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An Historical Overview of BC's First Nations

Prepared by Project North (B.C.), 1991, Victoria, B.C. Thanks to Mavis Gillie for all her work.

On the 29th of March 1778, the British ships Resolution and Discovery sailed into a narrow passage between a large island and a coast lined with tall trees. They came looking for wood, food, and water. A sailor recounted the scene:

As we came closer to the shore some canoes full of people came to meet us. Some of them were dressed in fine furs. The canoes paddled around our ships several times and the people began to sing. Their leader sang a few words; then everyone joined in the song. They kept time by beating their paddles against the canoes. Afterwards they pointed to the shore and shouted to us in words that we did not know. We heard them say "Nootka" many times. We will call this place Nootka Sound and we will call these people Nootkas. (Corner 197)

The "Nootka" were the Nuu-chah-nulth people and their songs declared the land and the sea as far west as the horizon and as far east as the mountains to be the territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth. The strangers were welcomed as guests, even though their appearance was strange to the native eye. To those in the canoes the massive ships appeared to be houses.

People were watching us from the house and we think they must have been fish come to life as men. One had a pale face. Perhaps he was once a spring salmon. One looked like a dog salmon while most others had red faces. They must have once been coho salmon. Our legends tell of the salmon people who lived under the sea. Each year they become fish for us to catch and then they return to their home. Perhaps these are salmon people.

We shall call them Mamathni. This means that they are living on the water and floating around. They have no land. (Corner 198)

The lives of native people have changed drastically since contact with Europeans two hundred years ago. This brief historical overview does not attempt detailed exploration of the many profound implications of "contact" for both the native and non-native cultures of British Columbia. The purpose is to relate the highlights of the relationship and to sketch broadly the implications of mutual histories. Since there are many different native cultures, diverse in history, language, and custom within B.C., only general observations are made.

Topics in this section:

Land and Culture
Early Days
Sir James Douglas
Land Question
Early Native Protests
McKenna-McBride
Unlawful to Protest
1969 White Paper
Calder Case
Claims
Coolican Report
Sparrow
Gitskan - Wet'suwet'en
Conclusion
Works Cited