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The people inhabiting the British Columbia coastline were culturally distinct from other tribes on the continent. There were broad groups that were culturally similar but were subdivided into a number of tribes and bands. They were frequently enemies. Although there were differences in the degree to which the customs were practiced by each tribe or band, they all had social classes of royalty and/or nobles, commoners, and slaves. Each group practiced the custom of the potlatch. The potlatch was the custom of a man having a huge feast to which he invited others and gave away vast amounts of goods. There were positive and negative effects to this custom. In some tribes, slaves might be absorbed into the tribe while in others they were always slaves.
Vast trading routes existed up and down the coast as well as inland along the rivers. The tribes of the interior of British Columbia were already using metal implements and other items of European origin before first contact.
The northwest coast of the continent was touched by Europeans and Americans differently than was the east coast. The first contact was with explorers and traders, not those who intended to settle the land. The white men came for different reasons – to map the coastline, to find a passage that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and for the lucrative fur trade. Contact was made almost as early as it was on the east coast. Explorers and traders were present along the coast from the late 1500’s, including Russian, British, Spanish, and American expeditions. Trading posts and forts began to be established as early as the late 1700’s.
The coast of British Columbia is relatively narrow, 150 miles wide at the widest, and rises dramatically to a high desert plateau. The tribes in this area were more like the plains tribes further to the east although there were still influences from the coastal tribes.
First contact with the interior tribes was from fur traders who came overland. Notably Alexander McKenzie and Simon Fraser explored the area with the intent to establish the fur trade. Both men were instrumental in the establishment of trading posts.
The people did not escape the diseases that decimated other tribes across the continent. The diseases spread rapidly from east to west. Some tribes experienced smallpox epidemics before first contact with white men. Although pre-contact estimates of populations are unreliable, all the populations were dramatically reduced, some by two-thirds or more.
By the first half of the 1800’s, the native people were offered employment by the Hudson’s Bay Company and others who had established posts. Two major changes occurred in the traditional lifestyle of the people: they were offered employment by those who established the posts, usually causing them to leave their villages, and were introduced to new and destructive influences.
Tribes and Bands (First Nations) of British Columbia
Map depicting general distribution of tribes in British Columbia can be found at British Columbia Ministry of Education
A listing of federally recognized tribes of British Columbia is found at Native Tribes of the United States and Canada
Important Web Sites
List of Indian Tribes in British Columbia and other locations in Canada and the United States, from the University of British Columbia Library.
A timeline of historic events is located at British Columbia History
The "Ahousat" Indians Reserve located on Flores Island off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Record contains some birth, marriage and death records. FHL Film: 924503
A detailed guide to researching aboriginal records is found at Library and Archives Canada
The 1877 Indian Reserve Commission Census of interior British Columbia can be found at Library and Archives of Canada
Indian Registers, 1951-1984 , Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, are maintained at the Library and Archives in Ottawa. Access to these records is restricted. Inquiries must be directed to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
- Bill Russell, Records of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs at the National Archives
of Canada: A source for genealogical research, The Ontario Genealogical Society, 1998
- Finding Aid (FA) 10-202: a guide to Indian bands and agencies in British Columbia, Library & Archives of Canada, Canadian Genealogy Centre , http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/genealogy/022-607.002.01.01-e.html
- Canada Gazzeteer Atlas, University of Chicago Press, 1980. Shows Reserves and smaller communities of First Nations.
- Schedule of Indians Bands, Reserves, and Settlements , Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada.
- Atlas of Indian Reserves and Settlements of Canada, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada
- Jenness, Diamond. Indians of Canada. National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 65, Anthropological Series No. 15
- Swanton John R. The Indian Tribes of North America. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin #145