kindergarten, Aboriginal men cloaked in wool, feathers and spear heading up Indian Road to the woods. I remember being fascinated by their regalia. What were they up to and does it still go on today?”

This question is a gateway to the world of Cowichan culture. A world where religion, society, culture, history, medicine, and governance are all one unified force that cannot be compartmentalized like the same concepts in our Western society. I will endeavour to explain what these “Aboriginal men cloaked in wool, feathers and spear heading up Indian Road to the woods” were doing. As before I will use some Hul’q’umi’num words and include translations below to give a more complete sense of the story.

If you’ve lived and travelled around Quw’utsun long enough you’ve seen our thi lelum. While in yesteryear a single village would have dozens of longhouses, the seven or more villages that make up “Cowichan” currently only boast three thi hu-lelum. S’amunu, Kwa’mutsun, and Lhumlhumuluts’ still hold houses that host cultural ceremonies that are a direct connection to the traditions of our ancestors. 

But before I proceed, there is a caution that has been handed down by elders that I must note.

We are told as smuneem, and reminded as adults, to not share everything with the outside world. There are aspects of this world that I cannot share and the question the reader has asked steps dangerously close to the line of where I can and cannot speak. To ensure that I do not cross that line, and with my editor’s permission, I ran this article by two respected community members, Matthew Louie and Tim Kulchyski. I have removed a few details from a previous draft, thanks to their feedback. So I apologize in advance for some vagueness in my answer.

cowichan first nation ceremony
Most cultural events take place in the thi lelum during the snowy winter months. Some elders say that it used to take place all year and that it moved to winter when the settlers arrived. I’ll always remember the time I heard an elder say, “the Indian Agent didn’t travel in the winter.” Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams/The Discourse

So, why were those people dressed in regalia running up Indian Road hill? These people are going through an ancient cultural ceremony. One of the sacred traditions given to the Quw’utsun people by the first people who fell from the sky was the ritual of bathing in the many mountain creeks that fill our watershed. As a part of the ceremony, they are going to practice a ritual as old as Quw’utsun itself; they are going to kw’aythut.

Now this again comes with another caution. These people and these places are to be left alone at all costs. We are even cautioned to not look directly at them. This teaching creates somewhat of a paradox in our snuw’uy’ulh. We are taught to not talk of these rituals or where they take place, to preserve them and keep them from being interrupted or ruined by outsiders. If we do not, then resource extraction will take these xe’xe’ places from us, and the rituals cannot be performed without these places. 

Those people on Indian Road are both men and women; both spirits are seen equally in our culture. These people are dedicating 100 per cent of their time, money, effort, and mental/physical/emotional/spiritual self to furthering their connection to our culture and our ancestors, to which there is no Western equivalent. Those hwulmuhw in their regalia will dedicate months to this ceremony. Once this ceremony is complete they will dedicate their entire lives to their cultural training. In the end, our culture and teachings will be stronger for it.

So when I see these people run by I don’t raise my hands, I don’t look, my expression doesn’t change, I just continue what I am doing and silently thank them, like my ancestors before. Those mustimuhw are some of the few last living connections we have to pre contact life.

I could write a library of books on our culture and we’d still never get it all. So I hope that snapshot helps answer your question! 

What else are you curious about? Let me know by filling out this form.

Huy tseep q’u siem nu siiye’yu,
Thank you my respected friends,

Qwustenuxun, grandson of Qwustanulwut

Hul’qumi’num words

  • kw’aythut – sacred bath
  • Kwa’mutsun – Quamichan, a Cowichan village
  • Lhumlhumuluts’ – Clemclem, a Cowichan village
  • mustimuhw – people
  • Quw’utsun – Cowichan
  • S’amunu – Somenos, a Cowichan village
  • smuneem – the children of our community
  • snuw’uy’ulh – teachings or guidelines
  • stat-lo’ – creek or little river
  • thi lelum – large house 
  • thi hu-lelum – large houses
  • xe’xe – sacred or holy

Check out First Voices to learn words and sounds in Hul’qumi’num. You might also be interested in my YouTube series on Hul’qumi’num pronunciation, including the village names from this article.