From the time the white man first came to the west coast of Canada, they have attempted to control the natural resources of the land. They banned the primary cultural institution, known as potlatch, of the indigenous people and took land believing it to be unused or not being used in its full capacity. This attempted genocide of the West Coast Natives continued throughout much of Canada's history. If potlatch had not been such a strong cultural institution of these people, white man would have succeeded in assimilating them into white culture. What has been accomplished is the guarantee that Native people will live in poverty until they become responsible for their own destinies.
Prior to contact with non-aboriginal people,
the West Coast natives had a seasonal round
Fish was the basic staple food for these people. They developed processing and storage techniques in order to stockpile fish over the winter. Fish eggs were made into stew or dried cakes. The eulachon, a small fish, was highly prized for its oil. Ways of storing this oil became very important because it was traded heavily among the West Coast natives. A very intricate network of trading routes evolved known as the "grease trails".
The coastal people hunted a variety of marine animals such as seals, sea otters, and whales. The inland people hunted bears, beavers, mountain goats, and groundhogs. shellfish, halibut, herring, and salmon were all used among native people. The coastal people also collected sea bird eggs and seaweed for consumption. Huckleberries were collected when they were in season. These berries were first boiled and then dried and made into cakes.
The natives also collected bark, especially cedar, that was used in weaving. Spruce root, nettle and sea grasses were also used. The West Coast natives were the only weavers in Native Canada. These people made fishnets, baskets, waterproof baskethats, outer wear, and basket traps for fishing. Mountain goat wool and plant fibres were used to make blankets.
The largest houses in Native Canada were constructed by the West Coast Natives. These houses were made to be portable except for the permanent ridge poles of the frame of the house. As a result, a family would have a several houses, one for fishing, one for hunting, one for berry picking, and a principal winter residence. These houses were known as long houses.
Each long house had a head of household. Depending on which clan, depended on the lineage of the family. There are some tribes that trace their lineage through the maternal side and there others that trace through the paternal side. In each long house would reside the entire extended family depending upon how lineage was traced.
Status was very important to these people, not only in terms of how one perceived their status but how others perceived that status. There were two classes among the West Coast Natives, freemen and slaves. Slaves could have no status and were considered property. A high rank in status is determined primarily by descent. In order to preserve that rank, one would hold potlatches at frequent intervals. Each village had a complete series of social classes with no two individuals holding the same rank in status. The head of household had the highest status in his long house. Each status had its own attributes that was not quite like those of anyone else's.
Status was identifiable by the name the head of household had. Most names were inherited by the same family and were handed down upon the death of the head of household. Names held ownership to the resources on certain tracts of land and as a result, this stayed in the hands of the direct descendants of a single line. The resources also extended to offshore fishing and collecting grounds. Ownership of these resources entitled the house to have first pick of the season, be it berries, salmon or otters. In order to hunt, fish, or pick berries in these areas, one had to ask the permission of the head of household. Permission was always granted but it was considered a hostile act if outsiders traveled through the land without first obtaining permission.
Economic cooperation was essential among the clan in order to obtain articles for living and food. Although a head of household may have the huckleberry patch on his land, he might not know how to make a canoe or tan hides. The head of household also managed the resources of that land allowing only a certain amount of wildlife to be killed or fruit taken.
The West Coast Natives were a fairly wealthy group of people with an abundance of food, the materials necessary to make large gathering places, and a lot of time on their hands during the winter months. The way to display one's wealth was to give it away to others. This was done at a potlatch, the principal method for distributing wealth among the clans and maintaining and displaying one's rank in status.
One man from a village would announce his intentions to host a potlatch. He would invite other people from neighbouring villages to attend. In order to make sure he had enough gifts to give away at a potlatch, he would borrow from other members of his village. Anything that was borrowed was due back within a year with 100% interest. These debts were inherited and paid for by his whole family.
