Image caption: James Island has had a varied history since 1854 when it was named after Sir James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island

Tsawout: ‘Our elders remember’

Saanich Peninsula aboriginals want an archeological inventory undertaken to establish that natives were on the island in the early 1900s-and before

By Susan Chung

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) · Mon, Dec 2, 1996

NATIVES WHO SAY they were kicked off James Island to make way for a dynamite plant near the turn of the century want their land back. The Tsawout band has been trying for over a year to contact the present American owner of the private island for permission to set foot on the sandy isle in what could be another explosive issue for the island.

Seattle billionaire Craig McCaw, who made his fortune when AT&T bought the family cellular phone network business, picked up the sandy nirvana for $26 million in 1994. He has no definite plans for the island, but does not want to develop a luxury resort, as proposed by the previous owners.

The Saanich Peninsula aboriginals want an archeological inventory undertaken to establish that natives were there in the early 1900s – and before.

Tsawout Band manager Eric Pelkey says oral history indicates the band’s ancestors lived on the 780-acre island southeast of Sidney. “Our elders remember,” he said.

The remains of an old village on the northern end and a native graveyard on the southern end also point to native occupation.

A 1974 report prepared for the Archeological Sites Advisory Board showed four shell midden sites on James Island. The sites, usually near water, contain the leftovers from natives preparing and eating shellfish. The deeper the debris at the site, the older and greater evidence of occupation on the island.

A search of provincial archives has not allowed a research firm hired by the Tsawout to pinpoint when the natives vacated the island.

Most of the scarce written history about the island begins with the explosives plant, established in 1914.

Pelkey said he has been trying to contact McCaw by mail and phone, but gave up in August.

“We never got a response,” he said.

But Bob Ratliffe, a long-time friend of McCaw and vice-president of Eagle River, a company which manages McCaw’s properties, said he was not aware of the band’s formal attempts to reach the billionaire.

“We’ve only heard rumors. We haven’t had a proposal,” said Ratliffe, who wonders if there are any archeological remains left in the land.

“The island has been so chewed up by the previous ownership and by the munitions plants… it’s hard to imagine there’s anything there.”

Asked if the company would meet with the band, Ratliffe said he would be willing to think it over once he knows what the inventory involved.

Image caption: Craig McCaw’s modest house sits amid the greenery on James Island


Stories by Susan Chung Photos by Debra Brash Times Colonist staff

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