Topic – Peoples of the Northwest Coast

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Peoples of the Northwest Coast

Northwest Coast Region of Canada

On the coast of British Columbia, between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, lived the First Nations known as the Peoples of the Northwest Coast. These included groups such as the Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Nisga’a, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), and Tlingit.

Large Homes and Canoes

First Nations canoes

Many First Nations moved around, following migrating animals. But the Peoples of the Northwest Coast lived in an area full of trees for building that also provided fish and other animals to eat. So these Indigenous people built permanent villages, close to fresh water.

The homes in these villages were large rectangular buildings made of wood. The homes were so big that they could fit between 30 and 60 members of an extended family.

The canoes of these First Nations were also large. They had to be, to stand up to the ocean’s high waves and strong currents. These canoes could hold as many as 40 or 50 people. Some were used for fishing and some were war canoes.

Fishing and Feasting

Wild hyacinth field

Northwest Coast peoples were talented fishermen. The men constructed traps and nets to catch salmon, halibut, and other fish. Clams, crabs, and oysters were some of the sea creatures that the women gathered.

Peoples of the Northwest Coast mostly ate fish, but they also hunted animals such as bears, deer, water birds, and whales. As well, they ate berries, camas (wild hyacinth) bulbs, ferns, and seaweed.

Feasting was a big part of the potlatch ceremony, which is still an important event for Northwest Coast peoples. It can include several hundred people and is a time to mark births, deaths, and marriages, as well as political and spiritual events.

Potlatches might last several days and involved dancing and singing, as well as the exchange of presents, such as woven blankets or carved boxes.

Totem Poles and Masks

First Nations Totem Poles in Vancouver,  Canada

Peoples of the Northwest Coast are still well-known for the beautiful totem poles they carve. There are different types of these poles. Family or clan poles were carved in the shapes of animals, such as Killer Whale, Thunderbird, and Wolf. 

A totem pole with a grave box at the top was a mortuary pole—in the box were the remains of an important person. When a chief died, a memorial pole was raised in his memory.

Mortuary pole

The colours used to paint the totem poles have important meanings. For instance, black is for power, while white represents the heavens. Blue is the colour of sky and water, and red symbolizes war.

Totem poles were often carved from cedar trees. These trees also provided wood for houses and canoes, while cedar branches were braided into fishing lines, nets, ropes, and more. Cedar bark was woven into clothing or hats.

Cedar bark

But before the Northwest Coast peoples took any part of the cedar tree, they placed their hands on the tree and said a prayer of thanks. The people took only what they needed.

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