First Nations – Get to know the original inhabitants of British Columbia

‘First Nations’ is the contemporary name for the original aboriginal peoples of British Columbia, Canada. Before this, they were also known by many other names like Indians, Native Americans, American Indians or Amerindians etc. By whatever name you call them, they are ultimately the original inhabitants of the land we now know as Canada. A few centuries ago they had to lose their land and their identity when the Europeans set foot on their land. Today, First Nations residents of British Columbia are using public spaces to showcase their art to reclaim their identity.

They are preparing articles in all those languages ​​which were always used for speaking but were never written down. They are compiling their own oral historical facts. Wherever I went in Canada, I could clearly see his influence everywhere. Mostly these impressions are visible in the form of frescoes and engraved and colorful wooden totem poles i.e. Ganachinha pillars or Kuladevata pillars. The souvenir shops here are also filled with similar tribal artifacts.

The oldest existence, symbol, or history of any place has always attracted me. So naturally, this aboriginal tribe of British Columbia also mesmerized me. I was very curious to know about their history, their culture, their religion, their beliefs, their customs and their art. She wanted to understand the stories hidden in the engraved and colorful totem poles.

READ ALSO: Mykonos island of Greece which is called the island of gusts of wind

Who are the Native Peoples or First Nations of British Columbia?

We all know that they are the original tribal inhabitants of that place and in the past, they were called Indians. But who are these people? Are they tribals of the same caste or are there different castes among them? Do they have connections with other parts of the world or not? If so, what type of relationship? Had they always lived here or had they moved here from some other place? What changes occurred at that time when the 18th? In which century did European invaders reach here? What kind of reactions took place between them?

Now I am going to surprise you. There are more than 600 First Nations aboriginal tribes in Canada, of which about 200 are in the British Columbia First Nation alone.

According to one of the popular estimates regarding the origin of the First Nations, these tribes came here from Siberia thousands of years ago. They reached someplace in Alaska via land and water routes. From there they set out in all four directions and settled in many places. If we look at the chubby cheeks and small eyes of these residents, this theory seems possible. Although many tribal people believe that they had always lived here.

Ontario, Canada has the highest population of these tribal tribes. After this is British Columbia. First Aboriginal groups in British Columbia are defined by their particular spoken language. Various tribal tribes and their spoken languages ​​are shown in a map in the next part of the edition.

The northwest coast of Canada was ripe for settlement because of the abundant food available. Fish were also available in abundance along with various vegetables. Every year, for the 4 month winter season, they used to roam around for 7-8 months and collect food items. During these four months of winter they had to stay at a safe place. They make good use of this time by creating beautiful carvings on wood and creating attractive artifacts. They used it for practical and spiritual purposes.

European colonies

When Europeans arrived on the northwest coast of Canada, both groups welcomed each other. But as the Europeans started settling there, they started driving out the First Nations people of British Columbia from there. His sights were set on the place where the First Nations people of British Columbia lived. Therefore, these residents had to be displaced from there.

Unfortunately, these Europeans brought with them diseases against which they had immunity but the local residents did not have the desired immunity. As a result, a large number of local residents died due to communicable diseases like smallpox and measles. One infected patient would destroy an entire village. Therefore, they not only lost their farms and livelihoods but also lost their lives by suffering from new diseases.

The Europeans concluded that the local residents were unable to assimilate modernity. They started collecting their artifacts from the local residents and sending them to their native Europe. In fact they were storing them for their future generations.

Cedar trees

Red cedar trees live in the hearts of the tribal people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. This one tree alone has the ability to fulfill all their needs, from daily needs to ritual needs. The abundantly available red cedar trees were used for clothing, shelter, transportation, etc. For example, they used to weave baskets from the bark of cedar tree.

The red cedar tree is called the life-giving tree by the tribals of the northwest Pacific coast. It is light and soft due to which craftsmanship can be done on it with minimum tools. It was used extensively before mechanization. A type of oil was extracted from this tree which is resistant to both water and insects. Hence it is the best material for outdoor use. Yes, it is a natural insecticide.

