Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

Canadian Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia (Part 2):

Five Individual First Nations

This article is part two of a three-part series to explain the First Nations communities living in British Columbia. Part onefocuses on the general history, culture, and traditions of BC’s First Nations ; Part two focuses on Five individual First Nations in BC; Part three focuses on the relationship between them and Canadian settlers to BC throughout history.

In Part Two, I will talk about five groups of Pacific Coast First Nation communities in British Columbia. The five groups are: HAIDA Nation, COAST SALISH Nation, Cowichan Nation, Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, and SYILX OKANAGAN Nation. Since there are many tribes and bands in BC, it is important to keep in mind that I provide only a general overview about five groups of Pacific Coast First Nation people. This article does not reflect all the complexities and variations that are found among different First Nations in BC.

Haida Nation

Haida First Nation live in Haida Gwaii islands. Pollen fossils and oral historical records confirm that Haida ancestors were present when the first tree arrived, proving Haida settlement had been on the island for over 17,000 years. The Haida are famous for their craftsmanship, trading skills, and seamanship.

They traded regularly with the European and American fur traders and settlers. However, not all of the interactions were peaceful. The Haida defended themselves with fortifications, and took captives from their defeated enemies. During the 1780s to 1830s, they made use of the acquired modern firearms and western cannons to project themselves from European/American expeditions and aggressions. The Haida also turned aggressive towards other First Nation peoples. For example, the Haida had been attacking and enslaving the Coast Salish People in 1857.

Despite having modern weapons and well-trained warriors, smallpox and other old world diseases were introduced to the Haida communities. These diseases significantly reduced the Haida population. On top of population loss, the increasing land purchases by the white settlers reduced the Haida’s sovereignty over their territories which opened the doorway to colonial power. As the Haida’s territories were colonized, their traditions and cultural works such as totem poles were destroyed. This undermined their self-knowledge and assimilated them into the western culture. Later, the Canadian government forcibly sent Haida children to residential schools where they were to be further diminished their morale and tradition.

Haida First Nation peoples also have great art. Many of their artworks are identified by the carved, raised eyelid lines, and a distinctive concave orbit whose outline sweeps in a curve from the nose past the temple to the nostril. Another famous art of the Haida of the Haida culture is their shame figures. The artists in 1850s to 1890s produced “Curious”, which portrayed subjects previously considered as taboo. The rise of “Curious” artworks were often linked to decline of the Haida cultural values under the population loss and western assimilation.


Coast Salish First Nation, also known as Snuneymuxw, is a group of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and traditions. This group of First Nations live in territories from middle to southern Vancouver Island, Greater Vancouver Area, Peugeot Sund, and Olympic Peninsula. The Coast Salish languages are part of Salishan linguistic group. Today, there are a limited numbers of fluent speakers due to former Canadian policies and residential school system aimed at assimilation. Furthermore, a characteristic that set COAST SALISH First Nation apart is primogeniture — Male inheritance is rare among the Canadian Indigenous cultures. The population is estimated to be 56,590 in 2013.

Traditionally, Coast Salish peoples live in permanent villages during the winter, while they stay in temporary camps during the summer time. Their houses are built with red cedar wood. 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. Cedar poles formed the foundations of the longhouses, followed by a framework of fluted beams overlaid with cedar roof planks. Their houses are large longhouses that can accommodate several families, each with its separate living area.

Culturally, Coast Salish knowledges are passed down through oral histories. Many of their stories focus on importance of nature maintenance and certain resources. For example, the cedar tree are considered sacred for the resources they provide for them. Many beliefs are associated with the cedar tree. Coast Salish shamans often had cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” or “anti-inflammatory properties” to ward off the evil and protect the communities.

Last, art is also an important part of Coast Salish society. House posts and motifs featuring American Northwest animals and spiritual beings are major part in their art works.


Cowichan First Nation, also known as Ts’uubaa-asatx, lives in territory located in the Cowichan Valley region on Vancouver Island, BC. The population is over 4,900, making the Cowichan First Nation tribes the largest First Nation group in British Columbia. The Cowichan tribes are called “Quq’tsun Hwulmuhw”, meaning the “People of the warm land”.

Today, the Ts’uubaa-asatx Nation has a reverse area of 5,900 acres, made up of nine reserves, with a core traditional territory is 900,000 acres. Ts’uubaa-asatx is governed by a chief among 12 councillors under the Indian Act.

Kwakwaka’wakw Nation

Kwakwaka’wakw, KWAKiUTL First Nation. According to a 2016 census, Kwakwaka’wakw is made up of 3,665people. Most of them live on Vancouver Island. Their oral history says their ancestors came in the forms of animals by way of the land, sea, or underground. When one of the ancestral animals arrived at a given spot, it became human. Animals in Kwakwaka’wakw origin myth include the Thunderbird, orca, grizzly bear, or chief ghost. Some ancestors have human origins and are described to come from far-away places.

