Hot, dry summers and cold winters are typical throughout the Plateau. This climate creates an environment well suited to mule and white-tailed deer, caribou, black bear, grizzly bear, elk and mountain sheep, as well as smaller animals, including coyote, fox, lynx, wolf, raccoon, porcupine, marten, weasel, beaver, marmot and hare. The major rivers have supported annual runs of PACIFIC SALMON and other fish, which were a traditional mainstay of subsistence.
Major Languages and First Nations
The linguistic families represented by this culture area in Canada are the Athapaskan (NICOLA-SIMILKAMEEN, now extinct) and Salishan languages. The Nations living within the Plateau were the Interior Salish - Shuswap (now Secwepemc), Lillooet (now Stl'atl'imx), Thompson (now Nlaka'pamux), and Okanagan (see SALISH, INTERIOR); Kutenai who lived along the Rocky Mountains (also Ktunaxa, KOOTENAY); CHILCOTIN (Tsilhqot'in); and Carrier peoples (see NATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES).
Archaeologists postulate that about 9000-10 000 years ago, not long after the glaciers from the most recent ice age receded, the British Columbia Plateau was populated by Aboriginal people who had migrated northward from more southerly areas of this same Plateau, where the glaciers had receded earlier (see PREHISTORY). Gradually there emerged a culture adapted to the forested mountains, sage- and cactus-covered hills, and riverine resources of the area.
The Plateau's abundant natural resources were the major stimulus that attracted non-Aboriginal people to this area. At first it was furs - the lure of furs brought the explorer Alexander MACKENZIE into contact with the Northern Shuswap people in 1793, and David THOMPSON into Kootenay country in 1807. In 1808 Simon FRASER explored the river that now bears his name. All of these explorers were received hospitably by the Plateau Indigenous people. One chief took Fraser by the arm and directed him to shake hands with each of the 1200 Aboriginal people assembled at Lytton to meet him.
By the 1820s, fur-trading posts were established throughout the Plateau. With the introduction of firearms and metal implements, the hunting of fur-bearing animals became much more efficient, and soon the numbers of these animals dwindled. At the same time, diseases such as measles, influenza and smallpox swept through the Aboriginal settlements, killing thousands of Aboriginal people.
Gold was the impetus for the next wave of non-Indigenous people to overrun the Plateau. The discovery of gold in 1857 on the Fraser River attracted almost 30 000 fortune seekers of many ethnic backgrounds (see GOLD RUSHES). Not surprisingly, violence erupted immediately. In an effort to restore peace and protect Aboriginal lands from further encroachment, the new governor of BC, James DOUGLAS, began working out a policy of Aboriginal rights. He decided the best way to handle the problem of land ownership was to extinguish ABORIGINAL RIGHTS to their lands through treaties and compensation. The Aboriginal people would then live on INDIAN RESERVES. On the Canadian Plateau, no INDIAN TREATIES were signed and no compensation was paid, although reserves were allotted and surveyed beginning in 1858. Many large reserves established during the Colonial period were subsequently reduced after Confederation in 1871. By the late 1890s all of the Plateau peoples had been assigned to live on scattered, small reserves.
Only an incomplete record exists to describe what Plateau life was like before it was affected by the presence of Euro-Canadians. When the first detailed studies of these people were made in the late 1880s and early 1900s, the traditional ways had already changed dramatically. The summation that follows from the works of pioneer ethnographers James TEIT, Franz BOAS, George Mercer DAWSON and Charles HILL-TOUT, supplemented by the work of contemporary researchers, reflects our gaps in knowledge of traditional Plateau life.
In this region groups of related people worked and travelled together in the spring, summer and fall, then joined with other such groups to winter in relatively permanent winter villages. Plateau society was egalitarian and communal in most respects, although men were the major decision makers. Within each village there were a number of chiefs or headmen who organized economic activities; eg, there was a salmon chief for fishing, and so on. The advice of these men was taken seriously, but every adult male took part in gatherings to discuss the general concerns of the group. In some areas of the Plateau a council of elders was drawn from the community at large; when confronted with an issue affecting the band, a head-man invited other males to discuss it. Often it was the advice of the elders or the most experienced that was accepted.
