Indigenous societies were long established in most of the places visited by expeditions of exploration. At times, European captains like Cook would gain valuable navigational information and invite or force local people of the northwest and south Pacific to come aboard as advisors and interpreters. The lack of a common language was only a temporary barrier as gestures and openness inspired by curiosity led to communication. Both sides instigated trade and gift exchanges as First Nations and new arrivals saw economic potential in their contact. Leaders in the coastal communities used local resources and strong bargaining skills to increase the wealth, territory, and power of their villages and tribal networks.

Curiosity and trade led to drawings and written accounts by Russian, Spanish, British, and North American expeditions, detailing the language and appearance of the “natives.” The First Nations peoples added the arrivals of the Europeans to their oral and artistic histories, carving white or bearded men into pipes and masks, and using iron traded from the ships to make tools and decorative objects.

Explorers were often on military vessels, Read More
Indigenous societies were long established in most of the places visited by expeditions of exploration. At times, European captains like Cook would gain valuable navigational information and invite or force local people of the northwest and south Pacific to come aboard as advisors and interpreters. The lack of a common language was only a temporary barrier as gestures and openness inspired by curiosity led to communication. Both sides instigated trade and gift exchanges as First Nations and new arrivals saw economic potential in their contact. Leaders in the coastal communities used local resources and strong bargaining skills to increase the wealth, territory, and power of their villages and tribal networks.

Curiosity and trade led to drawings and written accounts by Russian, Spanish, British, and North American expeditions, detailing the language and appearance of the “natives.” The First Nations peoples added the arrivals of the Europeans to their oral and artistic histories, carving white or bearded men into pipes and masks, and using iron traded from the ships to make tools and decorative objects.

Explorers were often on military vessels, representing Christian kings, queens, and czars, on expeditions far from home. The local peoples were living among their families, with a way of life that depended upon the environment and its resources for spiritual and physical survival. The meeting of these two different ways of understanding the world brought change to both. When 18th century exploration gave way to 19th century forts and settlements, the First Nations peoples began an ongoing struggle to regain control over their lands and traditions. Ironically, they were often forced to rely on archaeology and records like explorers’ journals to verify their own history in the Pacific Northwest.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Contact Between Europeans and First Nations Peoples

Dr. John Lutz, Associate Professor of History, University of Victoria, Discussing contact between Europeans and First Nations peoples

One of the things I am most interested in is the early contact – the first contact – between Europeans and aboriginal people on the Northwest Coast of America and how they communicated with each other when they didn’t have a common language and their cultures were so totally different and so I have been looking for aboriginal accounts of their first meetings with Europeans and European accounts of these first meetings and trying to see what the commonalities were and what the huge gaps and differences are. Native people usually thought these explorers came from the supernatural world somehow, that they were perhaps people returning from the dead because they were all wrapped up like corpses in tight clothes like they wrapped up the corpses in blankets or maybe sometimes they were described as supernatural beings like the raven because they thought the sails looked like wings sometimes. So native people processed Europeans through their spiritual world view and Europeans are coming with this Christian world view that sees themselves as superior to indigenous people and they’re processing people through their spiritual world view that somehow they were superior and indigenous people didn’t quite understand the scientific rational behind these voyages. So, I am really interested in that kind of miscommunication and also the way that people communicated by pantomime and acting and performance – in effect what we have is people performing for each other. Indigenous people and Europeans both performing for each other.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


During long ocean voyages, supplies of food, water, and wood to make repairs were collected by landing parties that would row ashore while the European ships sat at harbour. Crews would interact with indigenous communities through trade, attempts at sexual contact with local women, and the process of collecting information about local geography, flora, and fauna. With the exception of temporary winter camps, small Russian settlements in the north Pacific, the Spanish fort of San Miguel, and other outposts in Nootka Sound on the east coast of Vancouver Island, there were few settlements by new arrivals in the Pacific Northwest during the 18th century.

