If broken down into the broadest and generalized divisions, the history of British Columbia can be separated into four key periods of time; its history before the arrival of Europeans, the time of the early European explorers, the province’s time as a colony of Britain, and its modern existence as a member of the country of Canada. Clearly, within each of these four periods, there were many significant dates, events, and people but this is meant to provide, as the title suggests, an overview of the first division; British Columbia prior to European contact.
This time period dates from the first arrival of human ancestors in North America 10,000-12,000 years ago up until the the first European explorers made an appearance approximately 400 years ago. This time span produces somewhere between 11,500-9,500 years during which time the small band of adventurous ancient humans who initially arrived on this continent expanded, divided, adapted, and created in order to form the First Nations societies and their distinctive cultural traditions which were so uniquely experienced by the first European arrivals and which have struggled to continue existing to the present day.
The struggle with gaining an understanding of this period in British Colombian history, including what was occurring within specific groups as well as the province as a whole, is that the First Nations cultures were (and still predominantly are) based around an oral tradition with their beliefs, cultures, and traditions are passed down from generation to generation through verbal accounts and stories. The only written accounts available on these people were produced by European immigrants who typically saw these groups as being quaint at best and inferior, in need of civilizing, at worst. This has resulted in accounts which are less of an accurate record of the traditions, customs, histories, and languages of the First Nations people and more of a dismissive recording designed to highlight what the newcomers saw as different and/or inferior qualities. In addition to this (as previously mentioned in this earlier post), the climate of British Columbia, combined with many of the most common materials used by First Nations cultures, has resulted in a far more limited archaeological record then that which can be found in other parts of the world.
However, despite these limitations, it is known that there were a minimum of 30 separate language groups and that there was frequent contact between various groups and villages including relatively frequent trips across bodies of water which included the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. Due to a high quantity of natural resources of the area (particularly an abundance of cedar and salmon which were central to most likely all of the groups in this region) these people were able to focus a great deal of their time on other pursuits the most recognizable of these to today’s world being their artwork which includes totem poles, boxes, masks, and weavings that still captivate today.
Despite the limitations in gaining a clear picture of this time in history for the province, North America is fortunate that there are still a number of First Nations groups practicing their traditions, speaking their languages, producing art, and maintaining their cultures which provides insights that are unavailable for most of the cultures and civilizations who existed alongside theirs 11,000 years age. Luckily, despite some rough patches in history, many of these individuals continuing to practice First Nations traditions are happy to share their cultures, stories, and oral histories with the world.
***Please note that none of the images for this post are my own; all images for this post come from the BC Archives website .