Division of Labour
The division of labour was based on gender. Men were responsible for hunting, trapping, fishing and manufacturing implements from bone, wood and stone, and also for warfare. Women's responsibilities included preparing food for meals and for winter storage, harvesting plants, maintaining the home and caring for small children. There was little formal specialization of roles. Those men who had acquired certain physical and spiritual abilities during their adolescent training became "professional" hunters of bear and mountain goat. All men were expected to be competent deer hunters. Land and its resources were considered communal property, with a few exceptions. Some salmon-fishing stations were owned by individuals, while others were owned collectively by resident or village groups. Remote hunting grounds and root-harvesting grounds were generally open to all those who spoke the same language, and consent to use these areas was sometimes extended to others. Obligatory sharing and economic egalitarianism formed the basic ethos of the society. Some groups of Shuswap and Lillooet had a system of hereditary stewardship which associated certain hunters with areas they knew well.
Relying primarily on hunting and trapping, the people of the Plateau also traded their fish, furs, tools and weapons. They hunted large animals using traps such as pitfall and deadfall traps, used bows and arrows for smaller prey and caught waterfowl with nets. Food was shared liberally among all villagers. At public salmon-fishing stations, a weir or net was used to catch fish for the entire village, and men with harpoons caught fish for their individual families' needs.
As the Plateau economy was based on seasonal hunting, fishing and gathering all reliant on unpredictable availability, much time and effort was spent smoking food or drying it for storage. Preserving food was critical to ensure the survival of the community, and the entire community, children and adults, was involved in this activity.
Food was not always plentiful - there were occasions when the salmon runs failed, certain animals were not available, or root and berry crops did not materialize. At such times the people had to travel farther and work harder to survive. Each spring the appearance of the first run of salmon and the first fruits or berries was celebrated with a special ceremony to ensure a good harvest.
Transportation on the Plateau was by dugout canoes made from red cedar or cottonwood, or bark canoes from white pine or birch. SNOWSHOES were commonly used - their designs were specifically suited to the varying conditions of snow and terrain. In early times dogs were used as pack animals as well as in hunting deer. By the 1730s the HORSE was introduced into the Canadian Plateau from farther south and this change dramatically improved the mobility of Aboriginal people. It is likely that the Kootenay were the first Plateau group in Canada to obtain horses.
The three main house types found on the Plateau were the semi-subterranean pit house, the tule-mat lodge and the TIPI, ti pi meaning "used for dwelling in." The Plateau peoples were semi-nomadic and their dwellings were constructed from portable, reusable materials. The pit house most often consisted of a circular or squarish excavated pit protected by a conical roof of poles covered with brush and earth, and moss chinking filling the cracks and holes. Variations were found from area to area - the pit could be circular or square, the roof conical, pyramidical or almost flat, and the entrance either a hole (which also served as an exit for smoke) in the centre of the roof or a door at the side of the roof. Sometimes tunnels acted as entrances or connected several pit houses together. Although pit houses were most commonly used as winter dwellings, recent information suggests they were sometimes used at other times of the year.
Lodges covered with bark or mats of tule or grass were used throughout the Plateau. There were 3 main ground plans: rectangular, parallel sides with rounded ends, or rectangular with one end rounded. For winter use these lodges were banked around their bases with dirt and snow. Lodges housed several families with separate sleeping areas and a shared central area for cooking and other communal domestic activities. One or more fires were positioned in the centre of the lodge. In the Kootenay area of the Plateau, hide-covered tipis were used in addition to the other dwelling types. The Kootenay tipi used a four-pole foundation, with about 15 supplementary poles. Lean-tos of poles and brush were also used for shelters at temporary camps. Other structures included a SWEAT LODGE for men and a menstrual isolation place for women. Traditional-style dwellings were generally last used in the Canadian Plateau around the mid- to late 1800s, although in some areas their use extended into the early 1900s.
Plateau peoples felt a deep connection with the inanimate beings that inhabited their environment. Everything around them was imbued with special powers, even rocks and trees. This spiritual relationship with nature permeated all aspects of daily life (see NATIVE PEOPLE, RELIGION). During adolescence, every individual underwent special training to receive guardian-spirit power from a nature-helper. The spirit came to the person when he or she was in a trancelike state, told the recipient how to use the gift and provided a "power song." Shamans trained longer and more intensively and received special powers enabling them to cure the sick or cause harm to others, and were both respected and feared. They used their guardian-spirit powers in curing performances (see SHAMAN).
