TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, STORIES, HISTORY AND CULTURAL BACKGROUND OF THE WEST COAST OF CANADA

 

A look at the history and cultural background of the West Coast of Canada.

The Canadian First Nations People from the West Coast of Canada and their culture, dates back over 5000 years.

Nature provided the First Nations People of the West Coast with a remarkable wealth of natural foods, so the development of a sophisticated cultural life could establish itself.

The First Nations People's lives were orientated towards the sea. Their houses and villages,were built out of large cedar planks. These villages usually pointed in the direction of the ocean. The "Big Houses" were large cedar houses, that characterized the Northwest Coast; they were big enough to provide shelter, working space and storage space for many families under a single roof. As well they could accomodate large numbers of visitors that would come to celebrate feasts and "potlatches".

The First People's daily lives included sailing the West Coast waters in their wooden canoes, hunting, and fishing as well as working in their diffrent trades. Conserving food through smoking, air drying and salting, enabled the "First People" to enjoy free time in the winter months. It was the time for potlatches, celebrations and spending more time on the trades of the arts, cultural activities and events.

You can find various handmade art and cultural artifacts made out of different materials, which are being made until today and used as jewellery or in rituals, dances and while celebrating or having potlatches. The artists of the "Canadian First Nations People" were always open for and incorporated and included new materials, tools and techniques in their artworks, like steel tools for carving and ingraving.

Copper symbolized wealth and power, therefore it was also used as a trading commodity. Also used for trading was mother of pearl that came from California, silver and gold from Alaska; and trading beads from Russia or from as far as the Netherlands.

Part of the philosophie and cultural aspect of the "Canadian First Nations People" from the West Coast of Canada was and still is: "The Oneness Of All Live".

The Canadian First Nations‘ People
The tribes who left Siberia 10.000 to 30.000 years ago to come to the Canadian West Coast are altogether called Canadian First Nations‘ People. They can be divided into tribes and clans and still live at the west coast of today‘s British-Columbia, Canada. Today the First Nations include 608 tribes and roughly 500.000 members.

Historical Background
Life and culture of the Canadian First Nations‘ People can be traced back 5000 years and villages of an age of approximately 9000 years have been discovered. The Totem Poles which were found are up to 2500 years old , these poles are put up to honor great chiefs up to now.
In all those centuries the First Nations‘ People developed many different languages and up to now they share one culture but speak different languages. Comparable to Europe their society was divided into “nobles“, “common people“ and “slaves“ centuries ago and there were even aristocratic families ruling, that gave their privileges and rights to their children as we also know from European history.

Tribes and Clans
The Indian cultures of British-Columbias‘ west coast can altogether be divided into the Plains Indians, the Woodland Indians, the Plateau Indians, the Iroquian Indians, the Pacific Coast Indians and the Indians who live at the Mackenzie- and Yukon River Basins.
This is just a geographical subdivision, much more helpful to understand the different cultures and symbols is a subdivision into tribes. As I mentioned before the Canadian First Nations‘ People consist of 608 tribes, here I had to reduce these to the major ones. Some of these are famous for their culture even today and especially the Haida culture is becoming more and more respected all over the world.
Now some information about the six major First Nations tribes:
Haida
The Haida live on the Queen Charlotte Islands and are the most famous tribe of the Canadian west coast. They became well known because of their powerful art. Their designs and works are uncluttered, bold and altogether impressive with a monumental weight. They are full of symmetry and colourful power and find respect in many museums.
Coast Salish
The Coast Salish were and are famous for their exceptional craftmanship, they even organized races with their canoes in Fraser Valley for many centuries.
They are specialized in woodworking, and in contrast to most of the other tribes they have just one kind of mask for dances, potlatches ( explained in 4.2 ) and ceremonies. Their carved figures, mostly animals, are stylized but realistic at the same time, which makes them a very unique part of Indian culture.
Nootka ( West Coast )
The Nootka have a harmonious way of expressing their mythology in art. They use fluid lines, and often leave open blank areas. In their works they mostly concentrate on the world of transformation ( more about transformation in 3.2 ).
Kwakiutl
The Kwakiutl stand for very realistic designs and unique masks and totem poles. They seem to have a very modern culture, giving their designs a three-dimensional look and using European colours since the Europeans have given them the chance to do so. The Kwakiutl home is in Alert Bay.
Tlingit
The Tlingit live in the North of British-Columbia and there are even Tlingit clans up in Alaska. Their culture is comparable to the Haida one and together these cultures are called the -Northern Style-. They were the first to combine building huge community houses ( more about these in 4.1.1 ) and producing a work of art.
Tsimishian
The Tsimishian art is thriving today near Hazelton in K’san Village. This village is a place where the old rules and traditions of the Canadian First Nations‘ People are given to the younger generations of Gitksan an Nisga people ( Gitksan and Nisga are the two major tribes which are together called Tsimishian ). Costumes and masks are made, art is full of emotion and positive energy and every work of art seems to be very personal here.

British-Columbia, the Canadian West Coast
It is no coincidence that the First Nations‘ People were able to develop a culture as strong and impressive as it was and to keep up this culture for thousands of years.
The Canadian West Coast offers a rich supply of everything these people needed. As we can imagine their life and culture was and is dominated by the Pacific Ocean, which they
tried to explore with canoes. That even today the great ceremonies of the First Nations’ People are mostly seen in the winter is because they had techniques to preserve food even thousands of years ago. They went hunting and fishing in spring and summer, smoked or
salted meat and fish and then had enough time for their art and their traditions in the colder months.

The First Nations‘ People Philosophy of Life
For the First Nations‘ People the world is not just what we see, hear or smell, for them it is divided into one real part which means the world itself, the sea, forests, nature altogether and another part, a mystical world where animals and humans can communicate and where they can even switch between animal and human transforming from one to another. Their attitude to nature is not even comparable to our one, comparde to us they know how weak and minor they are regarding the whole creation. These natives realize a connection between all the parts of nature that assemble in a “Oneness of all Life“.

Attitude to Nature
Thousands of years ago no person living at the west coast of British Columbia would have called himself an artist by profession. The First Nations‘ People were hunters and went fishing but their lifelong intimacy with animals helped them reach a unique attitude to nature. They admired all the different skills of animals and were grateful when they were allowed to take one of those away from nature to use it for themselves. Speaking about nature does not really exclude things we would call supernatural because the First Nations‘

People believed in something like a thin vail seprating the mystical world from the real world, even today this veil is symbolized by a “Dance-Screen“ ( comparable to a tapestry ) in ceremonies and rituals of the First Nations.
Thunderbird-Killerwhale-Design Dance-Screen by Mark Henderson

 

So in the end nature is something everyone belongs to and everyone has to respect in their philosphy. The First Nations‘ People are grateful to the earth allowing them to live on it and use it and they try to return what they take away from nature, by giving the animals and the parts of nature they need immortality, by using them and their symbols in their art.

Mythology and Beliefs
The First Nations‘ People believe in “father-sun“ as the creating element of the world, they even believe in something like a nation in the sky, the “Sky People“, which could be compared to our belief in heaven with its angels. They believe in a lot of mystical figures like “Pzunuka“ (“The Wild Woman of the Woods“) or “Mischief Man“ . These figures are not just supernatural persons of fairy tales, they remind people of their role in nature, of their weakness in relation to it but also of the abilities humans have. Sisiutl, a double-headed sea-serpent for example should mirror us as individuals, that we can reach great knowledge about nature and can help others, but that we can also be atrocious and rude.

