First Nations is the contemporary name used for Aboriginal people of British Columbia in Canada. They have been known by various names like Indians, Natives, Native Americans, American Indians, or Amerindians. Irrespective of the name you choose to address these people, these are the original inhabitants of the land that we now know as Canada. You could call them the Indigenous people of Canada. They lost their lands and identities to the Europeans when they first landed here a few centuries back. Today, British Columbia First Nations people are reclaiming their identity by reclaiming public places that showcase their arts.
They are documenting their languages that were always spoken and never written and recording their oral histories. Everywhere I traveled in Canada, I could prominently see their imprint. Mostly this was in the form of colorful wood carved Totem Poles or painted walls. Souvenir shops were full of artifacts with tribal motifs.
I am always most fascinated by the oldest living parts of any place. So, in British Columbia, I was fascinated by the tribes. I wanted to know all about their history, their culture, their faith, their practices, their crafts and decipher the stories hidden in their Totem Poles.
Who are British Columbia First Nations Aboriginals?
We know they are aboriginal people and that they were called Indians earlier. But who are these people? Is it one homogenous tribe or do they have different tribes within them? Did these people have any contact with the rest of the world? Did they always live here or they came from somewhere else? What happened when the Europeans landed here in 18th CE and what kind of interactions they had?
Well, be prepared for a surprise. There are more than 600 First Nations Communities in Canada and there are about 200 of them in British Columbia First Nations.
One of the theories of the origins of First Nations says that these people came from Siberia thousands of years ago. They came via land and sea route and landed somewhere in Alaska. From there, they started moving around and settling down in different places. This looks plausible as the features of many people do have chubby cheeks and small eyes. However, most tribal people believe that they have lived here since time immemorial.
Ontario has the largest aboriginal population in Canada followed by British Columbia. In British Columbia, the first tribal groups were defined by the distinct languages they speak. A map below shows the tribe names and the languages they speak.
The northwest coast of Canada was inhabited because of the abundance of food available here – especially the fish besides the ample vegetation. These tribal people would spend 7-8 months of the year wandering and collecting food for the 4-month long winter. It was during these winter months that they would sit and carve wood & create some beautiful artifacts used for practical and spiritual use.
When Europeans landed on the North West Coast of Canada, both the parties welcomed each other in their own way. As the Europeans started settling down, they pushed the British Columbia First Nations people away from their areas. They wanted the land so these people had to move away.
Unfortunately, the worst thing Europeans brought with them were the diseases that the local people had no immunity to. This led to major deaths among the tribal people especially because they were communicable diseases like smallpox and measles. One infected person killed the whole village. They not only lost their lands and livelihoods but also succumbed to the newly arrived diseases.
Europeans thought native Indians are not able to cope with modernity. They started collecting their artifacts for their museums back home – in their minds they were preserving them for posterity.
Red Cedar Tree is at the heart of the North West Pacific coast tribal people’s lives. This is one tree that can serve all their needs – right from making items of everyday use to ritual items. They used the red Cedar tree available in abundance here for clothing, housing, and transportation. They even weaved their baskets using the bark of the Cedar Tree.
Red Cedar Tree is called the tree of life in the tribal communities on the North West Pacific Coast. It is light and soft, allowing the users to manipulate it with the simplest of tools. Remember they used this in the pre-machine era. Cedar Tree has oil that repels water as well as bugs, so it was perfect for outdoor use. Yes, it is a natural pesticide.
Choosing Cedar Tree
At the Squamish and Lilawat Cultural Center in Whistler, the tour guide, who herself came from the Lilawat community spoke about how they chose the trees before taking their bark or before cutting them. She said – you hug the tree and only if you can touch your fingers while hugging can you take it from the tree. Else you leave it alone to grow. If your fingers touch, you pray to the tree and then take no more than 2 hands or 2 arm lengths of bark from the tree. After taking you to thank the tree for giving you the life-sustaining material.
It reminded me of the tree worshipping people I had met at Achanakmar in Chhattisgarh. How similar are the aboriginal cultures across the world?
I saw a lot of images of Cedar Trees with barks taken off them – just about a couple of arm lengths taken and the rest of the trees left intact. They are called culturally modified trees.