The Winter Guardian Spirit Dance, the major ceremony of most Plateau peoples in the US, was practised in Canada mainly by the Okanagan. The dance was likely celebrated in former times by the Shuswap, Thompson and Lillooet as well, although in a slightly different manner. Some Canadian Okanagan people still participate in winter dances today in both BC and the US. The winter dance was hosted by shamans, who used the occasion to communicate their spirit powers in public. After one or several nights of dancing and administering to the needs of the sick, the host or hostess presented the guests with gifts. Other Salishan groups in the Plateau held similar ceremonies, marked by the singing of spirit songs, at any time of the year.
Among the Kootenay, a ceremony was held which united a spirit power and its possessor for such purposes as predicting future events and finding lost objects. This ceremony, along with the SUN DANCE, points to the relationship of the Kootenay people with the Plains people. In the 1980s the Sun Dance was also introduced to some areas of Shuswap.
For a time, Plateau groups universally adopted CHRISTIANITY, but there has since been a resurgence of the indigenous religions.
Clothing for the Plateau peoples was sewn from the tanned hides of animals and woven from local grasses or from the pounded bark of bushes. MOCCASINS were common; most often they were made from deer hide, but occasionally from salmon skin. Winter clothing consisted of the thick skins of fur-bearing animals. Among some groups clothing was decorated with dentalia shells, ochre paint, porcupine quills or Aboriginal-made beads or seeds. Mats and baskets woven for utilitarian purposes were often beautiful as well. Tattooing and nose and ear piercing were common but not universal.
Songs were important in traditional Plateau life, and were used by individuals to summon religious and magical powers. Singing was sometimes accompanied by bird-bone flutes, rattles of deer hooves, and sticks being struck on boards, but mainly by hide-covered wooden-frame drums. One type of song still known and widely performed today is the stick-game song, sung while playing an indigenous gambling game involving two opposing teams.
The extensive Plateau oral tradition that once occupied the long winter evenings now fills only the pages of books. The history of a community was passed from generation to generation using detailed descriptions of events and people. The language and context of the story were part of the story's meaning and purpose. A complex cycle of tales, frequently with humorous and bawdy episodes, involved the trickster-creator known as Coyote.
Hudson's Bay Company officials and early missionaries tried to introduce literacy and calendars to the Plateau peoples, but it was a later Catholic missionary, Father Jean-Marie-Raphael Le Jeune (1855-1930), who made a significant impact. Contemporary attempts to teach Aboriginal people to write the various Plateau languages have not yet proved as successful as Le Jeune's work at the turn of the century, when more than 2000 Interior Salish became literate.
Since the establishment of INDIAN RESERVES in the late 1800s, Plateau peoples have played a major role in struggles relating to Aboriginal LAND CLAIMS in BC. Shuswap leader Basil David was among a delegation that travelled to Britain in 1906 to personally present land grievances to the king. The influential Aboriginal organization the Allied Tribes of British Columbia was initiated at Spences Bridge in the Canadian Plateau in 1915 by several Interior Salish First Nations assisted by ethnographer James Teit. This organization was active for 12 years.
Since the early 1970s some younger Plateau peoples have made a conscious attempt to reinterpret traditional ways, resulting in a "pan-Indian" movement that subsequently became more widespread (see PAN-INDIANISM). The mid- to late 1970s saw the establishment of powerful Aboriginal councils in the Canadian Plateau, organized along linguistically defined lines and consisting of several bands. Both the bands and the tribal councils are strong advocates of ABORIGINAL SELF-GOVERNMENT, the economic development of reserve lands, educational opportunities for Aboriginal people, cultural and linguistic survival and equitable settlement of the long-standing land-claims issues with both federal and provincial governments.
Author DOROTHY KENNEDY AND RANDY BOUCHARD
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Languages of Canada
A comprehensive online database of languages currently in use in Canada. Also provides details about extinct languages. Check out the "language maps" for more information. Based on "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition." From SIL International, a US website.
FirstVoices Language Archive
A website devoted to Canada's indigenous languages. Features program information, multimedia dictionaries, and related resources. Produced by The First Peoples' Cultural Foundation.
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...