Aboriginal People: Northwest Coast

The Canadian portion of the Northwest Coast is a region of extremes in topography, from wide beaches to deep fjords and snow-capped mountains. Temperatures are moderate, the January mean above freezing and July less than 18° C. The northern coast and outer islands receive 155-655 cm of rain annually, and the protected Georgia Straits 65-175 cm, mostly in winter. Heavy coniferous forests thrive, and beaches and streams are lined with dense undergrowth.

In the pre-contact period, food was plentiful: black-tailed deer, bear, elk and mountain goat were available locally. Sea mammals (seals and porpoises) as well as vast quantities of fish and shellfish were available everywhere and whales were taken in some areas. A variety of edible fruits, bulbs and plants provided important nutritional components of diets. Most important were the Pacific salmon runs, which arrived in regular annual migrations and were eaten fresh or dried for year-round use.

Major Language Groups

Of all the Aboriginal regions in Canada, the Northwest Coast exhibits most diversity in language. The Inland Tlingit of the northwest tip of BC and the southwest Yukon are an interior branch of the Tlingit of the south Alaska coast. On Haida Gwaii are Haida. Both Tlingit and Haida are language isolates, unique languages with no proven relationship to any other. Along the Nass and Skeena rivers and the adjacent coast are people speaking three languages of the Tsimshian language family, which may be remotely related to several other language families, collectively called Penutian, spoken from Oregon southward. Strung along the coast from Tsimshian territory to northeast Vancouver Island are Haisla (Kitamaat), Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Oowekyala (Rivers Inlet) and Kwakwala (Southern Kwakiutl). They in turn are related to the languages of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) and Dididaht, languages spoken on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and Makah on Cape Flattery in Washington. All of these languages belong to the Wakashan language family.

The remaining coastal people of BC speak languages of the large Salishan family. In the north, surrounded by Heiltsuk and Haisla, are the Nuxalk (Bella Coola). In Georgia Strait, below the Southern Kwakiutl, are speakers of seven mutually unintelligible Coast Salish languages: Comox, Pentlatch (extinct) and Sechelt, together referred to as Northern Georgia Strait Coast Salish, and Squamish, Halkomelem, Nooksack (now only in Washington state) and Straits Salish, together called Central Coast Salish. Languages are described as mutual unintelligibility to emphasize that knowledge of one language does not preclude knowledge with another language.

In summary, there are 19 mutually unintelligible languages spoken on the Northwest Coast of BC, and these in turn belong to five separate units among which no relationship has yet been clearly established (see Aboriginal People, Languages; Language Families: Table).

Historical Summary

Although the earliest settlement of the Northwest Coast occurred probably 14 000 years ago (see Prehistory), the first contact with Europeans came late in the 18th century, but diseases previously unknown to the region arrived before the Europeans. Major epidemics of smallpox killed large numbers of people in the 1780s, 1830s, and 1860s, and other diseases dramatically reduced the population throughout the 19th century and early 20th century. Aboriginal societies had already suffered a severe blow when Spanish and British explorers opened the way for traders seeking rich stocks of sea-otter pelts. Aboriginal people adopted firearms, iron tools and other European goods, but permanent trading posts awaited establishment of a series of forts by the Hudson's Bay Company, which by 1850 controlled the trade.

Discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1857 brought a rush of miners and settlers to the newly established colonies (see Gold Rushes). Towns were few, but Aboriginal people were attracted to them from afar for trade goods. The contagious diseases, particularly smallpox, reduced the Aboriginal people to a minority within the population by 1885.

Governor James Douglas made a few small treaties with Aboriginal villages on Vancouver Island between 1850 and 1854 (see Aboriginal Treaties). This recognition of Aboriginal title was abandoned when BC entered Confederation in 1871. Commissions were established in 1876 and 1912 and charged with creating and confirming Indian reserves. Neither commission had authority to make treaties or deal definitively with Aboriginal grievances. Though reserves were imposed unilaterally and did not always meet Aboriginal requests, they did provide minimal protection for many village sites as the influx of strangers continued.

The unsettled land question and government oppression, including an anti-potlatch clause in the Indian Act in 1884, led to protests by local groups. Organized pan-Aboriginal associations emerged later with formation of the Allied Tribes of British Columbia in 1915 and the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia in 1931.

