British Columbia was originally home to hundreds of individual tribes. Near the end of the last Ice Age, the first humans to land in the area came across the land bridge from the Bering Sea. Abundant game and marine resources invited long-term settlement. Thousands of islands promoted unique tribes to exist without much crossover.
It is believed as many as 25% of the population of any given tribe was comprised of slaves taken from other tribes. These workers were assimilated as workers into a population after they were taken from their home tribes. In a memoir titled A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, Englishman John Jewitt detailed his experience of being a slave after his ship sank.
Spanish and British explorers came to British Columbia in the late 18th-century. Settlements and disputes between governments from afar eventually led to British rule. Many of the cultural aspects considered normal to First Nations tribes terrified the British. Potlatch, a gathering of tribes that celebrated several cultural aspects including dance and union rituals, especially bothered the unfamiliar newcomers.
In 1876, the Indian Act granted Canadian officials governance over First Nations entire lives. This included whether or not an individual with tribal background could maintain status as a tribal member. It even outlawed the potlatch ceremonies. A stated goal of assimilation into a more modern society through the education of good morals the driving force behind this act. Potlatch ceremonies were reinstated as legal in 1951, though they had continued "illegally" regardless what the law said.
Amendments and adaptations have updated the Indian Act, though it is still in effect. Cultural rights on reserve land must adhere to guidelines upheld through several challenges to the Indian Act. Human rights violations are taken seriously by Canadian government, as defined in the passing of the 1977 Canadian Human Rights Act, but even it provisionally written to exclude individuals covered under the Indian Act.
First Nations Tribes Today
Frustrations of wanting self governance aside, First Nations tribes are steeped in dance, historical oration, origin histories, and natural ways of interacting with various resources. Over 200,000 individuals identified as members of 198 tribes who speak as many as 60 different dialects in a 2011 survey British Columbia. The majority of these peoples can be found in the southwest island and coastal communities. Totem poles are the most commonly recognized artwork of these tribes. By name, they include Haida, Nootka, Tagish, and many more. Interior tribes included the Carrier, Kootenay, Salish, and more.
Many tribes promote their history and ways of life through tourist attractions. Immersive experiences are available for people who are most adventurous, while museums and gift shops are also readily available for perusal!