Before the arrival of Europeans, Gabriola Island was home to the Snuneymuxw Nation for thousands of years. With the advent of the fur trade and gold rush, and the discovery of coal in Nanaimo, Europeans began to settle on Gabriola during the second half of the 19th Century. First Nations women like Louisa Silva and Jane Degnen married European men and contributed their skills and knowledge to the thriving new settlement and creating their own social structure on Gabriola.
Louisa Hoiowaat, a 15-year-old Lyaksen First Nations girl from Valdes Island, met Portuguese sailor John Silva, in Victoria, where Louisa worked for one of the colony’s families. Louisa and Silva married and moved to Mayne Island, Lulu Island and finally to Gabriola in 1883. They raised a large family on the south end overlooking today's Silva Bay.
Jane Jeameya, a young First Nations girl with family on Gabriola Island, invited Thomas Degnen, originally from Scotland, to accompany her to the island. In 1862 they married and settled on the south end of Gabriola near the bay that bears their name.
Louisa Silva and Jane Degnen were strong-willed women who worked hard to create a life for their families. They bore many children, and performed household tasks as well as basket-making and weaving. They participated in farm labour, grew fruits and vegetables, and raised livestock for market in Nanaimo. Both Louisa and Jane had an extensive knowledge of herbal remedies, becoming their own pharmacists and doctors. Jane also acted as a midwife.
Louisa Silva experienced numerous hardships, from Active Pass raiding parties on Mayne Island, the drowning death of two children in Plumper Pass, and the fierce mosquitoes which drove the family from Lulu Island. On Gabriola, she coped alone while her husband fished, returning only on weekends.
Towards the end of her life, almost blind, Louisa Silva continued to do her own laundry, drawing water from the well, and continued to make clothing for her family.
According to the memories of her descendants, Jane Degnen was a no-nonsense woman who ruled her home with an iron will. She could neither read nor write, yet she was ambitious, an excellent cook, a meticulous house keeper and an outstanding weaver. All these qualities allowed her, like Louisa Silva, to meet the challenges of pioneer life.
Joined Hands was a major exhibit mounted in 2008 and funded by the BC government as part of the 150 year anniversary of the province. The exhibit was designed by Laura Lasby with support from David Andrews, Janet Stobbs,Alison Douglas and Mary Wohlleben.
Particular thanks to Joey Caro, of the Hul’qumi’um Treaty Group, Geraldine Madsen, of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, Michelle Crocker, Joanne Peterson, Leo & Gaylia Nelson, Don Greenway, Teresa Bennett, Gordon & Laurie MacDonald, Bernice Wardill, Henry Silva, and Dr. Jean Barman.
Baskets were expertly woven with strips of cedar, and sometimes cherry bark. Northwest Coast Native American tribes used these baskets during berry picking, seafood harvesting and cooking.