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Reclaiming Indigenous place names

Dr. Elmer George
Songhees Elder Seniemten Elmer George.

The University of Victoria has been given permission by local First Nations communities to use lək̓ʷəŋən names for the two new student residence and dining buildings on campus, Čeqʷəŋín ʔéʔləŋ (Cheko’nien House) and Sŋéqə ʔéʔləŋ (Sngequ House).

The building names will inspire critical reflections on the history of these lands and educational opportunities for the campus community. The work undertaken lays a new foundation for the future of UVic’s building naming process that recognizes the true history of where we are located—on lək̓ʷəŋən territory. Respectful collaboration and meaningful consultations are at the centre of this work, and it represents a milestone in building respectful relationships and deepening trust with local Nations.

The UVic community will have the opportunity to learn the building names, where they originated from and the significance of their meaning. Developing opportunities for all members of the UVic community to gain a better understanding of Indigenous Peoples, histories and cultures, and the impacts of colonization, is integral to the resurgence of Indigenous languages, arts and cultures - a commitment of the university in the Strategic Plan and the Indigenous Plan.

To ensure this work was done in a respectful way, UVic humbly asked Chiefs and Councils members, Elders and community members for guidance and direction on the building naming. Our vision for working together on this is driven by a strong commitment to ensuring Indigenous ways of knowing and being are woven throughout our work in a good way.


Work together | Nəc̓əmaat kʷəns čeʔi

For many years, the Indigenous students, staff and faculty at UVic have recommended that we begin a process to reflect the languages of the local Nations in building names on campus.

In 2017, Musqueam Elder, Dr. Larry Grant led a presentation at UBC that walked through a project that lifted up the Musqueam Nation during the naming of buildings and signage, and explained what it means to have acknowledgement and recognition of the local Nation on campus in a very public space.

Joel Lynn, Executive Director of Student Services at UVic, and his colleagues who were at the event recognized the importance of doing this work and bringing that learning to UVic for future building in response to the goals of UVic’s Campus Plan, Indigenous Plan (2017-2022) and the TRC Calls to Action (2015).

The new Student Housing and Dining Project is the first significant capital project since the Campus Plan was renewed in 2016. Before work on the site began in summer 2019, UVic met with the UVic Elders-in-Residence to discuss the proposed project.

During these discussions, UVic was open and transparent about the project and the importance of having community support from start to finish, including the impact of construction on the natural environment. Elders and community members were involved in plans for the trees removed and advised on incorporating parts of the cedar tree in the new buildings. 

Following protocols

Elder Skip Dick standing in front of a microphone providing a land blessing.
Songhees Elder Skip Dick provides a welcome to territory for the land blessing during the construction of Čeqʷəŋín ʔéʔləŋ.

Local cultural protocols were respected throughout the building process. In January 2020, Dr. Skip Dick, an Elder from the Songhees Nation, and May Sam, an Elder from the W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip Nation) were involved in a land blessing ceremony. Campus leaders, students and members of the lək̓ʷəŋən, W̱SÁNEĆ and Nuu-chah-nulth Nations gathered to show respect for the land and acknowledge the history of the territories where UVic sits.

The ceremony also honoured the Elders who guided the project team in incorporating Indigenous design elements and teachings. During construction, conversations between Qwul'sih'yah'maht, Robina Thomas, Vice-President Indigenous; Lalita Kines, former IACE Associate Director; and Joel Lynn led a new Naming Opportunity Proposal that would decolonize the current UVic naming policy and include goals that more closely aligned with the Indigenous Plan.

The primary objective of the Naming Opportunity Proposal was to ground our work in local First Nations teachings and ensure that Indigenous languages, arts and cultures were incorporated throughout the new building project.

Elder May Sam standing in front of a microphone providing a land blessing.
W̱JOȽEȽP Elder May Sam provides a land blessing ceremony during the construction of Čeqʷəŋín ʔéʔləŋ.

Respecting land & language

UVic began the naming process by consulting with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation students, community members and Chief and Council. It was recommended that the names be reflective of the original territory and village site that the university sits on, and that we work with local Songhees Elder Seniemten, Dr. Elmer George. Seniemten is one of the last fluent lək̓ʷəŋən speakers who has made it his life’s work to revitalize the language.

After extensive consultation, we have been given permission to use two lək̓ʷəŋən names for the new buildings. Seniemten’s grandfather was from Čeqʷəŋin (Cheko’nien), possibly meaning charred wood left after a fire, the territory now known as Oak Bay. The village of Sŋéqə (Sngequ), meaning snow patches, in what is now known as Cadboro Bay, was used for camas harvesting, trading and cultural and spiritual practices.

The Office of the Vice-President Indigenous worked closely with Seniemten and linguist Andrew Cienski to accurately spell and record Seniemten speaking the lək̓ʷəŋən names. Further work was done to provide meanings and pronunciation guides and ensure that the information that had been shared orally had been captured accurately and respectfully. We are grateful to Seniemten for allowing us to bring forward these names and share them with the UVic community for years to come, bringing back the true history of this land.

Weaving the teachings

Late TEMOSEṈ-ŦET, Dr. Charles Elliott was an integral part of the UVic community, sharing with us his artwork, stories and teachings. It was important for Joel Lynn to continue to share these important Coast Salish teachings throughout the new spaces. Songhees Nation member Myrna Crossley, wife of late TEMOSEṈ-ŦET, was approached for a commissioned Coast Salish woven wool blanket to be installed in Čeqʷəŋín ʔéʔləŋ.

When talking through the significance of the piece, the connection to this land, and the importance of Coast Salish teachings that are connected to weaving, the woven blanket was a perfect addition to the space and a first of its kind for the university. This blanket was made to demonstrate the University’s commitment to reconciliation and meaningful engagement with the lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ people. 

The beautiful nobility-style blanket: SIÁM SȽEȽWÁT NONET SWEꞢE,Ƚ ‘Highly Respected One's, Peace of Mind at Last’ blanket is on permanent display on the second floor of the dining hall in Čeqʷəŋín ʔéʔləŋ. There are also plans for additional artwork to be featured in Sŋéqə ʔéʔləŋ, the student residence building.

When the construction was finished, May Sam and her family provided a blessing of each floor to bring in good energy for the future residents and visitors of the building. On April 5, 2023, a ceremony took place to honour Seniemten and Myrna Crossley for their significant contributions, and to bring forward the names in front of witnesses in accordance with local Coast Salish protocols.

Prepare for the work to come

It is important that this project sets a precedent, and that the university continues to follow the direction and guidance of Indigenous leadership, Elders and community members. While a lot of the work that took place was well documented, the cultural and consultation work is not meant to be a checklist for future projects. Every project and every community will be unique and have different ways of leading the work. We want to raise our hands and acknowledge everyone who has helped to carry out this good work

Hay šxʷ q̓ə