The Earliest Inhabitants
Approximately 15,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, human beings began migrating from northeast Asia across the Bering Strait, which was then dry land. At this time, the northern latitudes of North America were covered by an ice cap, forcing these people to travel south down the west coast before fanning out across the ice-free southern latitudes. As the ice cap receded northward, the people drifted north also, perhaps only a few kilometers in an entire generation, and began crossing the 49th parallel about 12,000 years ago. By the time the ice cap had receded from all but the Far North and the highest mountain peaks, a number of distinct cultures had formed.
The Northwest Coast
Around 12,000 years ago, Canada’s west coast had become ice-free, and humans settled along its entire length. Over time they had broken into distinct linguistic groups, including the Coast Salish, Kwagiulth, Tsimshian, Gitksan, Nisga’a, Haida, and Tlingit; but all these peoples relied on two things: cedar and salmon. Their lifestyle was very different from that of the stereotypical North American indigenous people—they had no bison to depend on, they didn’t ride horses, nor did they live in tepees—but they developed a unique and intriguing culture that remains in place in small pockets along the west coast. These coastal bands lived comfortably off the land and the sea, hunting deer, beaver, bear, and sea otters; fishing for salmon, cod, and halibut; and harvesting edible kelp.
West coast native society emphasized the material wealth of each chief and his tribe, displayed to others during special events called “potlatches.” The potlatch ceremonies marked important moments in tribal society, such as marriages, puberty celebrations, deaths, or totem-pole raisings. The wealth of a tribe became obvious when the chief gave away enormous quantities of gifts to his guests—the nobler the guest, the better the gift. The potlatch exchange was accompanied by much feasting, speech-making, dancing, and entertainment, all of which could last many days. Stories performed by hosts garbed in elaborate costumes and masks educated, entertained, and affirmed each clan’s historical continuity.
The Interior Salish
Moving north with the receding ice cap around 10,000 years ago, the Salish spread out across most of southwestern and interior British Columbia. After spending summers in the mountains hunting and gathering, they would move to lower elevations to harvest their most precious natural resource—salmon. At narrow canyons along the Fraser River and its tributaries, the Salish put their fishing skills to the test, netting, trapping, and spearing salmon as the fish traveled upstream to spawn. Much of the catch was preserved by drying or roasting, then pounded into a powder known as “pemmican” for later use or to be traded. The Salish wintered in earth-covered log structures known as “pit houses.” Depressions left by these ancient structures can still be seen in places such as Keatley Creek, alongside the Fraser River.
Those who settled along the upper reaches of the Columbia River became known as the Shuswap. They spent summers in the mountains hunting caribou and sheep, put their fishing skills to the test each fall, then wintered in pit houses along the Columbia River Valley; they were the only Salish who crossed the Rockies to hunt buffalo on the plains. Within the Salish Nation, three other distinct tribes have been identified: the Lillooet, the Thompson (Nlaka’pamux), and the Okanagan.
The Kootenay (other common spellings include Kootenai, Kootenae, and Kutenai) were once hunters of buffalo on the great American plains, but were pushed westward by fierce enemies. Like the Salish did farther west, they then moved north with the receding ice cap. They crossed the 49th parallel around 10,000 years ago, settling in the Columbia River Valley, along the western edge of the Canadian Rockies. Also like the Salish, they were hunters and gatherers and came to rely on salmon. The Kootenay were generally friendly, mixing freely with the Salish and treating the earliest explorers (including David Thompson) with respect. They regularly traveled east over the Rockies to hunt—to the wildlife-rich Kootenay Plains or farther south to the Great Plains in search of bison.
The Blackfoot Confederacy was a group of traditional prairie dwellers and was the most warlike and feared of all native groups in Canada. Linguistically linked to the Algonkians, they were the stereotypical Indian depicted in story and film, bedecked in costumes and headdresses and mounted on horses. (This perception is somewhat skewed, however, because the horse was only introduced to North America by the Spanish in the mid-1600s and appeared north of the 49th parallel in the mid-1700s.)
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Blackfoot Confederacy ruled the southern half of Alberta and comprised of three allied bands, which hunted and camped together, intermarried, shared customs, and spoke dialects of the Algonkian language. They were the Blackfoot (best known today as Siksika), who lived along the North Saskatchewan River; the Blood, along the Red Deer River; and the Peigan, along the Bow River.
