First Nations Peoples of BC
If you watched the opening ceremony of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, you might have noticed that First Nations peoples played a prominent role. Their colourful costumes, drums and dancing – not to mention those four magnificent totem poles and the larger-than-life spirit bear – were among the ceremony’s highlights. And it wasn’t just the performances that were significant. The chiefs of four First Nations – Lil'wat, Musqueam ("mus-quee-um"), Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh ("slay-wah-tooth") – were accorded the respect of heads of state.
The Lil’wat Nation’s traditional territory includes Whistler; the Musqueam territory is located in the south-west area of Vancouver near the mouth of the Fraser River; the Squamish territory comprises much of Greater Vancouver, Gibson’s Landing and the Squamish River region on British Columbia’s southwest coast; and the Tsleil-Waututh’s traditional territory takes up more than 720 square miles, including the north shore of Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River and Mamquam Lake (near Whistler).
Since the Games took place on their land, the chiefs of these four First Nations acted as co-hosts in welcoming the world. Their presence at the opening ceremony and throughout the Games helped educate residents and visitors alike on Canada’s Aboriginal culture, but for people who want to learn more, it’s only the beginning.
Aboriginal Peoples Of Canada
There are more than 600 First Nations in Canada and approximately 200 in British Columbia. The 2006 census identified 763,555 people of Aboriginal origin living in Canada, including 122,089 in British Columbia. "Aboriginal," a collective term for Canada’s indigenous peoples, refers to the country’s original or "First" peoples and their descendants. The First Nations, Métis and Inuit comprise the three groups of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. These are all distinct groups with their own history, culture, traditions, language and spiritual beliefs. The term "First Nations" came into common usage in the 1980s, replacing "Indian," which is now seldom used –– mostly because it is inaccurate, since it was Columbus who first called the native peoples of North and Central America "Indians" in his mistaken belief that he had discovered India.
First Nations Peoples Of British Columbia
First Nations peoples established settlements and trade routes across what is now Canada between 500 BCE and 1,000 CE. They developed socially-complex civilizations that included urban settlements, agriculture and unique architecture. First Nations now living throughout British Columbia include the Coast Salish, Interior Salish, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Nisga, Dene, Nuu-chah-nulth, Sto:lõ, Secwepemc, Okanagan, Ktunaxa, Tsawwassen, and many more.
The First Nations who settled along the Pacific Northwest Coast (present-day British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon) made the most of the mild climate and the rich natural resources, including cedar and salmon. They built up close-knit communities, developing fine arts and crafts and practicing complex religious and social ceremonies.
Among these was the potlatch, where people gathered to commemorate an event such as the raising of a totem pole or the appointment or election of a new chief. The chief would give gifts (such as blankets or pottery) to visitors; accepting these gifts signalled the visitors’ approval of the chief. Much feasting, singing and dancing would follow; the musical instruments included whistles, wood clappers and rattles, along with all kinds of drums: drums made from animal hides; plank drums; log drums; and box drums.
In 1885 the potlatch was declared illegal in Canada because missionaries and government agents deemed it "uncivilized," but although the anti-potlatch law proved difficult to enforce, it was not officially repealed until 1951. Aboriginal people now openly hold potlatch more and more frequently as their commitment to restoring their ancestors’ way of life. The infectious dancing and drumming at the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony, in the presence of the Governor-General, the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of British Columbia, was a kind of mini-potlatch (unlike the potlatch of old, which could go on for days) for the whole world to see.
If you’re visiting the Vancouver area, you can learn more about First Nations culture through museums, galleries, interpretive centres and archaeological sites –– all reflective of the growing trend in Canadian Aboriginal tourism. For example, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which opened in Whistler in 2008, offers weaving classes and canoe building. Free activities during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games include an Aboriginal Pavilion, modelled after Coast Salish and Interior Salish longhouses, which features Aboriginal art, business, culture and sport, including Métis jigging, hoop dancing, Inuit throat singing and contemporary Aboriginal performances. Throughout the year, the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art honours the work of Haida artist Bill Reid and other First Nations artists. These and many other attractions showcase the vibrancy and diversity of British Columbia’s Aboriginal peoples.
Articles of interest:
- Totem Poles of BC - A Monumental Presence: Discover First Nations Art Carvings of the Northwest Coast
By Anne Maclean
Photo credits: Capilano Suspension Bridge Totem Park courtesy Tourism Vancouver, Capilano Suspension Bridge; Dancer At The Squamish Nation Pow Wow courtesy Tourism Vancouver, Dannielle Hayes; Male Dancer At The Squilax Pow Wow In Shuswap courtesy Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, Don Weixl; Man At The Squamish Nation Pow Wow courtesy Tourism Vancouver, Dannielle Hayes.
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