At the same center, I made a small bracelet with the soaked Cedar tree bark, that I brought back as a souvenir with me.
At the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, I saw a box made of seasoned Cedarwood without any nails. It was made by bending or folding the seasoned wood. These boxes that are just stitched at one side are watertight – families used them to store anything from regalia to grain to water. Impressive!
Yellow Cedar has finer grains so it is used more for art pieces like the Bill Reid masterpieces we will soon see.
British Columbia First Nations Territories Map
This map across British Columbia shows the tribes and their names and the regions they inhabited.
In Whistler, I gathered it belongs to Lilawat people who lived a little north of Whistler. To the South of Whistler is the land of the Squamish people. Vancouver City is the land of the Musqueam people while in Victoria it is the Songhees, Saanich, and Esquimalt people who inhabited it. Why I am mentioning these – well, I visited the lands of these people, so acknowledging that.
There has been evidence, like the presence of shells that are not native that indicate that the tribes were trading with the other parts of the world.
Story of Haida Gwaii
An interesting fact that I learned about Haida Gwaii island was that it was called Queen Charlotte Island. When the British Captain George Dixon arrived on these islands in 1790 – one of his ships that were called Queen Charlotte. She was also the queen of King George III of England for whom the captain was claiming the island. However, in 2010 the Haida tribe in a ceremony returned the name and now the island is called Haida Gwaii or the land of the Haidas.
Interestingly, the tribes never signed any treaties with the colonial powers. They never sold their lands and never surrendered anything to them, which many other tribes did during those times. So, a lot of land titles still belong to them. A lot of them are in courts trying to reclaim their lands, their names, and their space on the map of the world.
Like most ancient tribes, their people also worshipped nature. I watched a video at Whistler Cultural center that talked about how they worshipped the mountains, the rivers, the earth, and their ancestors. They believe that the good people were turned into mountains – which means mountains are their ancestors. They talk about their living relationship with rivers, forests, and mountains.
Ancestor worship is the most prevalent one. In their ritual dances and ceremonies, their ancestors descend down and are present there to bless or to be the witness. This is done through the elaborate masks that they wear while dancing. Like in Ramlila at Ramnagar, they become the person or the spirit that they are portraying.
Similarly, the transformation was possible between humans and animals. However, religion remained a private affair and not a public one. Rituals and ceremonies were performed either at home or in spirit houses.
There are a few stories I heard from the vast collection of their folk tales. There is a common story about how a raven brought light to earth by stealing the sun. You would hear different versions of it from different tribes. There is a story about Dzunukwa – a woman who stole children. This is a story that mothers would tell children to put them to sleep.
British Columbia First Nations Aboriginals Art
Their art has two distinct eras. One set of artifacts belongs to the pre-colonization era. This includes original Totem Poles, Wood carving panels, everyday use items, woven blankets, ritual regalia, etc. These items can now be seen in various museums around the world. All the old art has been done by anonymous artists – they were probably artist guilds who were commissioned by the noble families.
The second set is the revivalist artifacts by modern artists who are using the same motifs but making modern artworks. The credit for this revival goes to one artist – Mungo Martin who came from the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of British Columbia First Nations. He was a master sculptor, a poet & a musician who carved Totem Poles even during the Potlatch ban. He will be best remembered for training the next generation of woodcarvers in the community people. And he also insisted that carving Totem Poles is spiritual work. It is done to honor their ancestors. This in a way worked in bringing pride back in the community.
Bill Reid is another artist who was half first Nation from his mother’s side and he created some huge sculptures combining both sides of his lineage. One of his masterpieces in Jade can be seen at the Vancouver Airport. It shows a canoe full of humans and animals.
Another one of his works was featured on the Canadian $20 currency note. Now, that is quite an honor for a contemporary artist.
Look for his Raven & the first men sculpture at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.
Emily Carr is the most famous modern artist of British Columbia. She also began by painting totem poles and you can see her works at Vancouver Art Gallery and at Audain Museum in Whistler.
Let me walk you through some of the communities common artworks:
These are tall carved wood poles. They are oral storytelling poles that tell the story of the family that erected them. They tell about the status and the wealth of the family.
Most Totem poles have human figures, animal figures, and some mythical elements. The families or clans were identified by animals like bears or frogs or ravens etc. This animal would then be part of all paraphernalia associated with the family including the Totem Poles.
