Road signs along the Sea to Sky Highway offer insight into the history of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people


If you’ve driven the Sea to Sky Highway, you may have wondered what the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) words on the road signs mean and how to say them.

The signs, installed in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics, are a reminder of the rich Indigenous history of the area — and also the attempts to erase that history after Indigenous land was stolen. 

Those names include K’emk’emeláy, one of many Indigenous village sites that were destroyed by the B.C. government at the time of colonization, to make way for settlers and industrialization. The area would become the beginnings of Vancouver today.

As we near the end of Indigenous People’s History Month, many are keen to learn about the peoples and cultures in their local communities.

Here are three Sḵwx̱wú7mesh place names, their history and why they continue to be important to Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people.

K’emk’emeláy

K’emk’emeláy was once a thriving seasonal village for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples for gathering and harvesting seafood.

Pronounced “KEM-kem-a-lie,” the site was located at what is now the foot of Gore Street, at the Port of Vancouver’s busy Main Street Dock on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet.

“Kemk’emeláy means ‘the place of many maple trees’ or a grove of maples,” says Senaqwila Wyss, who, as an adult, began retracing the steps of her ancestors, re-learning the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language that was forbidden at St. Paul’s Residential School, which her grandmother survived.

Senaqwila Wyss sits near an area overlooking what was once the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh village site called K’emk’emeláy. Wyss is an ethnobotanist and mother who is dedicated to learning her Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language and history. (Ben Nelms)

In 1865, backed by the colonial government, Edward Stamp built the Hastings Mill on the site. The sawmill would become a settlement that expanded into what is considered the early makings of Vancouver.

Wyss says archives show that more than 100 of her Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people lived and worked near the Hastings Mill until the end of the 1800s, when further industrialization forced them out.

She says visiting the old village sites reminds her of the territory she belongs to, the land that was stolen, and why it is important to keep that history and her language alive.

“Within the last 150 years, our people have seen such a change in the landscape. Now there are really only two maple trees left here today,” she said.

WATCH | Senaqwila Wyss describes how to pronounce three Sḵwx̱wú7mesh place names:

Senaqwilla Wyss shares the history and pronunciation of three Sḵwx̱wú7mesh village sites to help decolonize perspectives of land and place. 3:25

Leḵ’leḵ’í,

Within Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory is another seasonal village site near Kemk’emeláy called Leḵ’leḵ’í, loosely meaning “many leaves dropping” or “leaves falling on the ground.”

Pronounced “LEK-Lek-eye,” it is in the area now called CRAB Park and was once used by Wyss’s people for fishing, clamming and hunting.

But she says the name of the area is not as clear as other Sḵwx̱wú7mesh village sites.

“There are as many different time frames in which this place name was recorded before it was referred to as Leḵ’leḵ’í,” Wyss said.

She said some elders didn’t have a word for the area that could easily be translated to English. It’s a similar situation for the village that resembles her first name.

Sen̓áḵw

The village called Sen̓áḵw, pronounced “sen-OUK,” was in an area near Vanier Park on the False Creek waterfront, in Kitsilano.

The word Sen̓áḵw, Wyss said, refers to the shape of the landscape and how the water connects with the land — the head of the bay inside today’s False Creek — and sometimes refers to the waterway itself.

Wyss said the village was mainly used in the summer months and was lined with long houses of many Sḵwx̱wú7mesh  families. 

But they were forcibly evicted from their land in 1913.

Under Conservative premier Richard McBride, the B.C. government gave the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh residents of Sen̓áḵw about two days to pack up before they were put on a barge and sent over to North Vancouver so the city of Vancouver could expand.

The government then burned down their homes and sheds.

In 1913, the B.C. government under Conservative premier Richard McBride forced the Squamish people to abandon their homes so Vancouver could expand. They had about two days to pack up and head to the North Shore on this barge. ( Indigenous Foundation/UBC)

“So, for us, it has a feeling of displacement,” Wyss said.

Under the federal government’s 1911 amendment to the Indian Act, it was legal to remove Indigenous people from reserves within an incorporated town or city, without their consent.

But in 2002, the Squamish Nation regained a section of the land. 

“There is a good feeling of pride that there will be a recognition of our land that we have been using for so long,” Wyss said.

“I definitely today feel like a strong connection to knowing that we had ancestors who lived at Sen̓áḵw.”

She said learning her language and teaching her children gives her a sense of hope.

“Even though so much of our community lost so many things through residential school, we are still able to share these teachings and we still have ones who are going to carry the torch on for us in the future.”

How to properly say ‘Sḵwx̱wú7mesh’

If you are travelling north along the Sea to Sky Highway from Kemk’emeláy, you will see the word Sḵwx̱wú7mesh on road signs.

“Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw” means “Squamish People” and “Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Snichim” refers to the Squamish language.

As Wyss explains below, the “7” symbol in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh represents a glottal stop, which acts as a pause in the word:

Read more at CBC.ca