The entire village would help in the preparations for the potlatch because it gave them a chance to participate in the event and a return in prestige gained from their village hosting the event. Women and children also attended the potlatch, however, women usually attended potlatches of their own. The host had to make sure his guests would have shelter, food and entertainment throughout the event and this was provided by members of his village.
A potlatch often lasted five days. Guests were greeted when they entered the village and escorted to the house of the man hosting the potlatch. They were seated around the long house, according to their rank. Rank also determined the order that gifts were called out and the order in which individuals were invited to any potlatches that were in the near future.
Gifts were in the form of property. This would include slaves, dug-out canoes, bottles of eulachon oil, button blankets, hats, and baskets full of dried fish or berries. Gifts were given out every day of the potlatch. The gifts were indicative of the esteem the host held for the guest. When the host attended other potlatches, he would not be concerned with getting back the amount he had given out. The recipient at a potlatch was interested in all the amount he received as it compared to other guests. It then became a matter of self esteem to return as much or more than he had received.
Towards the final days of the potlatch, the host would be invited to attend the potlatches of his guests. His potlatch would not validate his status claims that had to come from those attending the potlatch. The sum total of gifts he had given out would indicate his status. By the end of the potlatch, the host would have few belongings, but he would probably have 50 invitations to attend other potlatches where he would then receive more than enough to make sure his family could pay back the loans taken out and hopefully hold another potlatch.
Besides holding a potlatch to maintain status among the villages, there were a variety of reasons for having one. If a guest felt he had not been shown proper acknowledgement of his status, he would hold a potlatch to re-establish his rank within the tribe. When a boy became a man, a potlatch was thrown by him to establish his rank among the village. Potlatches were used to restore peace between villages if a murder or a violent act had taken place and to celebrate marriages. In some cases, potlatch was used to wage war. Many of the tribes felt that once a gift was received, it had to be paid back in kind double the amount. When using potlatch as a mode of war, a village would attempt to give another village so much wealth that it would be extremely difficult for their enemy to pay it back.
Potlatches were also given after a head of house died. This was called a funeral feast. The deceased's name, rights, and obligations were passed on to his heir. The potlatch was held for everyone who had been affected in any way by the death. By accepting the gifts, the potlatch attendees acknowledged their approval of the new order within the family.
In 1778, Captain Cook came to the West Coast. He showed a great interest in sea otter pelts which were in high demand in Europe. Many ships came to the West Coast to trade with the natives and a booming trade between white man and native evolved.
The natives preferred trading for metal tools which were used in woodworking, metal weapons such as axe heads, and firearms. Sheets of copper and woolen blankets were also prized. The natives noticing that most ships were running out of food by the time they reached the West Coast, would sell the sailors salmon and venison.
The sailors showed the natives how to cultivate vegetables. As a result, the potato became an important crop and was traded among the villages and with the ships.
When the coastal Indians began running out of sea otters pelts due to overhunting, they became the middlemen for the white man and the inland Indians who still had pelts and sea otters. Eventually the sea otter population became decimated.
During this time, the native population had a very high exposure rate to extremely contagious and foreign diseases. Since the extended family lived together and it was the custom to live in large settlements during the winter months, the risk of contracting disease was very high. The population among the natives on the West Coast declined dramatically. A smallpox epidemic during 1862 to 1865 killed 20,000 natives and wiped out half of the Haida population.
With the ships came the missionaries and settlers. In 1846, Britain declared the West Coast as part of its empire and it became known as British Columbia. The natives were encouraged to take up agriculture as a means of sustaining themselves. Potlatching was discouraged. The missionaries felt that the potlatch ceremony reinforced the traditional beliefs and practices of the natives whereas they should be praising the white God and adhering to the Christian work ethic. The Hudson's Bay Company traders and the missionaries both complained that the natives were wasting valuable time attending potlatches when they could be employed elsewhere in more profitable endeavours.
