Of the six groups, the Cowichan Tribes are most numerous, currently accounting for over 60 percent of the Hul'qumi'num population. Historically, as described below, the Cowichan have lived in the lower Cowichan Valley and trace the origin of their name to Mount Tzuhalem or, in Hul'qumi'num, shkewétsen (meaning 'warm back' or 'basking on its side in the sun'). Today, Cowichan reserves and settlements are concentrated in the lower Cowichan Valley between Duncan and Cowichan Bay, with a few smaller reserves farther up the valley.
For the Cowichan, winter villages were once found in at least twelve different sites. Rozen (1985, 144) describes the villages on the lower Cowichan as forming "a kind of contiguous cultural unit" where, no matter which village they came from, all residents defined themselves as Cowichan. There was also a sense of shared territory as members of any household could hunt for land mammals wherever they wished. Each family, however, had its own fishing weir on the river in front of their village. The lower reaches of the Cowichan Valley, particularly the area stretching from the present location of Duncan down to Cowichan Bay (and including the lower Koksilah River), was heavily settled by the Cowichan peoples. Figure 4 shows the location of permanent winter villages on the lower Cowichan and Koksilah.
The Cowichan River is one of the most important streams in the Georgia Basin, and in combination with its main tributaries (Quamichan Creek and Somenos Creek) and the nearby Koksilah River, it provided ready access to an abundant food supply. The rivers supported abundant salmon and trout populations, the sea at Cowichan Bay was rich in shellfish, marine plants and marine mammals, and the land supported healthy wildlife populations and a variety of edible and medicinal plants. Garry oak meadows were once very common in this area, and were important food-gathering sites (e.g., for camas bulbs). An indication of the richness of the area can be gleaned from the report by Oliver Wells, the first non-Native person to conduct a detailed land survey of the Cowichan Valley (in 1859). Wells reported that "45,000 acres of plain and prairie lands may be set down as superior agricultural districts" and that there was a "sufficient quantity of good level land laid out in this valley to provide farms for a population of from 500 to 600 families at an average of about 100 acres each" (cited in Arnett 1999, 61).
Historically, Cowichan winter villages were located on Cowichan Bay as well as upstream on the banks of the Cowichan and Koksilah Rivers. On Cowichan Bay, there were four villages, two at the north end of the bay near the mouth of the Cowichan River and two at the south end close to the present day location of the town of Cowichan Bay. The northernmost village, xinepsem ('caught in the neck' or 'caught by the neck') was located at Green Point, at the mouth of the north arm of the Cowichan River. Edward Curtis visited the village in 1912 and reported the presence of nine houses with 15 families (Curtis 1913, 175) and noted that the village had been built in 1850. Rozen (1985, 150) reports that some Cowichan feel that the people living in the village on the northern tip of Galiano Island (which has the same name) moved to the Green Point site to escape raids by the Southern Kwakiutl. In terms of food gathering activities, the Green Point village was oriented more towards the sea than the river.
Near the mouth of the south arm of the Cowichan River, there was a village called shts'ets'mínes. There is some uncertainty as to the meaning of this name. One suggestion is that it means 'little Chemainus' and is thus linked to the Chemainus village in Kulleet Bay (with a similar name), and that there was a flow of people, and extended family members, between these two villages. Curtis, who visited the area in 1912, writes that the village had three houses. The village was eventually abandoned due to flooding.
There were two permanent villages at the south end of Cowichan Bay. The village of th'íth'xwemksen was situated a few kilometres north of the present location of town of Cowichan Bay. Apparently, this village once extended about one kilometre along the shore but had a relatively small population, since it was so close to several other villages. This village was closely linked to the Penelakut village with the same name located at Cayetano Point on Valdes Island, and people migrated from Cowichan Bay to Cayetano Point several hundred years ago (Rozen 1985, 70). The Cowichan Bay site is now part of Theik No. 2. The second village on the south end of Cowichan Bay was called tl'elpóles. This village formerly extended from the present town of Cowichan Bay south to the site of Kil-pah-las No. 3. Curtis reported four houses in this village in 1912.
The remaining Cowichan villages were found inland, along the banks of the Cowichan and Koksilah Rivers. A few kilometres from the sea, the Cowichan River splits into two channels (a north and south arm) before discharging into Cowichan Bay. There is also a middle arm that links the Cowichan to the Koksilah River. Prior to contact with Europeans and the onset of introduced disease, these waterways in the lower Cowichan Valley were densely populated.
Some distance upstream from Green Point, on the north arm of the Cowichan, is the site of the former winter village of kwiemiyaken or 'Comiaken' (perhaps meaning 'pull out of water at top'). This name refers to the general area around Comiaken Hill and the 'Stone Church' built by Father Peter Rondeault in the early 1860s. In 1850, this village had four large houses and about fifty extended families. Because of its proximity to the sea the people at Comiaken, like the people from the Green Point village, were oriented to the sea. For example, the Comiaken erected tidal weirs to catch fish as the tide receded. The first ancestors of the Comiaken are said to have dropped from the sky onto Comiaken Hill (Rozen 1985, 155).
