Ye'yumnuts was once part of the larger Garry Oak ecosystem which provided camas and other natural resources to the people who lived there. Nearby, the Somenos Garry Oak Protected Area still nurtures many of these species. Protecting and preserving this special environment has been a priority for naturalist groups, including the Cowichan Valley Naturalists and the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society.
As part of an interview conducted in November 2017, Genevieve Singleton and Dave Polster expressed strong opposition to the development at Timbercrest and its effect on wildlife habitat and Garry Oak meadows in the area around Ye'yumnuts. However, when knowledge of the archaeological site became public in 1992, their fight changed significantly:
Genevieve: It was all full-bore. There was just a bunch of us crazy naturalists standing in the way. The community in general didn't have a problem. So this family was down there—I don't know who they were—and they found these bones that evening. I think it was an evening that they were looking around and stuff and just—probably playing—brought them over to Dr. Harris, who looked at them and immediately went “these are human, these are really old.” He and his wife contacted the Archaeology Branch, and that opened up a whole new chapter, which was fantastic, and changed the whole—what’s the word I want?
Dave: All of the sudden they weren’t going to be building on burial sites.
Genevieve: And then that was—that went hand-in-hand with the other area [of environmental protection].
Genevieve noted that her relationship with the archaeological site at Ye'yumnuts has developed and changed since that time, especially when she's had the opportunity to take schoolchildren on tours around the area. One particular visit stood out to her, highlighting the importance of the site:
"So I go and talk about the tree and that. And then I'm standing there and I've got a group of—so they’re grade 4-5s from Alexander [Elementary School]. So, predominantly 99% Indigenous background, and I'm standing there talking, and suddenly this thought came into me. And I just wept, because I realized that I was talking to children whose ancestors had lived there thousands of years ago. And I couldn't believe the honour and the connection with time, even though I'm white and this isn't my traditional land, I'm heavily connected to nature. And to feel that these generations moving through, living on this land, choosing that spot to live in because of the salmon and all the food they could gather and the camas all right there. And some of these children would have had great-great grandparents who actually lived in some of those places. And that's why I want to be interviewed—that's why I want to talk. And that's why I wanted from way back to have some sort of signage there, because I believe this place is—it goes back before the Pyramids and all these places tourists go to all over the world, and we have it right here. And we are so blessed that Cowichan Tribes is willing to work with all of us and collaborate with us, and that I would love people to understand this incredible, long relationship with the land that the Coast Salish people have had here."
Thinking back on the many years of conflicts between the Cowichan Valley Naturalists and Timbercrest Estates, Genevieve also lamented the environmental damage that such delays and obstructions have caused to the area around Ye'yumnuts:
"What we wished back then was that we would be able to—if we had been able to get on top of the invasive species stuff thing here, that would have been awesome. But the hearings and the fighting and arguing over rezoning this continued until, you know, 2011, right? And we were working on these properties—this back in the, you know, the ‘90s. So that's how these invasive species got ahead so much."
Near the end of the conversation, Dave emphasized the importance of maintaining Garry Oak ecosystems and how such work feeds into the continuity of Cowichan practice at Ye'yumnuts:
"Well, just that in the Protected Area, the rare species—the SARA [Species-At-Risk Act]-listed species—are very important and will be lost if we don't continue to modify the ecosystem so that they can continue. Because they probably established as part of the cultural modifications that were done over the thousands of years. We [settlers] come along, we stop the burning, we introduce a bunch of invasive species, and all of a sudden the rare species that are there are gone…. So, I mean, I had a vision at one point of recreating a camas area that could be harvested in the traditional sense, that would then create the conditions that would permit the rare species to persist."
Paul Fletcher has been involved in the modern conversation at Ye'yumnuts for longer than almost anyone, since 1988. He has taken a central role in much of the fight to preserve the natural landscapes of Somenos Marsh and Lake for residents of the Cowichan Valley. Because of this, he has spent much time around the area of Ye'yumnuts. During an interview conducted in November 2017, he noted that prior to the greater public awareness of the archaeological site, he had reported the presence of archaeological shell deposits at the site:
“I was a very frequent visitor to that area, because I was a nature photographer then. So I did a lot of nature photography, just walking around. It was such a beautiful place. And none of it was protected at that time. And I was very involved in the preservation of it, so I would spend a lot of time walking around in there. And one day, I was walking in there very close to the Ye’yumnuts site, up closer to the creek, and I found midden material. So upon discovery of that midden material, I learned all about archaeological reports and stuff like that, and I actually reported it to the Archaeological Branch as a potential midden site that had been scraped open. Because you could see where the blade went by, and there was a cut, and this cut was just full of midden material."
Paul also identified the key role that Cowichan Elders played in the efforts to prevent development in the area of Ye'yumnuts, both in 1994 and also during more recent events prior to the land being purchased by the Provincial government:
"And then all there was left after 2010 would have been the pasture site, so George [Schmidt, the developer of Timbercrest Estates] then set his sights on that property. Again, he came back to council—proposal to rezone the entire property. We fought and we fought, and this time we had Tribes fighting with us. Tribes very, very rarely ever came out to a public hearing and spoke. This time we had the Elders coming out, and other people speaking very passionately. Because North Cowichan would never listen to us unless we had good data, or good reasons. Actually, it was more about publicity to stop. Otherwise, they would forge ahead. With Tribes coming out it suddenly became very, very important to pacify Tribes. So they saved our skin."
Throughout the discussion, Paul emphasized the importance of both the ecological and cultural values of the site at Ye'yumnuts, and how both have woven through his experiences in the area throughout his time there:
"I lived it. I lived it. It was a passion. People have asked me, you know, “Why do you do this?” I don’t really know. I think a lot of it comes back to that—standing on the hill... Just driven. Yeah. There’s never been any personal gain. No. In fact, if anything it’s had personal consequences. But it’s there. And Ye’yumnuts—which only became Ye’yumnuts a few years ago—which shows the privacy of the Cowichan people, again, because it’s been Ye’yumnuts to them forever—is such a catalyst in this process. To see that we’re finally tackling the invasive species, tackling the burial site, being able to bring the proper trail system in, teaching locals about protecting the property instead of feeling like they own the property. Yeah. I’m so happy about that."
Continuing, Paul noted that while initially the conversation around the archaeological site at Ye'yumnuts helped further his goals of conservation in the Somenos area, the meaning of the site and its importance to Cowichan people has left a lasting mark on him through the years:
"My experience hasn’t changed in as much as my confidence in the people buried there are safe. Where it was really convenient to use the burial site to help further our goals of preservation, the underlying thing for me was always the preservation of the burial site and the people there. I felt like I had a role as a guardian of those people. That’s taking kind of a serious look at it—guardian is probably the wrong word. I was from the other group of people that could stand up for them. Because a lot of people weren’t standing up for them in those days. I felt like I was filling the gap between the people who could stand up and would later stand up. And until that point, I had to fill that role. That would be my experience."
Below is a fact sheet produced by the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society, illustrating some of the events at Ye'yumnuts from the perspective of naturalists.