The Pacific Northwest is the home of indigenous peoples who are part of a wide range of cultural groups. The regions in which they lived determined what kinds of foods they ate, the arts they created, who their main trading partners were, and where and how they made contact with the new arrivals from Europe. During the 18th century, language was one of the most important ways of learning what tribe or nation coastal peoples belonged to.

From north to south, some of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest include the Tlingit people from the northern Pacific; the Haida people from the Haida Gwaii or Queen Charlotte archipelago; the Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Kwagiulth, and Coast Salish from the mainland coast; and the Nuu-chah-nulth from the west coast of Vancouver Island. These nations are made up of smaller groups. For example, the Mowachaht and Ahousaht chiefly families are part of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation, and the Stó:l? from the Fraser River are part of the Coast Salish nation.

The ability to communicate without language proved useful to many who could mimic motions such as paddling, eating, or a smile of enjoyment. They were used to sign every Read More
The Pacific Northwest is the home of indigenous peoples who are part of a wide range of cultural groups. The regions in which they lived determined what kinds of foods they ate, the arts they created, who their main trading partners were, and where and how they made contact with the new arrivals from Europe. During the 18th century, language was one of the most important ways of learning what tribe or nation coastal peoples belonged to.

From north to south, some of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest include the Tlingit people from the northern Pacific; the Haida people from the Haida Gwaii or Queen Charlotte archipelago; the Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Kwagiulth, and Coast Salish from the mainland coast; and the Nuu-chah-nulth from the west coast of Vancouver Island. These nations are made up of smaller groups. For example, the Mowachaht and Ahousaht chiefly families are part of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation, and the Stó:l? from the Fraser River are part of the Coast Salish nation.

The ability to communicate without language proved useful to many who could mimic motions such as paddling, eating, or a smile of enjoyment. They were used to sign everything from a trade deal to the directions to a pass. A Spanish journal from the 1790s notes that, “our interpreter, who knew the Nootka language about as well as he knew Greek, generally didn’t make himself understood, and to communicate we had recourse to actions.”

During the fur trading years, European and American traders and local peoples used a dialect known as “trade Chinook” for commercial purposes. The Spanish composed a song in honour of Chief Maquinna using local words, and over the course of his career in the fur trade, Maquinna learned to communicate in English and Spanish.

Explorers made a point of recording language in dictionaries that could assist future expeditions. The expeditions of Malaspina and Galiano collected and compiled a lengthy list of Tlingit words in the north Pacific and a Spanish-Mowachaht glossary was produced during a stop on the Vancouver Island coast.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Nootka with Chief Macquinna

Celebration at Nootka with Chief Macquinna

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Chief Cuneah orchestrated much of the sea otter trade in the islands of Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte archipelago. He began to call himself “Taglus” (Douglas) Cuneah, participating in a Haida tradition of name exchange. Taking the name of a companion and giving one’s own name in return was a gesture of honour that showed powerful relationships. In this case, Cuneah was demonstrating an affiliation with Captain Douglas, who sailed for Captain John Meares’ trading company in 1789.
Gifts were exchanged between captains and community leaders (who were referred to as “chiefs” by the Europeans because they spoke on behalf of their people, but who had multiple roles as respected hunters, negotiators, and spiritual leaders). Captain Cook’s expedition returned with a feast bowl of the Chugach people of what is now Prince William Sound. Tlingit armour of hide and slats can be found in Boston, brought by American sailors. The Malaspina and Galiano expeditions returned with a Tlingit helmet following contact between the Spanish and the peoples of the north Pacific. The Europeans gave sheet copper and other useful raw materials.
Thes Read More
Chief Cuneah orchestrated much of the sea otter trade in the islands of Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte archipelago. He began to call himself “Taglus” (Douglas) Cuneah, participating in a Haida tradition of name exchange. Taking the name of a companion and giving one’s own name in return was a gesture of honour that showed powerful relationships. In this case, Cuneah was demonstrating an affiliation with Captain Douglas, who sailed for Captain John Meares’ trading company in 1789.
Gifts were exchanged between captains and community leaders (who were referred to as “chiefs” by the Europeans because they spoke on behalf of their people, but who had multiple roles as respected hunters, negotiators, and spiritual leaders). Captain Cook’s expedition returned with a feast bowl of the Chugach people of what is now Prince William Sound. Tlingit armour of hide and slats can be found in Boston, brought by American sailors. The Malaspina and Galiano expeditions returned with a Tlingit helmet following contact between the Spanish and the peoples of the north Pacific. The Europeans gave sheet copper and other useful raw materials.
These cultures in contact tried to understand the diplomatic gestures of the other. Maquinna came to expect a gun salute when ships with European naval officers entered harbour. Captains and officers were invited as guests to the potlatch, a key economic and community event in the Pacific Northwest. It was a celebration where the accumulated wealth of the host was distributed to the guests according to their position in society. Great respect was granted to the host of the potlatch, who honoured himself and his guests with feasting, dancing, and presents. Captains Bodega y Quadra and Vancouver were invited to a Nuu-chah-nulth potlatch, which they attended together in full uniform. Vancouver reported that the potlatch feast was held in a building “filled with mirrors and burnished copper … which reflected the glow of the central fire.”

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

The relationship between Captain Malaspina and the First Nations people

John Black, Alexandro Malaspina Research Centre, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Discussing the relationship between Captain Malaspina and the First Nations people

Malaspina had two sides to his approach to questions of aesthetics. One was that he was a philosopher, a well-read philosopher, so he had the theoretical side that way. Secondly, he had a great deal of experience of a variety of human societies and communities around the world. So he was able to put those 2 things together, because he was both a philosopher and a sea captain. He spends quite a lot of time in the essay on beauty thinking about what human beauty consists of, and so he is able to canvas a lot of understandings of what beauty is from across the world. Therefore, he can appreciate different kinds of beauty, if you like, or how different kinds of physical characteristics would be put together to form a concept of beauty. He realizes that there is a great deal of variety in understandings of beauty across different communities.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Chugach Feast Bowl

Chugach feast bowl traded in Nootka Sound on Cook's 3rd Voyage

The National Maritime Museum, London

© National Maritime Museum


The image of explorers cutting a swath through forests and plains in search of new lands often leaves out a key factor: the indigenous guides. Unlike the seagoing expeditions, which usually made contact with First Nations communities at their villages and harbour sites, overland expeditions had extended relationships with guides who assisted them in traversing river and mountain systems. The guides also helped them to understand the territorial range of tribes or nations, and to communicate with different language groups.

First Nations guides accompanied Alexander Mackenzie’s expedition to the Pacific. Mackenzie revealed how essential these men were to the expedition in his journals, when, after being separated from the guide, he wrote: “As for attempting the woods, without a guide, to introduce us to the first inhabitants, such a determination would be little short of absolute madness.” Mackenzie met people along the way who would often travel short distances with the expedition, pointing out suitable paths.

The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed what is now the United States with the aid of a young Shoshone woman named Sacagawea. She Read More
The image of explorers cutting a swath through forests and plains in search of new lands often leaves out a key factor: the indigenous guides. Unlike the seagoing expeditions, which usually made contact with First Nations communities at their villages and harbour sites, overland expeditions had extended relationships with guides who assisted them in traversing river and mountain systems. The guides also helped them to understand the territorial range of tribes or nations, and to communicate with different language groups.

First Nations guides accompanied Alexander Mackenzie’s expedition to the Pacific. Mackenzie revealed how essential these men were to the expedition in his journals, when, after being separated from the guide, he wrote: “As for attempting the woods, without a guide, to introduce us to the first inhabitants, such a determination would be little short of absolute madness.” Mackenzie met people along the way who would often travel short distances with the expedition, pointing out suitable paths.

The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed what is now the United States with the aid of a young Shoshone woman named Sacagawea. She acted as a translator from Shoshone to Hidatsa, which was translated into French by her husband and into English by an expedition member. Sacagawea travelled with her young baby, which eased tensions directed towards the expedition of military men across indigenous lands, and she guided them across mountain passes and trails she remembered from her childhood.

Sacagawea received nothing in return for her valuable skills. In spite of the guides’ roles in giving directions, acting as diplomats, and assisting in communications between the expeditions and the local peoples, they were not themselves renowned as “explorers.”

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Statue of Sacagawea

Statue of Sacagawea

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Explorers were recording, charting and assessing land, in the belief that if it was not used the way they thought it should be – farm fields, cities with large buildings, fences and divisions – they could come and take it. So many expeditions sent boats of men ashore to “claim” land on behalf of their king and country.

The history of Pacific First Nations peoples was passed on orally and displayed in elaborate carvings and other works of art. There were no written documents stating claims to land. When the Pacific Northwest was divided up for settlement, many indigenous peoples had no “proof” of their presence, except for settled villages. The European powers did not recognize fishing waters, summer berry picking grounds, or temporary seasonal villages because they could not see evidence of their use, nor that people were associated with a region and connected to its resources. By charting the Pacific Northwest, explorers were asserting their rights to lands that were already inhabited. The explorers opened the door for colonists and settlers.

Today, the struggle to assert rights to lands lived on, cultivated, harvest Read More
Explorers were recording, charting and assessing land, in the belief that if it was not used the way they thought it should be – farm fields, cities with large buildings, fences and divisions – they could come and take it. So many expeditions sent boats of men ashore to “claim” land on behalf of their king and country.

The history of Pacific First Nations peoples was passed on orally and displayed in elaborate carvings and other works of art. There were no written documents stating claims to land. When the Pacific Northwest was divided up for settlement, many indigenous peoples had no “proof” of their presence, except for settled villages. The European powers did not recognize fishing waters, summer berry picking grounds, or temporary seasonal villages because they could not see evidence of their use, nor that people were associated with a region and connected to its resources. By charting the Pacific Northwest, explorers were asserting their rights to lands that were already inhabited. The explorers opened the door for colonists and settlers.

Today, the struggle to assert rights to lands lived on, cultivated, harvested, hunted, and fished by indigenous ancestors at the time of the explorers’ visits is ongoing. Ironically, many First Nations have had to rely on the findings of archaeology to verify their historic presence in a particular area: excavations at Namu, on the central British Columbia coast, have revealed 10,000 years of continuous occupation at the same site. Many archaeologists come from First Nations communities or work with First Nations peoples. A combination of oral history and archaeology can be used to create a historic time line for communities, to enrich the understanding of history. The journals of exploration expeditions and first contact stories have been used in a similar way.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Inside a house at Nootka sound

Inside a house at Nootka sound

Artist J Webber, Engraver W. Sharp
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

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