Each of the communities had its own way to carve and its own design elements. For example, Haida pieces can be identified by the shape of the eyes that they carve as Ovoid or squarish roundel. Even contemporary artists would use these key elements to depict their heritage.
Totem poles could be raised only by chiefs or high-ranking families. Not everyone could raise the poles.
Carved wood panels exist on the walls of the houses.
Canoes were used for fishing and transportation across rivers. They were the prized possession of first nations people. These long narrow boats were carved out of a single Cedar tree – mostly red cedar tree but sometimes yellow too. They took the trunk of a single tree and then scooped out the wood to create the hollow space.
Once it is hollow enough, it would be steamed – yes by heating it. The steaming process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months depending on the size of the canoe. The wood has to be soft enough for the craftsmen to work on it. Once it is soft enough, a group of men would pull it on either side to give it the required width.
Canoes were carved as per the waters they were to ply on. For example, the islands of Haida Gwaii have rough waters so they needed big and sturdy canoes. On the other hand, Musqueams of Vancouver who mostly used canoes in the Fraser river for fishing needed basic flat-bottomed canoes. Squamish canoes can be as long as 75 feet in length.
Panels attached to the canoe for sitting have sacred images on them.
As soon as motors arrived, the fishermen shifted to motored boats. However, canoes are still made for ceremonial purposes.
I could see a special one at the Legislative Assembly building in Victoria.
Aboriginals Heritage Masks
All masks have a spiritual meaning to them and the curators will tell you that you must handle them respectfully with two hands. They are scared as they are part of rituals and ceremonies.
Some common masks you will see are:
- Raven Mask – It usually represents ancestors. Wearing it means bringing the ancestors to the ceremony.
- Bear Mask – It can be a family ancestor or a play the role of someone who oversees the potlatch ceremony ensuring that everyone is doing their role and wearing their regalia.
- Eagle Mask – Used by the Eagle clan families
- Dzunukwa Mask or Wild Woman Mask – There is a story in every first nations community about this woman who has a basket on her back. She picks up little children in her basket, takes them home, and has them for dinner. Dzunukwa has big red lips she moves around making a noise. Ironically, she is also a symbol of wealth & prosperity.
- Bakwas – This is a water creature who takes away drowned people and someone with the power to hypnotize.
Bear in mind that each of the communities has its own ways to use masks and this is just an indicative description to give you an idea of how these masks are used.
At every museum, you can see baskets of various kinds woven from red cedar roots or bark. Some of them are loosely woven and some of them are so tightly woven that they can even hold water. Imagine the skill required to weave the soaked bark of a tree in a way that it would not even allow water to pass through it!
Like most ancient tribes, British Columbia First Nations communities were also master weavers. They used the wool of the local sheep and a woolly white dog that it seems is extinct now. For colors, they used plant-based dyes.
The patterns on all the woven pieces I saw across museums were geometrical – which is again common across ancient communities. The fabric is coarse. Clothes woven for the chief carried the community symbols or icons.
In the late 19th, CE shiploads of machine-made blankets started coming to Vancouver and that was the end of hand-woven fabrics. The machine-made stuff was cheap and easily available, so why toil on collecting fur, spinning & weaving?
Life came full circle for British Columbia first nations weaving when some women in the 1970s started learning the traditional way of weaving.
And the Spindles that were used for weaving can be seen as a symbol at the inner harbor in Victoria.
Costumes & Jewelry
In their world, the costumes along with masks help you transform into another world. There are elaborate costumes like button blankets with family insignia or Chilkat’s. I loved the bone blanket holders I saw on Squamish costumes. There is jewelry made out of animal bones and silver. Basically, nothing that was taken from nature was wasted – everything was utilized.
Copper was a well-used metal among them though I did not see many old artifacts made of copper.
Potlatch is a sacred ceremony of the First Nations in Canada. Potlatch literally means ‘To Give’. This sacred ceremony has economic, political, and spiritual ramifications. Potlatch was done when the family raised a Totem Pole and everyone was invited to witness the event.