Following the Supreme Court decision in Calder in 1973 and Canada's decision to negotiate settlement of outstanding Aboriginal land claims, treaty negotiations between Canada and the Nisga'a began in 1976. BC joined negotiations in 1990, and an Agreement in Principal was signed in March 1996. The 2 senior governments and representatives of First Nations in BC appointed the BC Treaty Commission in 1993 to facilitate negotiations of treaties with other First Nations in the province. By 1996 most coastal nations had filed Statements of Intent to negotiate treaties under the Treaty Commission process. The process dragged on with few results and some bands withdrew from the process. Despite delays, the Tsawwassen First Nation treaty, the first urban treaty in the history of British Columbia, came into effect in 2009, and the Maa-nulth treaty in 2011. The Maa-nulth treaty comprises the Huu-ay-aht Nation, Ka:'yu:'k't'h' Nation, Toquaht Nation, Ucluelet First Nation, and Uchucklesaht Nation, all part of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Haida Nation and Taku River Tlingit decisions (2004), that the Crown has a duty to consult and provide reasonable accommodation of Aboriginal interests in creating policies that might impact treaty rights. This duty arises even before treaties are established.

From earliest contact with outsiders, coastal Aboriginal people traded willingly and worked as labourers, boatmen and house servants. Those living in dispersed locations with viable subsistence economies were ideal seasonal workers in the early stages of resource development. Some communities created economic enterprises of their own in the 19th century. However, as mechanization and centralization of the fish and timber industries proceeded, participation of Aboriginal people as workers and independent small producers diminished. Resource industries still dominate Aboriginal occupational patterns, but by the 1960s unemployment and underemployment in coastal communities was chronic.

Traditional Culture

Division of Labour

Throughout the Northwest Coast the material bases of life were similar. Carpentry was men's work, and with blades of stone and shell, wooden wedges and stone hammers they fashioned the myriad items of everyday use. Huge winter dwellings of post-and-beam structure covered by split cedar planks were created in distinct regional styles. So too were dugout canoes, which provided transportation along rapid streams and on the open sea.

It fell mainly to women to spin twine required for fishnets and lines and to weave items from cedar bark and roots - large storage containers, open-work collecting baskets and exquisite, finely decorated hats. Mats fashioned from cedar bark or rushes provided furnishings and lined houses for additional warmth. Women also twined cedar-bark skirts and cloaks for everyday wear. Elaborately decorated Chilkat blankets of twined cedar bark and mountain-goat wool were worn on special occasions by people in northern communities. Among Coast Salish, mountain-goat wool supplemented by dog wool was twilled into heavy blankets with decorative borders. These were items of daily wear in cold weather. Everywhere on the coast, fur cloaks supplemented this simple stock of clothing.

Fishing, hunting and gathering were the means of subsistence on the Northwest Coast. Resources from the sea were of first importance. Fishing devices were adapted to suit specific conditions of sea and stream and local occurrence of fish species; techniques included trolling and jigging with baited hooks, harpooning and spearing, use of nets and construction of tidal traps, or weirs, in streams. Land mammals were taken with bow and arrow, snares, deadfalls and nets; sea mammals with harpoons at sea and with clubs or nets wherever animals came ashore. The abundant waterfowl fell prey to a variety of ingenious nets. Gathering of shellfish, berries, edible roots, bulbs and green shoots provided additional nutritious foods. Resources were not evenly distributed in all regions, and coastal communities followed a migratory pattern or dispersed from winter villages to outlying sites as each resource changed with the seasons.

While fishing and hunting were mainly the work of men, and women did most gathering of plant and beach foods, the division of labour was complementary and often co-operative. Both men and women made the tools necessary for work. Because almost all foods were produced at times in quantities greater than immediate need, they were preserved. Men did most of the initial production of fish and game, but women did the cooking and preservation.

Social Life

The primary unit of society everywhere on the Northwest Coast was a large group of kin who usually shared common ancestors. Among northern peoples, membership in the kin group was passed down through women, but in the south membership could be claimed through either the male or the female lines. In both areas the result was a core of close kin with in-married spouses living together in a house or house cluster under the direction and guidance of capable leaders. These leaders held formal titles or prominent names hereditary within the family line and acted as managers of family property, including nonmaterial possessions such as names, ritual performances, special songs or secret knowledge. The foundation, however, was ownership of real property such as house sites, berry patches, hunting territory, seal rookeries and fish-trap sites. While some territory and waters were open to general use, more productive harvesting places were privately owned.

Real property, combined with skilful management of family labour and individually owned capital equipment, enabled kin groups and their chiefs to achieve high productivity and accumulate tangible wealth. Property was the basis and vehicle of the Northwest Coast system of rank and class. In some communities there was precise status with internal ranking; in others, flexible categories. An upper-lower distinction of some form was universal, as was the institution of slavery. Slaves were acquired in war or by purchase and, although they lived in owners' houses, lacked full civil rights and were required to perform menial chores.

Villages were always close to navigable water, with houses ranged parallel to the beach facing the water. Although united by kinship, dialect and common interest in territory, villages had no government except that effected by powerful lineages. During the early historic period, among Coast Tsimshian and Northern Westcoast (Nuu-chah-nulth), strong village leaders emerged and began to extend their influence through the confederation of villages. These alliances were the only formal Aboriginal organizations. Feuding occurred in response to injury or trespass, and occasionally escalated into warfare. Acquisition of property, including slaves, was also a motivation for conflict. The small size and divisiveness of village units, and the practice of restituting wrongs with gifts, helped to limit the scale of warfare.

High-ranking individuals from separate kin groups and villages found common cause in class membership and ritual associations, often termed secret societies. Most important of all were bonds of marriage and gift exchanges which accompanied them. Marriages were contracted between people of different kin groups, often in widely separated villages. In order to validate lineage rights and maintain class position, assemblies of people from many kin groups were convened to witness claims. Guests were fed and given gifts at these potlatches. Barter and trade occurred, but gifts and feasts were major means of distribution and exchange.

Religious and Spiritual Life

Native groups conducted serious religious rites in winter and viewed summer as more appropriate for games, feasts and naming activities. There was no strict segregation of the sacred and secular, as the sacred was implicit in all thought and action. Belief in potent spirits identified with animate objects and forms was fundamental. Spirits could interfere in human affairs, but by self-purification an individual might induce them to become personal helpers. They were a source of power for religious practitioners or shamans, but also endowed ordinary folk with special competence or good fortune, and in some areas became hereditary privileges. This awareness of power in the animate, nonhuman sphere was consistent with widespread use of prayers and welcoming ceremonies to foster the annual runs of fish (see Aboriginal People, Religion).

The course of each person's life brought changes of status as puberty was attained, names received or marriage made. Taboos and elaborate ritual and feasting accompanied these events. Illness, while associated with physical causes, was also ascribed to soul loss or intervention of spirit forces, and shamans were called upon for diagnosis and corrective treatment. Aboriginal people believed in existence after death and in ghosts that could be harmful to the living. Funeral and memorial ritual served to separate the living and the dead and to sustain, honour and placate the dead.

Culture and Art

Music and decorative arts were associated with both sacred and secular activities. Spirit helpers conferred songs, and secret society or family tradition was transmitted through songs which often accompanied masked re-enactments of mythic events. There were songs for all occasions - soothing infants, playing games, expressing love and sorrow. The voice was the only melodic instrument, although a variety of percussive devices, whistles and horns was used as accompaniment.

Sculptural and decorative art was also part of daily life, applied to tools, houses, baskets, clothing and items associated with the supernatural. Wood sculpture and painting, notably totem poles, are the most renowned features of Northwest Coast culture. Archaeological evidence suggests that art has a long history in the area and that regional styles share basic similarities of form with an earlier tradition. In the north the art is highly formalized and often depicts family crests on property. Wakashan sculptors excelled in creating masks for dramatic performances. The Salish put emphasis on religious implements with little concern for crests. In all areas ownership of sculptural and decorative art was indicative of wealth and denoted class position (see Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art).

Culture Change

Though early acceptance of European clothing and tools brought visible changes to Northwest Coast cultures, villages, often on ancient sites, still retain their original orientation to the sea and traditional foods are favoured in the diet. Enforced Westernization was the policy of missionaries and government administrators until recent times. Compulsory education in centrally located boarding schools, where Aboriginal speech was forbidden, had devastating effects on community structure, socialization and languages (see Residential Schools). Today, several Northwest Coast languages have only a few fluent speakers and are in danger of extinction, despite efforts to reverse the trend with formal language-teaching programs. Pentlatch, for example, is already extinct.

Despite the ban on the potlatch from 1884 to 1951, feasts and ceremonious exchanges, especially among the Southern Kwakiutl, never completely ceased and have experienced revival in recent decades. The few Coast Salish villages where spirit dancing survived have served as centres for a dramatic religious revival that has continued to attract followers. These institutions remain private to the Aboriginal communities, where they strengthen indigenous identity and self-esteem (see Shaker Religion).

The population of Northwest Coast nations has continued to increase since a low point in 1915. In 2006 there were over 80 000 registered Aboriginal people and perhaps as many again who are nonregistered descendants of coastal First Nations. Isolated villages have lost residents as unemployment and educational opportunity induced people to move to urban centres. The 2006 census reported more than 60% of Canada's First Nations are off-reserve residents. At that time, 98% of the residents living on reserves were Status Indians.

Northwest Coast Aboriginal people have remained steadfast in objecting to policy and practices that have reduced Aboriginal rights and left land claims unsettled (see Aboriginal People, Government Policy). They have been strong supporters of provincial and national Aboriginal associations.