The juncture of the middle arm of the Cowichan River (the arm that links the Cowichan River to the Koksilah River) was the site of four villages. Lhemlhémelets' ['Clemclemalits' or 'Clem Clem'], one of the largest villages on the lower Cowichan, was located here. This village had ten large houses in 1912. Members of this village roamed widely for food gathering and were documented to have used areas in Cowichan Bay, on Saltspring Island, at Cobble Hill, and in the upper Koksilah Valley (Marble Falls). The village of xwkwó7kwxnets was located nearby, just to the south of Clem Clem. There was also a village located just 50 metres north of Clem Clem, called t'aat'ka7 ('salal berries'). This village once had four large houses, and was closely linked with the Lyackson village at Shingle Point (with the identical name). Rozen (1985, 162) reports that there was a two-way flow of people between these villages. Finally, the small village of kwthothines (with one or two houses) was located directly across the river from t'aat'ka7 and was probably closely linked to this village.
The Hul'qumi'num word xwélkw'sále refers to a former permanent village on the lower Koksilah River, located at the site where the Island Highway currently crosses the river, and to the people who lived in this village. The name has been anglicized to 'Koksilah' and now is used to refer to the river itself and several other geographic features associated with this area (e.g., Koksilah Ridge). In 1860, there were seven houses in this village. By the time Curtis visited the area (1912) there were only three houses. Eventually, the people from this village moved elsewhere, primarily to villages on the lower Cowichan River (especially Clem Clem) and on Cowichan Bay. The people of Koksilah had a seasonal fishing village at xtémten (Marble Falls) on the upper Koksilah.
The largest and perhaps best-known Cowichan village was located on the main arm of the Cowichan River roughly halfway between Cowichan Bay and the present-day city of Duncan. The original name of this village, kwómetsen, means 'humpback' or 'hunchback' and is derived from a character in a Cowichan story, a hunchbacked cannibal-ogress-giantess who 'kept children in a basket and placed pitch over their eyes before she ate them' (Rozen 1985, 170). The English name is 'Quamichan.' There are varying historical accounts of the size of the village; however, in all descriptions the village is very large. Curtis reported 32 large houses, although it is unclear if this many were present during his visit in 1912 or if this number existed prior to contact with non-Indians. At the time of first contact with non-Indians (1850s), the first census of showed there were at least 1700 people living in this village (Douglas 1853). Rozen (1985, 171) notes that the village extended for five kilometres along the Cowichan River, stretching from one kilometre above Quamichan Creek down almost to Comiaken village. Many of the descendants of the Quamichan extended families eventually moved to the 'Quamichan Subdivision' along and adjacent to Boys Road, southeast of Duncan.
Further upstream from the Silver Bridge and west of the Island Highway, is the site of the former permanent winter village of s7ómene or 'Somena.' This area, lying immediately to the south of the city of Duncan and along Allenby Road, is still known as Somena Village. The Somena people once lived around Somenos Creek and Somenos Lake, but eventually moved to the present location. It is clear that Somena was a large and important village; Curtis (1913, 175) reports ten houses here in 1912 but Cowichan elders remember a larger number. Rozen (1985, 188) notes that the Somena people erected fish weirs along the Cowichan River in front of their houses and fished and hunted at Somenos Lake and Somenos Creek. They also ranged much further, travelling east to the Fraser River and Point Roberts as well as south to Koksilah Ridge and west to Lake Cowichan.
Between Somena Village and Cowichan Lake, there are no clear records of permanent winter villages. Rozen (1985, 197) documents several Cowichan elders noting that there were no winter villages of the Cowichan people above a place called k'ixlhets ('black place' or 'dark place'), a large 'S-curve' on the river located about six kilometres above Somena. All along the upper Cowichan River, however, there are many sites that were used on a seasonal basis for fishing and other purposes. There were, for example, seasonal fishing villages or camps at ts'olho7em and shéle. Today, there is a 6.5-hectare reserve at this location (Tzart-lam No. 5).
Skutz Falls, located 35 kilometres upstream from Somena, is the anglicized version of skwets ('waterfall'), the Hul'qumi'num name for this spot. This was a popular fishing location, frequented not only by different Hul'qumi'num groups but also shared with people from the west coast. Cowichan elders described this area as being rich in wildlife. There are two small Cowichan reserves close to this location — Skutz No. 7 and Skutz No. 8 — an indication of its importance to the Cowichan. The skwets area was used by a variety of Hul'qumi'num and non-Hul'qumi'num groups, including members of the Lake Cowichan, Cowichan, Halalt, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht. Cowichan Lake was also used by the Cowichan peoples, and was an area where the Cowichan and Ditidaht peoples intermingled (and inter-married). At one point, there were several houses near the falls.
Back on the coast, Rozen (1985) reports the existence of a village at Maple Bay called xwtl'epn´ts, meaning 'deep water behind, or on bottom of, bay.' This was a small village, with a few houses used on a seasonal basis by extended families from the lower Cowichan River. Maple Bay is also an important Hul'qumi'num site for several other reasons: not only was it a source of food (fish, marine mammals, beach foods) but it also was the site of the last battle between the Coast Salish and the Southern Kwakiutl and their allies in about 1860 (Rozen 1985).