The Sarcee are also considered part of the Blackfoot Nation but are of Athabascan linguistic stock. This small tribe divided from the subarctic Beaver in the mid-1800s and integrated themselves with the Blackfoot in customs, lifestyle, and marriage but retained their original tongue.
Around 1650, the mighty Sioux nation began splintering, with many thousands moving north into present-day Canada. Though these immigrants called themselves Nakoda meaning “people,” other tribes called them Assiniboine, meaning the “people who cook with stones.” Europeans translated Assiniboine as Stone People, or Stoney for short. Slowly, generation after generation, smaller groups pushed westward along the Saskatchewan River system, allying themselves with the Cree but keeping their own identity, and pushing through the Blackfoot territory of the plains to reach the foothills approximately 200 years ago.
They split into bands, moving north and south along the foothills and penetrating the wide valleys where hunting was productive. They evolved a very different lifestyle from that of the Plains Indians. Moving with the seasons, they lived in small family-like groups, diversifying their skills, becoming excellent hunters of mountain animals and gathering berries in fall, and becoming less dependent on buffalo. They were a steadfast yet friendly people.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Cree had inhabited most of eastern Canada for thousands of years. As the European fur traders pushed westward from Hudson Bay, the Cree followed, displacing enemies and adapting to new environments. By 1800, the Cree had moved as far west as the Peace River and to the northern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. They lived mostly in the forests fringing the prairies, acting as a middleman between Europeans and local natives, searching out furs and trading buffalo hides obtained from plains natives for European goods. Although not related, the Cree and Assiniboine freely mixed together, camping, hunting, and fighting as a group.
Athabascan (often spelled Athapaskan) is the most widely spread of all North American linguistic groups, extending from the Rio Grande to Alaska. It is believed that Athabascan-speaking people followed the receding ice cap and settled in forested areas throughout the subarctic approximately 7,000 years ago. Athabascans led a simple, nomadic life and were generally friendly toward each other and neighboring tribes. Although culturally diverse, the nature of this tribe’s lifestyle left few archaeological remains; therefore, they are the least known of the natives who once lived in western Canada. The largest division of the Athabascans was the Carrier group. They lived throughout the northern reaches of the Fraser River basin and along the Skeena River watershed.
The Carrier, along with Athabascan tribes that lived farther north (including the Chilcotin, Tahltan, and Inland Tlingit), adopted many traits of their coastal neighbors, such as potlatch ceremonies and raising totem poles. One Athabascan group inhabiting northern Alberta was the Beaver, who were forced westward, up the Peace River watershed, by the warlike Cree (the name Peace River originated after the two groups eventually made peace). Across the subcontinental divide to the north, the Mackenzie River watershed was the traditional home of another distinct Athabascan band, known today as the Dene (DEN-ay). Like the Beaver, they were nomadic hunters and gatherers but also relied heavily on fishing.
A second group of people crossed the Bering land bridge much later than the first—approximately 10,000 years ago—and settled in Alaska. Eventually, people from this group would migrate across the Arctic coast in two major waves. The first wave occurred approximately 4,000 years ago when the people known as the Dorset culture began to move east. They lived in skin tents in summer and snow houses—previously unknown in Alaska—in winter. The second eastward migration, that of the Thule culture, occurred approximately 1,000 years ago and picked up elements of the Dorset culture, such as snow houses and intricate carvings, as it progressed. The Thule lived in semipermanent villages and specialized in hunting sea mammals. The Thule are ancestors of the Inuit.
The exact definition of Métis varies across Canada, but the term originated in the 1700s to describe those born of a mixed racial heritage as the result of relationships between French traders and native Cree women. The Métis played an invaluable role in the fur trade because they were able to perform traditional tasks and were bilingual. By the early 1800s, a distinct Métis culture developed, mostly along major trading routes. As the fur trade ended and the great buffalo herds disappeared, many Métis found themselves drawn toward the familiarity of their own people and settled along Central Canada’s Red River. Government threats to take their land along the Red River led to the 1869 Riel Rebellion and the 1885 North West Rebellion, after which the displaced Métis drifted back westward to the boreal forests, eking out food by hunting, trapping, and fishing. They were a people stuck between two cultures; they were excluded from treaties signed by full-blooded natives but were not a part of mainstream Canadian society.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition