The Northwest Coast cultural area, one of six cultural areas contained in what is now Canada, is a region of extremes in topography, from wide beaches to deep fjords and snow-capped mountains. Naturally, the cultural area follows the northwestern coast of North America and slightly inland along the Nass, Skeena and Fraser rivers in British Columbia. Before contact with Europeans, the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast possessed complex economic and political organizations, with dense populations and widely divergent cultural, linguistic and political customs.

Land and Resources

Temperatures are moderate. The January mean is consistently above freezing, while the July mean is less than 18°C. Situated in a coastal rainforest, the area receives a significant amount of precipitation: Prince Rupert, on the northern coast and outer islands, receives 2,576 mm of rain annually; while Victoria, in the protected Georgia Strait, gets 876 mm, mostly in winter. Heavy coniferous forests of cedar, spruce, fir and hemlock thrive, and beaches and streams are lined with dense undergrowth. The geography of the area, with inlets, fjords and archipelagos cut into steep rock that gives way to coastal mountains, ensured both an abundance of sheltered village locations while necessitating a maritime way of life.

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.

Cedar was also of primary importance, as its long straight grains were ideal for both artistic and functional woodworking.

Major Language Groups and Peoples

Though most Aboriginal peoples of the region now speak English as a primary language, the Northwest Coast exhibits the most diversity in language of all the cultural areas in Canada. In the north, the Inland Tlingit of the northwest tip of British Columbia and the southwest Yukon are an interior branch of the Tlingit of the south Alaska coast, and on Haida Gwaii are Haida. Both Tlingit and Haida languages are isolates, i.e., unique languages with no proven relationship to any other.

Along the Nass and Skeena rivers, and the adjacent coast, are peoples who have traditionally spoken four languages of the Tsimshian language family, which may be remotely related to several other language families. Taken together, these language families are called Penutian, spoken from Oregon southward.

Strung along the coast from Tsimshian territory to northeast Vancouver Island are the Haisla, Heiltsuk, Oweekeno (Rivers Inlet) and Kwakwala-speaking Kwakwaka’wakw. The languages of these people are in turn are related to the languages of the Nuu-chah-nulth and Ditidaht -- languages spoken on the west coast of Vancouver Island -- and Makah, spoken on Cape Flattery in Washington. All of these languages belong to the Wakashan language family.

The remaining coastal peoples traditionally spoke languages of the large Salishan family. In the north, surrounded by Heiltsuk and Haisla, are the Nuxalk. In Georgia Strait, the peoples below the southern Kwakwaka’wakw were speakers of several 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) and Straits Salish, together called Central Coast Salish. These languages are described as mutually unintelligible to emphasize that knowledge of one language does not presuppose knowledge of another language.

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


Early Settlement

The earliest settlement of the Northwest Coast occurred probably around 14,000 years ago following the last ice age (see Prehistory). Societies were established around hunting and gathering, with the most valuable resource being the salmon. Security of place and abundant resources allowed for the development of permanent settlements, and significant wealth and political complexity, despite the absence of an agricultural economy. Archaeological discoveries, including artistically carved tools and decorative pieces from thousands of years ago, have led some archaeologists to declare that artistic and spiritual traditions like the potlatch have been practiced on the Northwest Coast for over 5,000 years. Approximately 1,500 years ago, Northwest Coast peoples began to diverge into the distinct cultures, languages and village sites.

European Contact

The first contact with Europeans came late in the 18th century, when explorers and traders began to interact with coastal peoples. Major epidemics of smallpox, introduced by Europeans carriers, killed large numbers of Indigenous peoples in the 1780s, 1830s and 1860s, while other diseases dramatically reduced the population throughout the 19th century and early 20th century. A major smallpox epidemic may have killed 20,000 people in 1862, when, after infection broke out in Indigenous camps around Victoria, authorities forced them to their home communities, spreading the disease.

When Spanish and British explorers opened the way for traders seeking rich stocks of sea otter pelts, Aboriginal peoples adopted firearms, iron tools and other European goods. Permanent trading posts were established with a series of Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) forts. By 1850, the HBC controlled the trade in the region.

European Settlement

The 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 peoples migrated to them from afar for trade goods. Contagious diseases, particularly smallpox, had reduced the Aboriginal peoples to a minority within the population by 1885.

Governor James Douglas made a few small treaties with Aboriginal communities on Vancouver Island between 1850 and 1854 (see Aboriginal Treaties). This recognition of Aboriginal title, as well as the right to land and compensation for appropriation, was quickly abandoned as European settlement and development increased, and was forgotten entirely when British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871. Commissions were established in 1876 and 1912, and tasked with creating reserves. However, neither commission had the 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 at least minimal legal protection for many village sites as the influx of settlers continued.

The unsettled land question, and oppressive and assimilative government policies, including an anti-potlatch clause in the Indian Act in 1884, and the cultural dislocation and abuse often suffered at residential schools, led to protests and active resistance. Aboriginal associations later emerged with the formation of the Allied Tribes of British Columbia in 1915 and the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia in 1931.