Kwakwaka’wakw peoples have their crests that represent an animal or supernatural beings that are believed to be their ancestors. They display their crests that belonged to their lineages on the “Totem Poles.” The totem poles features visual representations of kinship, serving to document stories and histories. For instance, Kwakwaka’wakw families of northern Vancouver Island belonging to the Thunderbird Clan feature a Thunderbird crest and familial legends on their poles.

Traditionally, Kwakwaka’wakw economy based on fishing, with men working as fishermen and hunters, and the women working as gatherers. Socially, social status and wealth are not determined by the ‘amount one has, but by how much you have to give away’. Today, many traditional ceremonies remain, and winter ceremony is an important tradition in Kwakwaka’wakw communities. In the winter ceremony, Kwakwaka’wakw peoples practice their sacred red cedar bark ceremonial in which myths are re-enacted in songs and dances using spectacular masks.

Marriage in Kwakwaka’wakw culture is interesting. After a few years into the marriage, a woman is redeemed by her side of the family through the repayment of marriage debt. The repayment ceremony include the food, luxurious goods, copper, and ceremonial privileges, which are given to the groom in return for the payment he made to his father-in-law before the marriage. The ceremony begins by placing sea otter teeth on the beach in the outline of a symbolic double canoe. It ends with the transfer of a copper, a symbol of considerable wealth and a box filled with ceremonial privileges as whistles, masks, and rattles.

There two types of Kwakwaka’wakw art styles: Southern and Northern KWAKiUTL Arts. Southern Kwakwaka’wakw sculptures are characterized by angular carvings, preference for overall painting, and flamboyant expression. Whereas the Northern Kwakwaka’wakw sculptures are transitional and have unique characteristics such as the shape of the mouth and the yes placed high in the orbits.

Syilx Okanagan Nation

Syilx Okanagan First Nation lives in today’s Okanagan areas in interior British Columbia. In their origin myth and oral histories, the Syilx people believe to guide to the Okanagan areas by “k̓ʷuləncútən” — A all mighty Creator. They have come from the land and animal themselves. Their ancestors are the “Pant and Animal peoples” whom the Syilx people believe their teachings, values, and world views are originated from.

Like other pacific coast First Nations, the Syilx was first contacted with white settlers via the fur trade and settlements. The Syilx people were often not thought about during this phase of settler development and is the centre of issues still today regarding Title and Rights to the Okanagan territories. With increasing numbers of White settlement occurring, many impediments are felt by Syilx people especially in regards to the introduction of old-world diseases.

Today, BC’s Syilx members live in reserves along Okanagan lake, Round Lake, Swan Lake, Duck Lake, Wood Lake, and Kalamalka Lake. They speak Nsyilxcn, one of 23 Salishan languages. The use of Nsyilxcn terms have come to be very prominent in Okanagan areas in British Columbia. For example, the term ‘Okanagan’ is an Anglicized version of ‘suqnaqinx’ which refers to the tops of the mountains. It sometimes refers to the people who speak Nsyilxcn. Another example is the various cities named after Nsyilxcn terms. They include Kelowna, Pentiction, etc. Overall, the use of Nsyilxcn terms are widely used for a variety of reasons in the Okanagan areas, as these terms are Anglicized used as the name for cities and places.

More continue in Part Three.


Black, Martha. “Totem Poles in the Royal BC Museum.” Royal British Columbia Museum. Victoria, B.C.

Goodfellow, Anne. “Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast.” BC Studies, 1991, pp. 185.

Hanson, Eric.“Oral Traditions.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations and Indigenous Studies UBC, 2020. Accessed 14 September 2021.

“History of Syilx Okanagan People.” Okanagan Indian Band. Our History, 2021. Acessed 16 September 2021.

Huang, Alice.“Totem Poles.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations and Indigenous Studies UBC, 2020. Accessed 16 September 2021.

Huang, Alice.“Cedar.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations and Indigenous Studies UBC, 2020. Accessed 17 September 2021.

“Kwakwaka’wakw.” Northwest Coast Village Project. Bill Reid Centre, Simon Fraser University, 1990. Accessed 16 September 2021.

Sturtevant, William C., Wayne P. Suttles, and Xwi7xwa Collection. Handbook of North American Indians: Volume 7, Northwest Coast. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C, 1990.

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.

Kennedy, Dorothy and Randy Bouchard. “Coast Salish”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 25 July 2019, Historica Canada. Accessed 15 September 2021.

“Tribes and History of The First Nation Peoples.” My Mondo Trading. Accessed 15 September 2021.

Mills, Edward and Harold D. Kalman. “Architectural History of Indigenous Peoples in Canada”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 27 April 2020, Historica Canada. Accessed 16 September 2021.

Kennedy, Dorothy and Randy Bouchard. “Interior Salish”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 11 January 2021, Historica Canada. Accessed 17 September 2021.

Robinson, Harry, Wendy C. Wickwire, and desLibris – Books. Nature Power: In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller. Edited by Wendy Wickwire. Talonbooks, Vancouver, 2004; 2000.

Webster, Gloria Cranmer. “Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl)”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 03 August 2018, Historica Canada. Accessed 15 September 2021.

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