Digging deeper into history at historic Fort Rodd Hill

National park program highlights First Nations connections

Steve Thomas and Cheryl Bryce

Steve Thomas and Cheryl Bryce

Long before the British established a military base at what is now the Fort Rodd Hill national historical site, Songhees and Esquimalt first nations cultivated camas on the land and harvested shellfish on its shores.

But that layer of history is easily overlooked by visitors as they wander among century-old command posts and underground magazines. The interpretive signs speak little to what was there before colonialism.

So this summer Parks Canada launched the Lekwungen indigenous history program and hired two aboriginal staffers, Cheryl Bryce and Steve Thomas, to bring their traditional knowledge to the site.

They were given free reign to develop their own interpretive programs to share the information they feel is important.

“Times have changes a lot, and we don’t want our history forgotten,” Thomas said.

“I learned not from history books, but everything through stories, told by my elders and in the long houses when I visited neighbouring communities, and I want to pass it on through stories.”

On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, Thomas sets up next to the lower battery, with displays of clams and oyster shells and the antlers he used to dig them out of the sand.

He tells stories of seafood feasts that used to be possible year-round before red tide contaminated the water, and of the friendly relationship between his family and British settlers.

“My great grandma used to sell clams to the Buxton family,” Thomas said, referring to the family of Sgt. Percy Buxton who lived at the fort in the 1920s.

Bryce, meanwhile, has a booth near the site entrance Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, where she invites people to learn about camas and other traditional foods that used to grow on the site before invasive plants, such as Scotch broom and spurge-laurel, were introduced.

“When people walk around here, they’re seeing less than five per cent of the original ecosystem,” she said, flipping through a book of plant photos she compiled to give people a sense of what used to grow amid the Garry oak trees.

Twice per day she leads walks through the forested areas on the site to teach people how to identify edible plants and trees.

She tells stories learned from her elders to explain why certain foods can be found in the area. Some tales feature transformers who turned greedy people to stone, leaving them to spend eternity protecting the very thing they tried to keep for themselves.

“I’ll talk to a hundred people in a day. People are very interested in food and the environment,” Bryce said.

“This is a way to engage them and tell them about our culture and let them know (First Nations people) are still around. We live just down the street.”

The Lekwungen program will continue until mid-September.