c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city

The First Nations in British Columbia are uniquely connected to the water. Unlike landlocked tribes throughout Canada who lived nomadic lives, First Nations people in BC settled near the water and built sustaining villages that lived off the resources of the land. Their culture is intertwined with the flow of the water, from transportation in canoes to the cycles of fish that pass through the streams; water has a significant place in the traditions and beliefs of First Nations people in British Columbia.

the city before the city image

I recently visited the Museum of Anthropology which specializes in Canadian First Nations history, particularly that of the Coast Salish, Kwakwaka’wakw and Haida people. These people lived along the water and the Fraser River was their bloodline. I went to see the c??sna??m, the city before the city exhibition that describes the history and traditions of the Musqueam people before the arrival of European settlers.

It is a unique exhibit that is split into three parts with collaborations at the Museum of Anthropology, the Musqueam First Nation and Museum of Vancouver. The MOA exhibition is displayed in the O’Brien Gallery. As you enter the exhibition you are welcomed by an elder speaking in the language of the Musqueam people. Through the entrance, there is a walkway of first-hand stories and photos on the walls that highlight the Musqueam traditions and continued tie to the land.

The multi-media exhibition included many personal accounts of Musqueam traditions and culture in the voice of the Musqueam people. Visitors could listen to traditional stories told in the native tongue, while subtitles played on a video of Vancouver’s coast. These images were projected on the windows looking out at the natural beauty outside the museum – which is also on traditional Musqueam territory.

This reminded me of the many stories I have read while researching the history of First Nations in Vancouver. I loved reading all the different creation stories and myths that were passed down through generations of First Nations families. Many First Nations believe that “water is a meditative medium, a purifier, a source of power and most importantly it has a spirit. Water is alive – biotic” (5). In Michael Blackstone’s article, Water: A First Nations’ spiritual and ecological perspective, he reviews the First Nations’ beliefs and ceremonies connected to water. The article begins with First Nations creation stories that originate from water. For instance, the Syilx people believe that when God created the sun, he saw that the world was all water. He sent Coyote to dive into the water and he pulled out a grain of dirt that became earth. In other nations, there is a reoccurring myth of the great flood that brought the people to their traditional territories.

Water ceremonies are practiced to cleanse and purify the spirit. The Elders believe that water has a powerful and regenerative spirit and medicine men are known to swim before practicing traditional medicine. Water is believed to “purify whatever is immersed in it by regenerating the spirit into its purest form.”

The c??sna??m: city before the city exhibition is tied to water. The images projected on the windows were of the coast and waterways of Vancouver. I really enjoyed following along with the stories told in the Native tongue and it was really representative of how oral traditions are carried on. There was also an interactive tabletop exhibition on salmon fishing and waterways in Vancouver. I’m interested in learning more about the Musqueam traditions in regards to salmon fishing and salmon ceremonies. I think it  was important for me to see and hear the personal stories of the Musqueam people’s and their connection to traditions, family and land. It helped me see the connection and importance of water and salmon in these communities. For instance, on one of the walls was the following quotation:

“Fishing is not the act of just putting a net in the water. Why it is so vital to us is because the preparation that goes before fishing is where the transferring of knowledge happens. Old stories come out; this is where the history is passed along. You can say, ‘I’ll pay you for the fish,’ but how do you pay me for the time lost with my child, the way I learned from my grandparent and my grandparent learned from his grandparent?”

—Morgan Guerin, 2014

This particularly thought provoking and inspiring quotation demonstrates the importance of tradition. The act of fishing is not just for the final product – the fish – it is about the experience, the culture and the time spent with family. I was brought to the exhibition by Reese Muntean’s Capture photography display at Waterfront skytrain station that was curated by Kate Hennessey. The display, linked the c??sna??m exhibition, shows the persevering tradition and methods of salmon fishing still practiced by the Musqueam people and of families working together to catch, gut and smoke the salmon.

I emailed Kate Hennessey to discuss the photographs and she suggested that I visit the exhibition and see what the project is all about. The c??sna??m: city before the city  intersects well with the Fountain project’s exploration of the history of land and the people’s connection to water in Vancouver. We are fortunate to have water and salmon in Vancouver and the First Nations  have always respected and valued these natural resources.

To learn more about the c??sna??m: city before the city project and the exhibition on at MOA until January 2016 visit: moa.ubc.ca/portfolio_page/citybeforecity/


Blackstone, Michael. “Water: A First Nations’ spiritual and ecological perspective.” BC Journal of Ecosystems and

Management. 1.1. (2001): 1-14. Web. 20 April 2015.

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