People of the Northwest Coast

On the Pacific Coast of British Columbia there were a number of different linguistic and cultural groups including: the Haida, Tsimshian, Nuxalk (Bella Coola), Northern Wakashan, Kwakwakw'wakw (Kwakuitl), Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) and the Coast Salish. Among these large groups however were a number of distinct languages and countless dialects. Every group had their own unique elements but in general they shared a similar social and cultural structure.

Northwest Coast aboriginal society was based on a strict hierarchy of rank, descending from nobles at the top through commoners and down to slaves. The basic social unit for First Nations people of the Pacific Coast was the extended family who shared a common ancestor.

A Nisga'a chief from the Nass River
In all families the older highest ranking members who could claim most direct descent from the highest ranking ancestor was usually the Chief. It was the Chief's responsibility to ensure that all members of his lineage were adequately provided for. Within the lineage, rank was judged in descending order according to one's relationship to the Chief.

Each family claimed specific rights for themselves including: sites for fishing and shellfish gathering, certain dances and ceremonies, and the use of specific names. Much of the rich ceremonial life of the coastal nations was devoted to recounting the exploits and activities of the various supernatural ancestors. Many of these ceremonies and rites occurred during the winter when people were gathered in the village after a summer of fishing and gathering. The ceremonies were often organised by secret societies whose high ranking members had undergone the required initiation rites.

Haida Village in the Queen Charlotte Islands

Within a village each family was also ranked. The chief of the most powerful and prestigious family was therefore the village Chief. The village Chief had certain rights, such as being able to display specific crest figures on objects such as totem poles, or to be the first to invite guests to a feast.

Every village had a number of slaves belonging to different lineages. In general the slaves were taken during warfare and wealthy lineage slaves would be ransomed while poorer ones would be kept to perform various menial tasks.

For all the groups of the Pacific Coast, the ocean was the major source of food, providing salmon, halibut and other fishes, shellfish, smelt, crabs, seaweed, and whale. Shellfish like clams, oysters and mussels would be gathered by women, or by the slaves of the higher ranking individuals. Fishing was the occupation of the men of the tribe. Smaller fish were often caught by means of small nets woven of nettle fibres attached to a wooden frame. Other fishing methods include underwater traps, bone and wood hooks, and harpoons.

Salmon smokehouse, 1914
Once fish were caught a small amount were eaten fresh but the largest proportion would be cleaned by the women and hung out to dry in smokehouses to preserve them for use during the winter months.

Woman squeezing oil from eulachon
One way of making dried fish more appealing was to serve it with oil. For this reason, as well as for the fat it provided, oil was an integral part of the coastal diet. Oil came from three important sources, whales, seals, and eulachon. Eulachon is a type of smelt that is so full of oil one end can be lit and it will burn - giving it a common name of 'candlefish'.

Eulachon fisheries were located on a number of major rivers including the Nass, Kitimat, Kitlope, and Kleena Kleena. People caught the eulachon which were then processed into oil which could be kept or traded with other people.

Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) Women
Weaving Baskets
Once food had been gathered its preparation was the responsibility of the women who often cooked in either wooden boxes or baskets. These containers were watertight and food was placed inside along with water and hot rocks. The boxes and baskets would also provide storage for food or household implements. Food was often eaten out of alder bowls as this wood did not effect the taste of the food.

Before Europeans arrived and introduced cloth, most coastal people wore minimal clothing. Men went naked when weather permitted and women would wear a simple skirt made of shredded cedar fibre. Both sexes wore woven bark capes and spruce root hats as a protection from the rain.

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