One aspect that bothered the white men was the destruction of wealth at potlatches. Since the natives had accumulated so much property while trading fur pelts, it became customary to burn objects and then challenge the attendees to destroy an equal amount of property. This aspect of potlatch took place during potlatch wars and was not apparent within the culture until contact with white man was made.
More non-natives were moving to BC and settling close to the native villages. These settlers brought cows and pigs with them. The livestock had a tendency to graze on the natives' crops and destroy the produce. The settlers were also settling by and on the seasonal camps. The natives took their land complaints to the directors of the province asking them to ensure that the native people would have land to live on.
Also at this time, the Hudson's Bay Company Chief Factor, James Douglas, wrote the Hudson's Bay Company directors in London and argued that the company needed to adopt a policy to facilitate the purchase of native land. The British directors used a recent parliamentary ruling to decide how the native land question should be handled. This ruling involved the New Zealand Land Company and the Maori. The British parliament decided that the Maori had a right to occupy the land but did not have title to the land. As a result, the British Columbia directors decided that the West Coast natives were the rightful owners of the land if the land they were on was cultivated or had houses built on it at the time the land came under British sovereignty. All other land was considered to be waste land and therefore suitable for colonization.
This allowed the natives to hunt and fish but many of the lands where their camps were registered as waste and the pressure was put on them to conform to the same conditions as the settlers were required to comply to. The natives could then enjoy the same rights and privileges as the settlers. These conditions meant that government of British Columbia expected them to become farmers and maintain a single dwelling.
The Gold Rush began in 1849 and brought more disease and pestilence with it. Douglas concluded that the natives were dying out. Reserve land was only granted to tracts of land containing village sites, cultivated fields, and burial grounds. Ten acres of land was allocated for each established family in the village. He believed reserve lands could not be protected unless the government kept the land in trust. The Crown held the title to this land, not the native people.
In 1872, BC joined Canada and in 1876, the
Indian Act combined all laws affecting the native people of Canada.
This act would provide for the uniform treatment of Indians everywhere
in Canada. Any reserve land was held in trust by the Canadian
government. The land could not be taxed, mortgaged, or seized
for defaulted debts, and it could only be sold with
Natives were not considered Canadian citizens and it became the government's aim to civilize all the native population eventually. In order to become a Canadian citizen, a native had to be literate in English or French, of good moral character, and free of debt. He could then receive an allotment of reserve land and would have to manage it the same way a non-native person would. Managing the land meant cultivating it and becoming a farmer. At the end of three years, the superintendent-general of Indian Affairs could make him a citizen and give him title to the land. Eventually the Indian Act was amended to give the superintendent-general power to enfranchise natives without their approval. Once they became a Canadian citizen, they lost their native status in the government's eyes
Politicians believed it was a good idea to tie Indian Affairs with the ministries responsible for natural interests and western development. However, housing Indian Affairs within these ministries provided many conflicts of interest and often resulted in the Indian Affairs department not defending the interests of the native people. One major conflict of interest was that the minister responsible for reserve lands and aboriginal title of unsurrendered territories would also be in charge of the acquisition and disposition of public lands.
After the North West Rebellion of 1885, the government redoubled their efforts to assimilate the natives into white culture. This plan had two components, the first outlawed key cultural institutions and the second concerned the re-education of aboriginal children.
The Potlatch Law as it was known by was added in 1884. Any violators of Section 3 of the Indian Act were subject to a prison term of two to six months. Missionaries applauded the law because they felt the elders of the tribe used the ceremonies to reinforce the traditional beliefs and practices of the native people.
The assimilation of the native people was in full swing. The superintendent-general of Indian Affairs at this time was a man by the name of Duncan Campbell Scott. He fully believed that the happiest future for the natives was the absorption into the general population, and that intermarriage and education would overcome the native customs and traditions. He stated that this was the object of the policies set in place by the Canadian government.
