Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

Canadian Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia (Part 1):

Pacific Coast First Nations

This article and the next two articles are a three-part series to explain the First Nations communities living in British Columbia. Part one focuses on the general history, culture, and traditions of BC’s First Nations; Part two focuses on the various individual First Nations bands in BC; Part three focuses on the relationship between them and Canadian settlers to BC throughout history. These articles aim to provide readers with a general overview of BC’s First Nations in different eras, from the pre-contact to the current time.

Pacific Coast First Nations in British Columbia

Before the arrival of European settlers to the West Coast of Canada, Indigenous peoples have settled in what is now British Columbia for more than 10,000 years. They were able to their cultures, laws, and material and spiritual needs through the resources of the natural world around them. There are six main First Nation groups in Canada: Woodland First Nations, Iroquoian First Nations, Plains First Nations, Plateau First Nations, Pacific Coast First Nations, and First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins. In British Columbia, the First Nation communities are the “Pacific Coast First Nations.”

It is important keep in mind that I provide only a general overview, and this article does not reflect all the variations that are found among different First Nations in BC.

The Pacific Coast First Nations is culturally distinct from the other five groups of First Nations in Canada. The First Nations inhabiting in British Columbia are subdivided into many tribes and bands. They have very similar cultures and traditions, shaped mainly by a familiar environment. Today, according to information on “B.C. FIRST NATIONS & INDIGENOUS PEOPLE”, WelcomeBC estimates:

The Pacific Coast First Nations have about 200,000 Indigenous peoples and are made up of 198distinct First Nation communities. Among them, there are more than 30 different First Nation languages, and 60 dialects are spoken ———– WelcomeBC

 

Social Organization

The Pacific Coast First Nations has well-defined social order. The basic social unit for all First Nations in British Columbia is the lineage whose members claim descent from a common ancestor. Even though there are differences in the degree to which each band practiced the customs, they all have social classes in which the aristocratic class is the top and regards as superior by birth.

Most lineages have their crests that represent an animal or supernatural beings that are believed to be their ancestors. They display their crest that belonged to their lineages and the powerful rights and privileges that a family held on the “Totem Poles.” The Totem Poles features visual representations of kinship, serving to document stories and histories familiar to the community or family. For instance, Kwakwaka’wakw families of northern Vancouver Island belonging to the Thunderbird Clan feature a Thunderbird crest and familial legends on their poles. Influential families may have more than one crest. Totem poles can also be used to honour a particular event or individual. They may be built to commemorate the life of a chief, or may be commissioned to celebrate an important milestone, the reason for the pole’s creation is shared and celebrated in such ceremonies.

Food and Resources

The food resource of the First Nations in British Columbia is seafood — salmon, seaweed, shellfish, and whale. The easy access to abundant seafood makes it possible for them to build and settle in permanent villages. Their diet consists of dried and smoked salmon so that it can be stored and eaten later. Fish oil is also part of their diet, serving as a condiment with dried fish during the cold winter.

The forestland in British Columbia gives BC’s First Nations access to cedar. Since they do not use metal nails and bolts, withes of cedar are used to lash together roof planks and setting baseboards, a vital part of construction. Their houses are large longhouses that can accommodate several families, each with its separate living area. Cedar poles formed the foundations of the longhouses, followed by a framework of fluted beams overlaid with cedar roof planks. Furthermore, a wide array of gear from cedar wood. For example, the Pacific Coast First Nations travelled almost exclusively by water using canoes made of cedar wood. Most hunting canoe can carry one or two passengers and is about 5 metres long. The larger canoes are more than 16 metres long and can carry 40 passengers and two tons of cargo. Another example is that the freshly caught fish are preserved in cedar smokehouses or dried on cedar racks. Food can be stored in bentwood boxes, which are made from a single cedar plank bent using steam to form four sides.

In addition, the importance of red cedar plays a role in the spiritual beliefs. They recognize that the cedar tree has its own life and spirit. Many beliefs and taboos are also associated with the cedar tree. For example, a person who killed a tree through improper harvesting would be cursed by other trees. Similarly, Coast Salish and Tlingit shamans often had cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” or “anti-inflammatory properties” to ward off the evil and protect the communities.

Traditions and Beliefs

The spiritual beliefs and knowledge of the Pacific First Nations are passed down through oral traditions. According to scholars Renée Hulan and Renate Eigenbrod, oral traditions are “the means by which knowledge is reproduced, preserved and conveyed from generation to generation. Oral traditions form the foundation of Aboriginal societies, connecting speaker and listener in communal experience and uniting past and present in memory.”

Oral-based knowledge systems are predominant among First Nations. Stories teach important lessons about a society’s culture, the land, and the ways in which members are expected to interact with each other and their environment.

The Pacific First Nations believe that they are part of the whole of creation — all beings, values, and the world are “all gifts from the Creator”. So, the First Nations give thanks to things they depend on for survival as individuals and members of their communities — ‘Living in harmony with the natural world and all it contained.’ This utmost respect that they have for all beings in the natural world is reflected in songs, festivals, and ceremonies.  The Pacific Coast has traditions and rituals relating to the annual salmon run. There are a welcoming ceremony and offerings to the first salmon of the year, thanking the salmon for providing the communities with much-needed foods. For the principles that guide their day-to-day conduct, they treat all objects in their environment with deep respect and promote harmony and balance with everything and everyone in the natural world.

More continue in Part Two.

Bibliography

Archibald, Jo-ann, Archibald, Jo-ann, Q’um Q’um Xiiem, and Xwi7xwa Collection. Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. UBC Press, Vancouver, 2008;2014;.

Black, Martha. “Totem Poles in the Royal BC Museum.” Royal British Columbia Museum. Victoria, B.C. http://staff.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/WARSAW.pdf.

“B.C. First Nations & Indigenous People. ” WelcomeBC. Explore British Columbia, https://www.welcomebc.ca/Choose-B-C/Explore-British-Columbia/B-C-First-Nations-Indigenous-People. Accessed 13 September 2021.

“First Nations in Canada. ” Government of Canada. Indigenous Peoples and Community, https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1307460755710/1536862806124#chp1. Accessed 13 September 2021.

Eigenbrod, Renate, Renée Hulan, and Xwi7xwa Collection. Aboriginal Oral Traditions: Theory, Practice, Ethics. Fernwood Pub, Black Point, N.S, 2008.

Huang, Alice.“Totem Poles.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations and Indigenous Studies UBC, 2020. Accessed 13 September 2021. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/totem_poles/.

Huang, Alice.“Cedar.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations and Indigenous Studies UBC, 2020. Accessed 12 September 2021. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/cedar/.

Hanson, Eric.“Oral Traditions.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations and Indigenous Studies UBC, 2020. Accessed 13 September 2021. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/oral_traditions/.

Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Douglas & McIntyre, Seattle;Vancouver;, 1993.

Stryd, Arnoud H., and Vicki Feddema. “Sacred Cedar: The Cultural and Archaeological Significance of Cultural Modified Trees.” Report of the Pacific Salmon Forests Project. Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation, 1998.

Halpin, Marjorie M. Totem Poles: An Illustrated Guide. UBC Press, Vancouver, 2000.

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