“Sisiutl and the Box of Treasures“
by Peter Dawson
This Design symbolizes the double-headed sea-serpent Sisiutl.
Some figures also show how to behave in special situations. All these myths combine a moral for life with showing servility and love to nature altogether and particularly to special animals or parts of nature.
One more explanation for their impressive culture could be that the First Nations‘ believe in the power of their work. Power does not mean something political here, they see their chance to reach immortality in designing, dancing, singing and just creating any kind of art. In Europe thousands of years ago the Romans also believed in something comparable to that, their most famous writers like Horaz hoped to become immortal through their literature, for example.
To understand their rituals, their symbols and their art we have to see all these myths and the Canadian First Nations‘ People beliefs altogether as an independent world which is not even partly comparable to reality.
This entire mythology has never been written down, it is verbally handed over from generation to generation and in contrast to our myths these are changed and developed until today. This happens without disregarding the rules and
traditions of the ancestors and so we get a mythology that is timeless but also with the spirit of the first generations of Indians at the west coast of British Columbia.

The First Nations‘ Peoples Culture

To understand and to be able to really enjoy the First Nations‘ Peoples culture one should have seen all the parts of it in real life. Here I can just give an insight into their impressive symbols and designs, their way to transform normal architecture into pieces of art by using Totem Poles to construct their longhouses and their rituals such as the huge Potlatch ceremonies that people prepared for months and even years in advance. It is also quite interesting to look at traditional tools and techniques on one hand and the will to learn about new ones on the other hand and we willl see that especially the ceremonies but also every piece of art is not made reasonless, everything has to do with relationships inside the clans or privileges between them, for example, so culture and society are also deeply connected in the First Nations Peoples‘ lifes.

Symbols and Crests
In the Canadian First Nations Peoples‘ culture families have their own coats of arms, called crests. These crests are full of symbols, mostly animal symbols that can have two different meanings:
They can show the families connection to clans, like the eagle-clan, the raven-clan or the clan of the orcas, or they symbolize qualities or skills of the family that are linked with these animals. Especially the second variant often has a historical background, it would for example be a way of honouring a great chief of the families history to use the symbol of a Thunderbird ( a huge supernatural bird, which rules thunder according to myths ) in the family crest. The Thunderbird personifies -chief-. In addition to these symbols of animals and supernatural figures these crests also show how far back one can trace his family but this kind of family tree is not comparable to a European one. There are family trees that go back thousands of years. A crest can have even more elements than symbols and
information about the family history, great ceremonies like Potlatches are also shown in these crests by using, for example, rings to symbolize great events like these.

Totem Poles
We all know Totem Poles from Westerns as big wooden poles that are used to torture white men tied up to them. The Canadian First Nations‘ People used and use them to honour their ancestors by giving them a kind of immortality carving these posts to save knowledge about them. They are carved for Potlatches or any other rituals and are later on
used as house posts for the huge longhouses that can be up to 170 meters long and up to 20 meters wide. Totem Poles can also remind us of privileges families had in fishing or trading. Often these Poles also have symbols of animals on them to show their respect to nature or to chase away evil or death from this house. Wishes for the future or memories can also be shown by certain symbols, copper, for example, symbolizes wealth. Totem Poles can also remind people of myths or tell whole stories.

Potlatches and other Ritual Ceremonies


Potlatch by Gordon Miller
This print by Gordon Miller tries to capture a dance, which is part of a Potlatch ceremony.
Potlatches are huge ceremonies with hundreds of guests watching the artists perform dances, plays and songs. These festivals mean years of preparation for the families or clans that hold them. Ceremonial masks, drums, rattles, dance ropes, aprons and whole costumes are designed by the Canadian First Nations‘ People and even Totem Poles are carved for Potlatches. Dances and songs are created, memorized and trained and invitations are distributed in the months and years before. In the ceremony itself every dance, every costume and every mask has its own social and spiritual statement and is much more than just entertainment.
Dances, for example, are divided into the ones that are spiritual and ceremonial on one hand and dances that are presented as plays in public on the other hand. In Potlatches mainly the first kind of dances are found, these dances are bound to holy and traditional rules and are just performed for the Indian society, that is why these are also called Clan-Dancing. Dances, songs and plays without a strict link to these rules are performed in public and are even reconstructed or designed completely new with agreement of the elders. Changing them also means learning from the elders about the past of one‘s clan or family. The actors and singers are also the artists that have made the costumes, masks etc. and this gives them the opportunity to experience the power of their works of art by really using them. During and after the dances and plays gifts are given to the guests and guests also bring gifts to the family holding the Potlatch. The atmosphere of the dances with drums in the background and the dancers continuing a tradition of thousands of years gives the audience the chance to forget reality and get a “magical feeling of weightlessness“ as chief Michael Dangeli describes it. He is a Canadian First Nations artist of our time.

