More to Learn

The following module provides a deeper exploration into the Aboriginal people of BC.

Peoples of the Northwest Coast

Coast Salish, Nuu-chah’nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Haida, Tlingit

A narrow strip of land between British Columbia’s Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean is the home of the peoples of the Northwest Coast, a rich and varied group of cultures and languages. The terrain is rugged and the coastline is broken up by bays, inlets, deep channels and islands. There are dense stands of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western hemlock and western red cedar trees. Food, building materials and other natural resources were abundant in many parts of the Northwest Coast. The peoples of the Northwest Coast build permanent villages and carved massive totem poles, sea-going canoes and ceremonial masks. They held potlaches and other ceremonies in which dances and singing played an important role. The peoples living here were rich materially and spiritually.

Totem Poles

Totem poles were carved to serve different purposes. There are several kinds. Clan or family poles have figures or animals such as Bear, Wolf, Owl, Killer Whale, Eagle, Raven and Thunderbird. Mortuary poles often had a grave box at the top. Memorial poles were raised in memory of a dead chief. There were also shaming and welcoming poles.

Spotlight on Haida Gwaii

The Potlatch

A potlatch is a formal ceremony used by First Nations on the northwest Coast. The potlatch is the essence of the culture as it is the cultural, political, economic and educational hear of the people. A potlatch may be held to recognize and celebrate births, marriages, deaths, settle disputes, totem pole raising, giving of names, passing on names, songs, dances or other responsibilities, or formalizing aspects of relations between families or communities. Potlatches are large events that can last several days. They often include two important aspects: the host giving away gifts and the recording, in oral history, of the events and arrangements included in the ceremony. Potlatches are also a way to redistribute wealth as traditionally great wealth and gifts are given away and this would raise the rank of the host.

The Canadian government banned the potlatch from 1884-1951. The government took away cultural items that were used in the potlatch such as drums, blankets and masks. In spite of the ban and threat of jail, many communities continued to hold potlatches in secret. First Nations have worked hard to revive and continue the songs, dances and protocols of governance associated with potlatches.

Spotlight on U’mista Cultural Centre

Cedar – The Tree of Life

The peoples of the Northwest Coast use the cedar tree for houses, canoes, totem poles, clothing and many other items. They show profound respect for the tree. Before taking any part of the tree, a person places both hands on the trunk and says a prayer of thanks to the tree for giving freely of itself. Only what is needed is used and the life of the tree itself is preserved. Women often strip the bark in a manner that the tree is unharmed. This bark is used for weaving clothing, basket-making and bark rope. Men cut large planks from a standing tree while taking care not to harm it. The planks are used for buildings and canoes. Cedar wood is also used for boxes, and ceremonial masks.

The cedar tree has both cleansing and healing properties and is used in many sacred ceremonies.

Spotlight on Takaya Tours

Peoples of the Plateau

St’at’imc, Secwepemc, Okanagan, Nlaka’pamux, Ktunaxa, Kinbasket

Between the Coast Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia live the people of the plateau. This land ranges from semi-desert to forests with mountains and rivers. It is rich in salmon-bearing streams and has deer, moose, elk and mountain goats. The homes of the plateau people depended upon the time of year. In the summer, lodges, tents, tipis or lean-to’s were used. In winter, a semi-underground pit-house provided protection from the winter cold. Today, it is possible to seek the sunken remains of these pithouses and hear stories of traditional villages.


Salmon has and continues to be an important staple for many Aboriginal people. Traditional means of fishing included spears, harpoons, weirs, dip nets and traps. A wide variety of means of preserving the salmon were used including drying or smoke curing.

Spotlight on Xwisten Experience Tours

Peoples of the Sub-Arctic

Tsay Key Dene, Kaska Dene, Dunne-za, Tahltan, Dakelh-ne, Wetsuwet’en, Ts’ilh’aot’in, Inland Tlingit

British Columbia includes a sub-arctic region this is forest, muskeg, mountains, lakes and rivers. This harsh climate required extensive travel in search of food and other resources. Summer was a time for small family groups to converge at good fishing sites. As many as one hundred people might live in a single camp. They constructed shelters covered with caribou hides or spruce boughs alone riverbanks or lakes.

Fish weirs and nets were used to trap fish that were then dried for eating later in the year. Berries were gathered and preserved. In the fall, the large group broke into smaller family groups and headed to their hunting territories to spend the winter. Men hunted big game animals such as caribou, moose and mountain sheep that were used for food and clothing.

Totems in Alert Bay Big House

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