Cedar tree selection

The tour guide at the Squamish and Lilawat Cultural Center in Whistler was from the Lilawat community herself. He told me how he used to select the cedar tree before removing its bark or cutting it. He told that first of all the tree is embraced. If your fingers touch each other while hugging, you can take things from this tree. Otherwise, you will have to leave it to grow. If the fingers touch each other, then after praying in front of it, one can take only 2 hands long bark from it. After that, the tree is thanked for providing life-giving things.

While communicating with him, I was reminded of the Achanakmaar in Chhattisgarh. The residents here also worship trees in the same way. How similar are the traditions of tribal people all over the world?

I saw several pictures of a cedar tree from which a piece of bark a few feet long had been taken out. The rest of the tree was untouched. These are called culturally modified trees.

In the same center, I also made a bracelet from soaked cedar bark and brought it with me as a souvenir.

In the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver I saw a box made of mature cedar bark in which not a single nail was used. It was made by simply folding and gluing mature bark together. Only one side was stitched. The entire ark was water-resistant. People here store everything from money to grains in it. You won’t believe it, it is so water resistant that people even store water in it. Isn’t it amazing!

The fibers of yellow cedar are very fine. Therefore, they are used in making artifacts. You will see an example of this, Bill Reed, here after some time.

Map of First Nations areas of British Columbia

This map of the entire British Columbia shows various tribes, their names, and their habitat areas.

In Whistler I learned that it falls under the jurisdiction of the Lilawat tribes who live in the area slightly north of Whistler. The Squamish tribe lives in the southern part of Whistler. The city of Vancouver is home to the Musqueam people, while Victoria is home to the Songhee, Saanich, and Esquimalt people. You might be wondering why I am telling you all this! I had traveled to all these areas. Therefore, I consider it necessary to mention them all.

The local tribal residents here used to trade their goods in other parts of the world. The shells found here, which are not native to this place, are proof of this.

The Story of Haida Gwaii

I received information about a unique truth from the island of Haida Gwaii. This island was called Queen Charlotte Island. When British Captain George Dixon landed on the island in the 1790s, one of his ships was named Queen Charlotte. She was also the queen consort of King George III of England, in whose name the captain had established dominion over the island. However, in 2010, the Haida tribe once again changed the name of the island to Haida Gwaii, or Land of the Haida, in a ceremony.

The strange fact is that this tribe did not sign any treaty with the colonial powers. They neither sold nor donated any part of their land to them, as many other tribes had to do at that time. For this reason, they still have ownership over a large part of this earth. Many other parts of this earth are in court for hearing where many citizens of this tribe are fighting for their land, their name and their rightful place in the world map.

Religious Allegiance of First Nations

Like many other ancient tribes of the world, this tribe also worships nature. I watched a video at the Whistler Cultural Center that described how the people of this tribe worship the mountains, rivers, earth, and their ancestors. They believe that a noble person turns into a mountain after death. Hence the mountain is an ancestor of his. They talk about their living relationship with rivers, forests, and mountains.

The most popular among all these is the worship of ancestors. They believe that their ancestors descended from heaven to earth, participated in their rituals, and bless them. They demonstrate this belief in their ritual dances and ceremonies. For this they use grand masks which they wear and dance. Like the Ramleela of Ramnagar, they absorb into themselves the person or the holy spirit they are portraying.

Similarly, they also express their feelings by wearing masks of animals. However, religion is his personal subject which he does not mention much in public. Religious rituals and ceremonies are performed inside homes or at some special divine place.

First Nations stories

He has an extensive collection of his fables, of which I could only listen to a few. The most popular story is about a black crow who stole some light from the sun and brought it to Earth. You will hear many versions of this one story from people of different tribes. Another story is about Junuk who used to steal children. Mothers often tell this story to their babies while putting them to sleep. Perhaps this story is told to scare them a little and focus their distracted attention on sleep.