In the absence of written history, stories of the family were told at the Potlatch event, and gifts are given to everyone invited to Potlatch by the host family. The status of the chief’s family came from how much you could give away. Having said that, the gifts are given as per the status of the guest – big ones get the bigger gifts. It sounds so much like Indian weddings.
Potlatches were banned in British Columbia from 1884 To 1951. The Britishers did not understand the concept of collective ownership that first nations communities practiced. They also wanted to set up a very European model of governance so to enforce that they banned ceremonies like Potlatch. They would take children to be taught English and given Christian names. This was intentionally or unintentionally erasing their culture. Thankfully, the ban was lifted and you can witness a modern Potlatch if you have friends in the communities.
A Potlatch ceremony begins with a long whistle sound that in a way announces the formal beginning of the ceremony. Potlatch involves mask dances with huge wooden masks. It is about bringing the ancestors alive through transformation. The chief also dances wearing his elaborate headdress along with a button blanket with the family crest on it. Button blankets are worn by the high-ranking people in the clans mostly but sometimes children can also wear them.
Potlatches are overseen by the women of the family. Any mistakes in the ceremonies are looked down upon and sometimes even fined. There is a lot of family prestige at stake if you make mistakes.
Salmon and seafood are the main food served at Potlatches.
For more information on Potlatch – refer to this Wikipedia page.
Watch a video of a modern Potlatch ceremony.
Potlatches today are not as elaborate as they used to be in the past. However, they still have the same essence – they are about the family, about acknowledging and respecting their ancestors and hence their lineage.
Potlatches can be called for raising a pole or after the death of a family member of the chief or when the name is passed on from one generation to the next.
As the First Nations reclaim their space in their own land, they are also venturing into aboriginal tourism. Check out their website. The tourism infrastructure of British Columbia is totally supporting them by showcasing their culture in all possible public places and museums.
Best Places to Know British Columbia First Nations Aboriginals
Here are some places where you can learn more about Aboriginal Tourism in British Columbia:
Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia, Vancouver
I highly recommend taking a guided tour of this museum. They tell you the story in a way that the culture and lives come alive. They will even tell you that some of the museums in New York, Berlin, London, etc have a much bigger collection of their art but that is all from the past. This museum is situated on their land and is in constant dialogue with the artisans. They regularly talk to community elders and the new generation to see what these artworks mean for each of them.
You can see a traditional Haida house behind the museum. There are all kinds of artifacts on display.
What I recommend is to sit back on comfortable red chairs and listen to them tell you their folk tales. I heard one of them for 10 mins or so, but if I had all the time in this world, I would just sit back and listen to these stories while surrounded by the items that help me visualize those stories.
Royal BC Museum, Victoria
This is a beautifully curated museum that takes you through the history of the tribal people through various objects. I loved their Totem Pole gallery which almost gives you a feeling of being in an aboriginal village.
The best part of the Royal BC Museum at Victoria is its documentation of the languages of the tribes. You can see how they are trying to document the spoken languages by recording with elders. How they are developing a script that has all the sounds their languages have using the Roman script. You can enter small cells and hear the language to know how they sound. You can press the button and hear a greeting in the different first nation’s languages.
How I wish we could do this for all vanishing languages of the world.
Squamish and Lil’wat Cultural Center, Whistler
This small but lovely center was my first introduction to the tribal communities. The center talks about two tribes – Squamish which lives a bit south of Whistler and Lil’wat which lives a little North of Whistler.
I loved the guided tour and the small video showing their cultures and traditions. I had Goosebumps while watching the video & while exploring the souvenir shop. And I knew I would re-align the rest of my trip to know more and that is exactly what I did.
Audain Museum, Aboriginals art, Whistler
This museum also takes you through both the old and the new Aboriginals’ art. Here I saw this amazing wood-carved screen that is used for performances. It reminded me of Arjuna’s Penance in Mahabalipuram where we have a backdrop full of stories for a performance stage.
All around the screen is Salmon – the key food around which life sustained. In the center of the screen are all the animals who rely on salmon for food. On one side of the screen is the female killer whale on another side the male killer whale. Up above a Raven is holding two humans. In the center is the Shaman sitting on a door panel. The dancers would come in through this screen indicating that they are coming from a spiritual world. The shaman is the witness to the performance.
There is so much more I want to know about these lovely people of British Columbia.