Social Role of Culture and Art
Every part of the Candian First Nations‘ Peoples‘ culture but especially Potlatches have elements of social business integrated as a very important part.
Totem Poles remind of privileges for families or clans, for example in fishing or trading, the order of dancers and dances during a Potlatch shows the connection between clans and if the guests of a Potlatch accept the gifts of their host they also accept his status and his privileges. Even these gifts are distributed according to the status one has in society. In this way not only old privileges can be strengthened but new rights can also be accomplished.
Potlatches are also the place to find a partner and names and titles are given to people
during these festivals, too. So cultural events and art in general were and are a way of taking care of social business for the Canadian First Nations‘ People.

Tools and Techniques
The Canadian First Nations‘ People were always open to new tools and techniques to improve as artists, so today they use quite modern ones to work with wood, stone and even with bones for their sculptures. But even before Europeans came to North America the Canadian natives tried to improve their tools and techniques. In 1778, for example, the famous Captain James Cook was quite surprised to find iron tools and weapons used by the First Nations People. He didn’t only praise their “great dexterity in works of wood“ but he also noticed that they had iron blades that are surely not of European make as he figured seeing their mould. In fact archaeologists have evidence that Canada‘s natives used copper nuggets 2000 years ago to cold hammer them into artifacts. Boulder bowls from about 3000 years ago were found and even have designs on them. The Indians had paint made from hematite mixed with animal- or fish-oil thousands of years ago and used it for rituals and as decoration. So even the tools and techniques at the Canadian west coast were and are sophisticated and unique.

Development of the Canadian First Nations‘ People Culture
Perhaps the most striking thing about the First Nations‘ culture is that it hasn’t changed major parts of its spirit and its style in those thousands of years. Although the younger artists are allowed to reconstruct the old dances and plays they keep to the old traditions and this kind of developing and not breaking with the ancestors at the same time is very special about their culture. Not many other cultures, like the ones of the ancient world for example, managed to do well for thousands of years until today.

Faith to Rules of Ancestors
As I pointed out above the younger artists are in fact allowed to change works of art like dances and plays but they feel honoured to have the chance to do this with the agreement of the elders. In this way creating art becomes a way of learning about a clan‘s past, its traditions and rules and even about the history of one‘s family. The younger artists are made sensitive for all this in that way and elders and new generations are brought together, too. One more important element of the faith to the ancestors‘ traditions is the use of the old designs, symbols and even whole myths. These have been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years and have not changed in their spirit and meaning. Their statements are indisputable and even kind of eternal, as we easily understand taking the respect for nature as a major statement.

Modern Culture and Art of the Canadian First Nations‘ People
In chapter 2.2 I listed up some places where even today First Nations‘ art is created, these villages and little towns are not just places for tourists to buy First Nations‘ art. These are spiritual places, where the next generations of artists can reflect the roots of their culture. Today the new generations of First Nation artists like Michael Dangeli and Elsie John
( who provided interviews and notes to Johannes Löhnenbach ). Even today Potlatches are held and new works of art by Canadian First Nation artists find their home in museums all over the world as older ones have done before.
Michael Dangeli himself phrased his goal to help to teach and represent his nation and to tell the world that they are not just objects in museums and I think this is the spirit that helps not only to keep alive this great culture but also helps it to grow to full strength and beyond.