This situation meant that most contact was brief, although it could be ongoing, and many captains visited the same areas on successive voyages. It was also on the terms of the coastal peoples. They often sent out canoes with representatives, including chiefs and spiritual leaders, to welcome the visitors. However, if they were not satisfied with their relationships or the conditions of commerce, they could refuse trade. Because the explorers and traders were reliant on the coastal villages to organize and participate i Read More
During long ocean voyages, supplies of food, water, and wood to make repairs were collected by landing parties that would row ashore while the European ships sat at harbour. Crews would interact with indigenous communities through trade, attempts at sexual contact with local women, and the process of collecting information about local geography, flora, and fauna. With the exception of temporary winter camps, small Russian settlements in the north Pacific, the Spanish fort of San Miguel, and other outposts in Nootka Sound on the east coast of Vancouver Island, there were few settlements by new arrivals in the Pacific Northwest during the 18th century.

This situation meant that most contact was brief, although it could be ongoing, and many captains visited the same areas on successive voyages. It was also on the terms of the coastal peoples. They often sent out canoes with representatives, including chiefs and spiritual leaders, to welcome the visitors. However, if they were not satisfied with their relationships or the conditions of commerce, they could refuse trade. Because the explorers and traders were reliant on the coastal villages to organize and participate in trade for furs and necessary supplies, much of the early contact involved communication and hospitality. Events included hosting captains and officers at potlatches and inviting chiefs and their families aboard ship for dinner and entertainment.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Contact between Captain Vancouver and the Tlingit women

Dee Longenbaugh, Independent Researcher, Juneau, Alaska, Discussing contact between Captain Vancouver and Tlingit women

When George Vancouver encountered the Tlingits’, among the things he noted because he was a very good person, really closely observing the people, he noticed that there were a number of women, in fact in one of the first encounters they were down at the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island (very southern southeast Alaska), and he noticed five small canoes came out to trade and they were all crewed entirely by women, and then when they went up into Lynn Canal, today’s Sgagway area, he found the natives’ extremely hostile and they came out prepared for war they were wearing their armour, they were wearing their hats, they were not going to put up with anything, and he noticed that five of the canoes were being steered, which was a position of honour, by women, it’s very indicative of two things as far as I’m concerned, one is how important women were in the Tlingit culture, and the second is how observant Vancouver was to notice.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Explorers returned to their homelands with stories and drawings of the peoples of the Pacific (often with theatrical embellishments) that fascinated the royal courts and the people on the streets of Europe. The stories of the European visitors and the first encounters with sailors became part of the histories of the First Nations, passed on orally, with similar dramatic emphasis. The contact was between seafaring peoples who lived with the ocean in their daily lives and travelled aboard specialized vessels – the First Nations peoples in canoes and the visitors in sailing ships. There were similarities and vast differences that filled both sides with questions.

Studies of the period of contact during the 18th century suggest that it was a time of exchanges, trade, and communication, due to the fact that the explorers had no interest in erecting settlements and displacing local peoples. This is in sharp contrast to the years that followed, when fur trading outposts, agricultural pioneers, and religious missionaries disrupted First Nations relationships to their lands and families. However, disease traveled with the explorers, and in 1782, the first of a number Read More
Explorers returned to their homelands with stories and drawings of the peoples of the Pacific (often with theatrical embellishments) that fascinated the royal courts and the people on the streets of Europe. The stories of the European visitors and the first encounters with sailors became part of the histories of the First Nations, passed on orally, with similar dramatic emphasis. The contact was between seafaring peoples who lived with the ocean in their daily lives and travelled aboard specialized vessels – the First Nations peoples in canoes and the visitors in sailing ships. There were similarities and vast differences that filled both sides with questions.