From earliest contact with outsiders, coastal Aboriginal peoples 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. In the 19th century, some communities created economic enterprises. However, as the mechanization and centralization of the fish and timber industries increased, participation of Aboriginal peoples as workers and independent small producers diminished. By the 1960s some communities were thriving while in others unemployment and underemployment in coastal communities had become chronic.

Treaties and Land Claims

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. British Columbia joined negotiations in 1990, and an Agreement in Principal was signed in March 1996. The treaty came into effect in 2000 and was a landmark agreement, as it was the first treaty in British Columbia to guarantee the constitutional right to self-government.

The two 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'/Che:k'tles7et'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.

Traditional Divisions of Labour

Throughout Northwest Coast Indigenous communities, though much linguistic and cultural variety existed, 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. These homes are usually referred to as plank houses, but may also be called long houses or big houses. Craftsmen also carved dugout canoes, which provided transportation along rapid streams and on the open sea.

It fell mainly to women to spin the twine required for fishing nets and lines, and to weave items from cedar bark and roots ¾ large storage containers, open-work collecting baskets (baskets whose weaving is not closed) and exquisite, finely decorated hats. They fashioned mats from cedar bark or rushes, providing furnishings and lining houses for additional warmth. Women also twined cedar-bark skirts and cloaks for everyday wear. On special occasions, people in northern communities wore elaborately decorated Chilkat blankets of twined cedar bark and mountain goat wool. Coast Salish people twilled mountain goat wool supplemented by dog wool into heavy blankets with decorative borders. These were items of daily wear in cold weather. Everywhere on the coast, fur cloaks supplemented this stock of clothing.

Fishing, hunting and gathering were the means of subsistence on the Northwest Coast. Resources from the sea were of primary importance. Fishing devices were adapted to suit specific sea and stream conditions, as well as local occurrence of fish species. Techniques used by fishermen included trolling and jigging with baited hooks, harpooning and spearing, use of nets and construction of tidal traps, or weirs, in streams. Hunters took land mammals with bows and arrows, snares, deadfalls and nets; sea mammals were taken with harpoons on the water, and with clubs or nets wherever animals came ashore. The abundant waterfowl fell prey to a variety of ingenious nets. The people gathered additional nutrition in the form of shellfish, berries, edible roots, bulbs and green shoots. 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. As almost all foods were produced at times in quantities greater than immediate need, food was often preserved for leaner times. 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 hereditary names 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, while others had more 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. Although they lived in owners' houses, slaves lacked full civil rights and were required to perform menial chores.

Villages were always close to navigable water, with houses positioned parallel to the beach facing the water. Although united by kinship, dialect and common interest in territory, powerful families governed villages. Among Coast Tsimshian and Nuu-chah-nulth, strong village leaders extended their influence through the temporary confederation of winter villages. 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 diversity of village units, and the practice of redressing wrongs with gifts, may have helped to limit the scale of warfare, which was nevertheless endemic throughout the coast.

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 the gift exchanges that 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 at potlatches (ceremonial feasts and celebrations). At these ceremonies, hosts would feed and distribute gifts to guests. Though barter and trade occurred, gift giving and feasting were the major means of distribution and exchange of wealth.

Religious and Spiritual Life

Among Northwest Coast Indigenous groups 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. These spirit helpers 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 fish runs (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 the intervention of spirit forces, and shamans were called upon for diagnosis and corrective treatment. Northwest Coast 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

Northwest Coast people associated music and decorative arts with both sacred and secular activities. Spirit helpers conferred songs, which were then used to transmit family and secret society traditions, often accompanying masked re-enactments of mythic events. There were songs for all occasions: soothing infants, playing games, expressing love and sorrow. The voice was the primary melodic instrument, although percussive devices, whistles and horns were used as accompaniment.

Sculptural and decorative artwork was also part of daily life. Artists applied embellishments 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 such artistic traditions have 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, many villages, often on ancient sites, still retain their original relationship with the sea; many Northwest Coast peoples favouring the consumption of traditional foods. Enforced Westernization, assimilation and cultural destruction was the policy of missionaries and government administrators until the late 20th century. Compulsory education in centrally-located residential schools, where traditional languages were forbidden, had devastating effects on community structure, socialization and languages. Students taken from their families often faced physical, sexual and psychological abuse, the effects of which have reverberated through subsequent generations. 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.

Despite the government ban on the potlatch from 1884 to 1951, feasts and ceremonious exchanges, especially among the Southern Kwakwaka’wakw, never completely ceased and experienced revival toward the end of the 20th century. The few Coast Salish villages where spirit dancing survived have served as centres for a dramatic religious revival that has continued to attract followers.

The population of Northwest Coast nations has continued to increase since a low point in 1915. In 2014, nearly 100 First Nations of the Northwest Coast had a total registered population of more than 74,000. However, this does not take into account significant populations of non-registered people. Many isolated villages have lost residents as unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities induced people to move to urban centres.

Northwest Coast Aboriginal peoples have remained steadfast in objecting to policy and practices that have reduced Aboriginal rightsand left land claims unsettled (see Aboriginal People, Government Policy). Northwest Coast First Nations like the Nisga’a and Haida have, with interior British Columbia nations, continued to push for the recognition of Aboriginal title to traditional lands, resulting in numerous settlements and decisions that have allowed for the development of various levels of Aboriginal self-government structures.