"When you walk the territory of your being, the truth is everywhere around you."
Richard Wagamese, Ojibwe, One Nation Life, 2008.
According to known history, physical and linguistic evidence, First Nations1 lived in Americas at least by 17.000 years BP ('before present') – probably by 50.000 BP or even earlier. There is a theory accepted today that at several periods during the late Pleistocene geological period a land bridge connected Asia and North America making it possible for first 'Amerindians' to cross to new continent and migrate all the way to southern parts of South America. From 11.000 BP to 8.500 BP Northwest Coast culture established based on salmon fishing and sea hunting; culture with permanent settlements due to rich land and sea resources. They developed hunting tools and weapons, trade among tribes, culture that included music, carvings, sculpture, paintings,…; and a complex social hierarchies. Here is a link to map of First Nations' tribe groups according to language and territory.
The Raven and The First Men – Bill Reid sculpture
The canoe, snowshoes, the toboggan, lacrosse, tug of war, maple syrup and tobacco are just a few of the products, inventions and games invented by First Nations in BC and Canada.
Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver – part of the exhibition
Potlatch was, and still is, a very important part in their culture. Word originated from Chinook jargon that meant 'to give away' or 'a gift' but originaly from Nuu-chah-nulth word that meant 'to give ceremonial gift in potlatch'. The main purpose of the potlatch is the re-distribution and reciprocity of wealth. It was practised among Heiltsuk Nation, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, and Coast Salish tribes. It was a sort of gathering where family or hereditary leader hosted guests in their family's house and holds a feast; usually with singing and dancing. Within it, hierarchical relations within and between clans, villages, and nations, are observed and reinforced. "Sponsors of a potlatch give away many useful items such as food, blankets, worked ornamental mediums of exchange called "coppers," and many other various items. In return, they earned prestige. To give a potlatch enhanced one's reputation and validated social rank, the rank and requisite potlatch being proportional, both for the host and for the recipients by the gifts exchanged. Prestige increased with the lavishness of the potlatch, the value of the goods given away in it."
Potlatch dancers – Fort Rupert, 1914.
Nearly half of the aboriginal people in present-day Canada lived in the region.
And then, Europeans came.
It is believed that at the late 15th century between 200,000 and 2 million Aboriginal people lived in Canada. First known contact was made with Norsemen around year 1000. but since they never made permanent settlements, prolonged contact was made after English Basque and Portuguese mariners established seasonal whaling and fishing outposts along the Atlantic coast at the end of 15th and the beginning of 16 century. In British Columbia, first Europeans were exploring coast during 16th and 18th century, but James Cook (1778) and George Vancouver (1792-93) established British jurisdiction.
James Cook, a monument in Victoria, BC
But Europeans did not make it good for many First Nations. I was always asking myself what exactly went wrong. And how. I supposed that differences in cultural background were too big and obvious European advantage in science and technology. But it was just a part of a problem. From "A Concise History of Canada's First Nations":
The difference between the American ethos and that of the Europeans was striking. Amerindian society was, for the most part, egalitarian. Its people viewed humans as part of a transcendent universal system. Europe, on the other hand, was a society of nation-states and developing capitalism. Its people were convinced that humans were not only the centre of the universe but its controlling force.
Differences were particularly evident in attitudes toward land. For Amerindians, land existed for the benefit for all. For Europeans, it was private property, individually owned. On the other hand, Amerindian cultural knowledge was a carefully guarded, individual privilege that was selectively passed on through the generations, whereas for Europeans it was generally publicly available. At the time of first contact, however, differences were not as great as they would later become.
Totem pole – Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC
A Royal Proclamation of October 1763. stated that only the Crown could acquire lands from First Nations and only by treaty. Since that numerous treaties were signed and sometimes they were worth less than the paper they were written on. It was just a framework used to put deduction of land legal. On the other hand, fur traders made significant wealth in dealing with First Nations' hunters. "John Kendrick (1740 1794), commander of the expedition of the Columbia and Lady Washington, the first vessels from Boston to join the fur rush, made a deal that became legendary when he got 200 sea otter pelts, valued at $8,ooo, for an equal number of iron chisels, valued at $100." When a gold was found, first on BC coastal areas and later in Fraser Valley, the hell broke loose.
Facing the confiscation of lands, isolation, assimilation and inability to affect any change that occurred in areas where they lived, First Nations made several rebellions but they all ended with signing some more worthless treaties. And led to more repression than before. In 1830. Indian Reservation System was created. In order to make them "more civilised and Christians", first residential and industrial schools were opened. But often, church has found them as a great source of free labour.
Like industrial schools elsewhere, BC institutions were plagued by overcrowding and underfunding, which often led to abandon their stated purpose: to learn young Amerindians a trade. Methodist-run Coqualeetza (St Paul) School near Chilliwack took children out of classes to do the drudge work when it was short-staffed. Most of the graduates of the Anglican-run school at Lytton ended up as unskilled farm labourers. … According to author Eleanor Brass (1905 – 1992), who grew up in the File Hills Colony, a boy who was in an industrial school for ten years, spent only four in the classroom, and parents who kept their children away from these schools understood that the schools were teaching more than a trade.
Grizzly Bear house posts
They were forbidden to wear their traditional clothing and hairstyle; ceremonies, dances and feasts were banned (Potlatch was banned in 1884. because missionaries and government agents considered it ' "a worse than useless custom" that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to civilized values'); prayers became secret; tribes were separated from each others and from land. It all made an irreparable damage and impact to life of First Nations people.
Hamsiwe – Great Raven mask
Today, about 200 tribes and bands still live in British Columbia, with estimated population of 196,000 ("during the 1770s, smallpox killed at least 30% of the Pacific Northwest First Nations. This epidemic was the first and the most devastating of a number that were to follow, other than the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 which killed off 50% of the native population in that year). Their situation is far from ideal but it is changing, hopefully for good. The same problems still exist but in modern times and changed educational system, it is easier to spread a word about their history and tradition. After getting the right to vote in federal elections in 1960. they made political organisations that can make it possible for their leaders to 'negotiate modern governance arrangements with the Crown, litigate Aboriginal governance rights or simply implement governance on the ground.'
More photos here.
Post was made using informations from following websites and books:
A Concise History of Canada's First Nations
Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast
Ministry of Education, BC
Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC
BC Teacher's Federation – First Nations Historical Timeline
A Brief History Of First Nations Colonization and Impacts
First Nations in British Columbia, Canada
Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC
Wikipedia – British Columbia
Wikipedia – Aboriginal peoples in Canada
British Columbia Assembly of First Nations
1 – "The terms First Peoples and First Nations are both used to refer to indigenous peoples of Canada. The terms First Peoples or Aboriginals in Canada are normally broader terms than First Nations, as they include Inuit, Métis and First Nations. First Nations (most often used in the plural) has come into general use for the indigenous peoples of North America in Canada, and their descendants, who are neither Inuit nor Métis. On reserves, First Nations is being supplanted by members of various nations referring to themselves by their group or national identity. In conversation this would be "I am Haida", or "we are Kwantlens", in recognition of their First Nations ethnicities."