Studies of the period of contact during the 18th century suggest that it was a time of exchanges, trade, and communication, due to the fact that the explorers had no interest in erecting settlements and displacing local peoples. This is in sharp contrast to the years that followed, when fur trading outposts, agricultural pioneers, and religious missionaries disrupted First Nations relationships to their lands and families. However, disease traveled with the explorers, and in 1782, the first of a number of smallpox epidemics hit the Coast Salish community, killing two thirds of the Stó:l? population in a matter of weeks.

The meeting of the coastal peoples of the Pacific Northwest and the explorers from Europe was obviously noteworthy and memorable for both sides. For Europe, it was the start of access to new resources and new lands. The potential to establish settlements and gain power over new people lay ahead. For the First Nations, it was the start of access to new tools and material wealth, and then to new diseases. The coming century would bring a new religion and new rulers that alienated them from their identity and traditions.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Art as Cultural Property

Sarah Hunt, Kwagiulth Band, Discussing art as a cultural property

So traditionally, particularly amongst costal peoples, the rights to certain dances, songs, images and figures are passed along through ceremonies. So at potlatch ceremonies, people are given the rights to do certain dances, and that can happen between families, or through marriage, or through your lineage. Those things could be passed along across nations as well, but it would have to be done in this traditional, ceremonial kind of way. So today, obviously, through commercialization of First Nations art, and sort of displacing that art around the world, it is displayed not in a traditional context, but in museums, or art galleries, or as part of collections, and a lot of the meaning of that has been lost. Particularly now with First Nations art, a lot of people are doing art that is not from their own background, or borrowing from one another, or even non-native people doing native art really undermines, or doesn’t recognize that those symbols or the practice is actually owned by those cultures, or is seen as cultural property rather than as just an object that you can buy just like anything else. So I think that that is definitely one of the larger impacts that colonization has had on First Nations cultural practices.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Chief Maquinna, born in the 1760s, became famous among the European and American captains because of his ongoing contact with visiting ships. He was a leader in his community, a Ha’wil, before contact with traders and explorers. When the ships started to come to the summer village at Yuquot, Nootka Sound, he skillfully encouraged trade, increasing prosperity and elevating the place of his people in the region. He arranged trade in goods from his village and acted as a middleman for trade items coming from communities located further away from the ports favoured by the large ships. More time was spent in Yuquot as it was more popular with visitors than their winter village of Tahsis.

The amplified ability of Maquinna and the Mowachaht people to hold potlatches to display their wealth and power and to stand up to rivals changed the political structures of the Nuu-chah-nulth on western Vancouver Island. Maquinna focused on increasing the area under his control, and in a political move, he married the daughter of rival chief Wickaninnish of Clayoquot Sound. He formed good relationships with other local Ha’wil by taking their daughters as his wives as well. Read More
Chief Maquinna, born in the 1760s, became famous among the European and American captains because of his ongoing contact with visiting ships. He was a leader in his community, a Ha’wil, before contact with traders and explorers. When the ships started to come to the summer village at Yuquot, Nootka Sound, he skillfully encouraged trade, increasing prosperity and elevating the place of his people in the region. He arranged trade in goods from his village and acted as a middleman for trade items coming from communities located further away from the ports favoured by the large ships. More time was spent in Yuquot as it was more popular with visitors than their winter village of Tahsis.

The amplified ability of Maquinna and the Mowachaht people to hold potlatches to display their wealth and power and to stand up to rivals changed the political structures of the Nuu-chah-nulth on western Vancouver Island. Maquinna focused on increasing the area under his control, and in a political move, he married the daughter of rival chief Wickaninnish of Clayoquot Sound. He formed good relationships with other local Ha’wil by taking their daughters as his wives as well. Maquinna also provided for his community as a great whaler and spiritual guide.