The art of the first Aboriginal peoples of British Columbia

There were two clear eras of First Nations artifacts of British Columbia. One type of artifact belongs to the pre-colonial era. These include original totem poles i.e. Ganachinha pillars or pillars of family deities, carved wooden panels, objects of daily use, woven blankets, ritual objects etc. Today you can see all these things in various museums around the world. All these ancient artefacts are made by unknown artists. Perhaps they were part of the artists’ guild authorized by aristocratic families.

Famous artist

The second type of artwork are revivalist artwork created by modern artists in which they kept the same motifs and figures but gave them a modern form. Full credit for this modernization goes to Mungo Martin, an artist who belongs to the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of First Aborigines of British Columbia. He was a master craftsman, poet, and musician who crafted totem poles, even during the potlatch ban. He also trained a new generation of British Columbia’s first aboriginal artists. For this he will always be remembered. He also always gave importance to the fact that the craftsmanship of the Ganachinha pillar is a work of God and its craftsmanship is done in the memory and respect of the ancestors. In a way, his artworks and his thoughts helped him regain his prestige in the society.

Another artist is Bill Reed who is half-First Aboriginal on his maternal side. He has created some monumental works of art that combine the characteristics of both sides of his lineage. You can see one of his excellent creations made in Jade at the Vancouver Airport. This artwork depicts a boat filled with humans and animals.

A sample of his many amazing artworks can be seen on the Canadian $20 currency note. This is a matter of great honor for an artist.

There is one of his artworks in the Museum of Man in Vancouver, which features a black crow and some First Nations people. Be sure to spot this artwork whenever you visit.

Emily Carr is British Columbia’s most renowned modern artist. He also started his art by painting on the totem pole. You can see his works at the Vancouver Museum of Art and the Audain Museum in Whistler.

Let me introduce you to some of the popular artifacts of this tribe:

Totem Pole

Totem poles are tall wooden pillars. These are oral storytelling pillars that tell the story of the families who erected them. These tell the stories of the wealth and prestige of those families.

Mostly there are human figures, animal figures, and some imaginary elements on the totem pole. First Nations families or communities are recognized by creatures such as bears, frogs, or crows. The chosen animal becomes part of all the materials and decorations belonging to those families. The totem pole is also a part of it.

Each of the first tribal communities has a special style of craftsmanship and design. For example, Haida artwork is recognized by the shape of its eyes. The roundness of their eyes is oval or square in shape. Even contemporary artists use these special elements to reflect their heritage.

Totem poles can be built only by chiefs, chieftains or members of prestigious families. Ordinary First Nations families cannot afford it.

Engraved wooden plates are usually placed on the walls of houses.

Tribal canoes

Canoes were used for fishing and river transportation. Earlier it was a very special property of the people of the tribal community. These narrow long boats were carved from a single cedar tree. Mostly red cedar and sometimes yellow cedar tree was used for this. They used to take the trunk of a cedar tree and carve out the middle part to get the blank space.

Thereafter this emptied stem was cooked in steam. The steaming process depends on the size of the boat. This process can last from one to two weeks to a few months. The entire wood should become soft. Only then can the artisans work on it. Some artisans hold this soft stem from both the ends and pull it to get the desired width.

The type of artwork applied to a canoe depends on the water it will float on. For example, the waters around the island of Haida Gwaii are extremely turbulent. Therefore they need a powerful and big canoe. In contrast, the Musqueam of Vancouver, who use canoes for fishing on the Fraser River, use simple flat-bottomed canoes. Similarly, the canoes of the Squamish people could be up to 75 feet long.
The planks attached to the canoes have sacred symbols engraved on them.

As soon as the motor machine was invented, fishermen started using motorized boats. Canoes are now made only for special functions.

I saw a special canoe at the Legislative Assembly building of Victoria.

Masks – Precious Heritage of First Nations

Each mask has a spiritual meaning. The curator of the museum will definitely caution you to pick up these masks with both hands respectfully. Since these masks are an integral part of their religious rituals and ceremonies, they take care with them.

Some of the popular masks you will see here are:

  • Crow Mask – This is a symbol of the ancestors. Wearing it means that the ancestors are being invited to the ceremony.
  • Bear mask – This may represent an ancestor or the person overseeing the potlatch ceremony, making sure everyone at the ceremony is doing their job and wearing their footprints properly. .
  • Garuda mask – This is worn by the people of Garuda community.
  • Junukwa Mask i.e. Mask of the Wild Woman – There is a story prevalent in every tribal community which is about a woman carrying a basket on her back. This woman picks up small babies, puts them in her basket, takes them to her home and feeds them. Junukwa has big red lips with which she moves and emits a loud and frightening sound. It is ironical that this woman is also a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
  • Crater – It is an aquatic vehicle that carries people immersed in water. It also has the power of hypnosis.

The fact to keep in mind here is that every first tribal community of British Columbia has a different and special style regarding the use of these masks. What I have mentioned here is only intended to give you some idea of ​​its use.

Woven baskets

In each museum, you will see different types of baskets made by weaving the bark or roots of the red cedar tree. The weave of some is loose and the weave of others is so tight that you can even fill water in it. What a wonderful art it is to weave the wet bark of a tree in such a way that it does not allow even water to pass through!


Like most ancient aboriginal peoples, the first aboriginal communities of British Columbia were excellent weavers. They wove wool obtained from local sheep and the now-endangered woolly white dogs. Vegetable colors were used for coloring.

All the weaving objects I saw in the museums here had geometric shapes on them. This was a very popular style in ancient tribal communities. The cloth used was rough. If this weaving was done for a community head then it would definitely have the symbol of the community on it.

19th. By the end of the century, ships filled with machine-made blankets began arriving in Vancouver. Unfortunately, this was the end of handmade textiles. It was the end of art. Goods made by machines became cheap and easily available. So why should anyone waste his energy in collecting wool and spinning and weaving it? The weaving style of the First Nations of British Columbia received a new lease of life when some women began receiving training in this style of weaving in the 1970s.

The charkha which was used for weaving has been installed as a souvenir in the inner harbor of Victoria.

First Nations Clothing and Jewelry

The first aboriginal people of British Columbia enter a different world using costumes and masks. Their costumes are very elaborate. Like Chilkat, a heavy blanket garment studded with family symbols. I really liked the bone blanket peg in the Squamish costumes. Jewelry is often made from animal bones and silver. In fact everything taken from nature has been used. Nothing is allowed to go to waste.

The use of copper was also prevalent among these tribals. However, I did not see many ancient artifacts made of copper.


Potlatch is a sacred ceremony of the First Nations of Canada. The name Potlatch means ‘to give’. This sacred ritual has economic, political, and spiritual consequences. A potlatch was done when a family would erect a totem pole and invite all the tribes to witness the ritual.

In the absence of written history, potlatch ceremonies involved telling family legends and distributing gifts to all the guests invited to the potlatch. The prestige of any community chief depended on how much he could give to the guests during this ritual. It is worth noting that gifts were given according to the social rank of the guests. Big gift to people of high position. This tradition of gift giving naturally reminded me of wedding ceremonies in India.

Potlatch ceremonies were banned in British Columbia from 1884 to 1951. The concept of collective ownership followed by the first tribal communities was not understood by the people of Britain. Additionally, the British government wanted to establish the European model of governance here. To enforce this, he banned religious ceremonies like potlatch. They forced the children of the first tribal community to learn English and accept Christian names. These actions of theirs were knowingly or unknowingly destroying the culture of the first tribal communities. Fortunately this restriction has now been removed. If you know someone from this community you may have seen a modern version of this potlatch ceremony.

Potlatch ceremony

The potlatch ceremony is initiated by blowing a sharp whistle. In a way, this announces the formal start of the ceremony. At the potlatch ceremony, people wear huge masks and perform mask dances. Through this they try to revive the souls of their ancestors. The community chief dances wearing an elaborate headgear and a button blanket bearing the family symbol. Only high-ranking persons of the community can wear button blankets. But sometimes even children can wear them.

The potlatch ceremony is supervised by the women of the family. Any kind of neglect or omission in this ceremony is taken very seriously and sometimes even punishment is given for it. The prestige of the family is linked to this ceremony. Therefore, there is no place for any mistake here.

The main food at a potlatch ceremony is salmon and other aquatic foods.

For more information on potlatch, visit Wikipedia.

Today this potlatch ceremony is not as grand as it used to be in earlier times. However, the rituals associated with it are still alive. The ceremony still celebrates family, gratitude and an expression of respect for one’s ancestors and lineage.

The potlatch ceremony is organized to install the totem pole. It is also invoked after the death of a member of the head family or to transfer the name from one generation to another.

Tribal tourism

On one hand, the first tribals or First Nations are trying to get their rightful place on their own land, on the other hand, they are also entering tribal tourism. Check out their website. The tourism infrastructure of British Columbia is fully supporting them. He is showcasing their culture in every possible museum and related places.

Best Places to Learn about the First Nations of British Columbia

To learn more about British Columbia’s first Aboriginal people and learn more about Aboriginal tourism, visit these places:

Museum of Man at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

I highly recommend that you take a guided tour of this museum. He gives all the information about the first tribal people in such a way that their biography and culture come alive in front of you. They will also tell you that some museums in places like New York, Berlin, London etc. have even larger collections of early tribal artifacts but they all belong to the past. This museum is located on their own land. As a result, their relationship with artisans and artists remains continuous. He always keeps discussing and taking advice from both the elders of the community and the new generation. They get information about these artifacts from them and try to understand their emotional relationship with these artifacts so that they can convey this information to the tourists.

In the background of this museum, you can see a traditional Haida dwelling. A variety of early tribal artifacts are displayed within it.

I suggest you sit on the comfortable red chair and listen to him tell his folk tales. I didn’t have much time. So I listened to a fable from him for about 10 minutes. If I had unlimited time, I would sit comfortably and listen to him for hours, too, sitting amidst his artworks would be very helpful in understanding and would bring his stories alive.

Majestic BC Museum of Victoria

This is a very pleasant museum which introduces you to the rich history of the tribals through various objects. I really liked his totem pole gallery. This gallery gave me a firsthand glimpse of their tribal village. I felt as if I had reached their tribal perspective.

The best part of the majestic BC Museum in Victoria is the artwork on the languages ​​spoken by the tribal communities. You can see how they are trying to immortalize their spoken language forever by vocalizing it in the voice of elders. Being a spoken language, the script of their languages ​​is not available. Therefore, with the help of Roman script and dialect sounds, they are preparing the scripts of their tribal languages. You can understand the phonemes of the words by filling them in the given sections. By pressing the button you can hear the first tribal greeting in different languages.

I think that we should also revive other extinct languages ​​of the world in the same way.

Whistler’s Squamish and Lil’wat Cultural Center

This small but beautiful center was my first introduction to this tribal community. This center discusses about two tribal communities. The Squamish live a little south of Whistler and the Lil’wat live a little north.

I really enjoyed the guided tour. I also enjoyed watching the video introducing their culture and traditions. Moreover, I knew that I was going to change the rest of my travel plans to learn more about them. I did exactly that.

Whistler’s Audain Aboriginal Artifact Museum

This museum first introduces you to the ancient and modern forms of tribal artifacts. Here I saw a beautifully engraved wooden plaque that is used during performances. It reminded me of ‘Arjuna’s Repentance’ located in Mahabalipuram. This visual display is a part of the storytelling board located at the back of the stage.

Salmon fish is engraved around this panel. You know that salmon fish holds a very important place in the lives of tribals. This fish is an essential part of their diet. Their entire life revolves around it. In the middle of the panel are the animals that depend on salmon for food. On one side of the board is a female carnivorous whale and on the other side is a male carnivorous whale. Above is a crow holding two humans. In the center is a shaman who is depicted sitting on the door panel. The dancers emerge from the stage as if coming from the spirit world and the shaman witnesses their dance.