Potlatch was a difficult institution to ban. The geography of the land helped the native people maintain this institution. The people knew of many hidden inlets and valleys where no white man or Indian agent would lay eyes upon their practices. In the 1920s, the government began extorting potlatch regalia. Any person being prosecuted for violating the Potlatch Law was told they would not be imprisoned if their village turned over all the masks, rattles, whistles, coppers, button blankets, and any other ceremonial gear associated with potlatch. Eventually, the government realized the futility in trying to ban this cultural institution and the amendment was left out of the revised Indian Act of 1951.
The main resource of the West Coast natives has been fish. The native people believe the government has no right to regulate their access to wild life resources. The land has always been theirs and so have the resources. So it was with open arms that the native welcomed the industrial salmon fisheries and fish-processing plants.
Although this industry offered the natives new economic opportunities, it also threatened the survival of their culture. The fishing industry began in 1871. The men would fish while then women and children worked in the canneries.
Because West Coast natives had annual rounds of economic and ceremonial activities, the reason for participating in the fishing industry was it was very compatible with their own economy. The factories used the fatty sockeye salmon whereas the natives used chum which was a leaner fish and more suitable for smoking and drying. The chum would run after the sockeye. The natives could work for the fisheries, make a good deal of money, and then leave to catch their winter supply of food. The men had to learn how to fish in tidal areas as opposed to rivers and creeks and they had to learn how to use gillnets and large boats. Fishing lessened their dependence on the fur trade which was dying out. The canneries also drew together diverse nations much like potlatch did.
As the industry grew, the native people had difficulty in supplying enough workers. The company owners wanted to secure a large labour force who would be willing to work for longer periods of time. As a result, factory owners began to employ Chinese and Japanese people. Eventually the declining salmon stocks threatened to destroy the resource that was the basis of the West Coast native culture.
The Fisheries Act of 1888 allowed natives to fish for the purpose of food but they could not sell, barter, or traffic the fish they caught. All traditional methods of fishing were banned. This denied the coastal tribes their age-old tradition of being fish merchants. In 1915, without any research being done on it, the government decided that the natives were taking too many food fish and by 1917, the natives had to obtain a federal food-fishing permit.
These permits were subject to the same types
of restrictions as the commercial licenses had with regards to
where fishing was permitted, when the open season was and what
was considered to be allowable fishing gear.
In 1929, the chief federal supervisor for the Department of Fisheries made the unsubstantiated claim that the food fishery still represented and unwarranted threat to the canneries and that the native population no longer needed to fish in order to survive. After WWII, the federal government turned to resource economists for advice. The economists ignored native interests and came up with recommendations intended to manage the industry for the benefit of the canneries and full-time commercial fishing. Most natives still used fishing as one of the economic activities that made up their seasonal round of activities.
In recent times, the price of fishing licences has increased phenomenally plus one must have a fairly large boat and proper gear in order to land the +10,000 lbs of fish the government believes makes for a viable industry.
With the fur and fish industry, non-natives amassed most of the wealth. They took control of these resources and marginalised the Native labourers in the process. The resources of the land that had always provided for the West Coast native were no longer considered to be theirs.
Land still proves to be a major concern for the West Coast natives. No treaties have ever been signed with the provincial or federal government. The land tracts that Douglas set out as the original reserves have been slowly whittled away by an agreement between BC and Ottawa that allowed for any land alienated from a reserve for whatever reason would revert back to the province.
Potlatch has continued to stay on as a major cultural institution of these people. It promotes the traditional values the tribe has. The singing and dancing pass on the history of the tribe. The long house names tell the stories of the people that helped shaped the land prior to colonization. Even today, names are handed down to the heirs in a family.
The West Coast natives still have no treaties.
Currently there is a land claim from the Nisga'a before the House
of Commons. If this treaty is passed, it will be first treaty
of hopefully many for a people that has almost been eradicated
by ignorance, prejudice, and greed for the land and resources
that have been rightfully theirs. If the Nisga'a can manage the
land and resources of the Nass Valley, without government interference,
they stand a chance to no longer live in poverty.