Maquinna learned Spanish and English to the degree that he could converse about complex social practices of his people, and he was often invited to dine and sleep aboard ship. He drank tea with the Malaspina expedition, “a custom found to be well introduced among his relatives”, and was asked to keep watch over the Spanish settlement at Nootka, although misdealing led to conflict with some of the American vessels. Maquinna attempted to benefit from the new arrivals by accepting aspects of European culture without rejecting his own traditions.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Explorers visiting the Pacific Northwest in the 18th century expected to meet with native people, but for most First Nations, their initial contact with the European ships and crew would have been a notable event. The commercial potential of visitors in a large, copper-sheathed (to keep out worms) vessel was doubtless enticing, but there was still a need to fit the Europeans into an organized world where they were not strangers or enemies. The cosmology, or world view, and spirituality of the First Nations and the European arrivals was an important aspect of the early relationships between explorers and local peoples.

For First Nations peoples, humans, relatives, ancestors, helpers, and spirits inhabited the coastal environment, linking people and their natural surroundings. When the first European ships came, the pale skin of the crews and the ships’ great sails were assumed to be proof of the spirit world. Captain Cook was not necessarily welcomed as a “god”, as many histories like to suggest, but rather as a visitor from the parallel world of the sky, already known to them; some Nuu-chah-nulth histories associate the visitors with the moon. The Read More
Explorers visiting the Pacific Northwest in the 18th century expected to meet with native people, but for most First Nations, their initial contact with the European ships and crew would have been a notable event. The commercial potential of visitors in a large, copper-sheathed (to keep out worms) vessel was doubtless enticing, but there was still a need to fit the Europeans into an organized world where they were not strangers or enemies. The cosmology, or world view, and spirituality of the First Nations and the European arrivals was an important aspect of the early relationships between explorers and local peoples.

For First Nations peoples, humans, relatives, ancestors, helpers, and spirits inhabited the coastal environment, linking people and their natural surroundings. When the first European ships came, the pale skin of the crews and the ships’ great sails were assumed to be proof of the spirit world. Captain Cook was not necessarily welcomed as a “god”, as many histories like to suggest, but rather as a visitor from the parallel world of the sky, already known to them; some Nuu-chah-nulth histories associate the visitors with the moon. The Tlingit and Clatsop identified the first monstrous European ships with the Raven, a trickster figure.

The Europeans arrived in the Pacific with ideas about Christianity and how God would
guide their expedition. The British blessed their expeditions and the Spanish sailed with priests aboard. Even the Spanish act of possession involved religious blessings and the placing of a cross on shore to mark the territory. The intention to convert the local peoples to Christianity, and the ultimate view that the indigenous way of life and spiritual beliefs were inferior to those of Christian Europe, allowed them to claim land without worries that it was already inhabited.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

A View of Nootka Sound

A View of Nootka Sound

Artist - J. Webber, engraver W. Sharp
Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Contact Between First Nations and Europeans

Dr. John Lutz, Associate Professor of History, University of Victoria, Discussing contact between First Nations and Europeans

One of the things I am most interested in is the early contact – the first contact – between Europeans and aboriginal people on the Northwest Coast of America and how they communicated with each other when they didn’t have a common language and their cultures were so totally different and so I have been looking for aboriginal accounts of their first meetings with Europeans and European accounts of these first meetings and trying to see what the commonalities were and what the huge gaps and differences are. Native people usually thought these explorers came from the supernatural world somehow, that they were perhaps people returning from the dead because they were all wrapped up like corpses in tight clothes like they wrapped up the corpses in blankets or maybe sometimes they were described as supernatural beings like the raven because they thought the sails looked like wings sometimes. So native people processed Europeans through their spiritual world view and Europeans are coming with this Christian world view that sees themselves as superior to indigenous people and they’re processing people through their spiritual world view that somehow they were superior and indigenous people didn’t quite understand the scientific rational behind these voyages. So, I am really interested in that kind of miscommunication and also the way that people communicated by pantomime and acting and performance – in effect what we have is people performing for each other. Indigenous people and Europeans both performing for each other.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • construct, interpret, and use graphs, tables, grids, scales, legends, and various types of maps
  • locate and describe major world landforms, bodies of water, and political boundaries on maps
  • locate and describe current and historical events on maps

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans