First Nations of the Northwest Coast: Kindergarten to Grade 12 Resources

First Nations of the Northwest Coast

Welcome teachers and educators! Here you will find background information about the First Nations (FN) of the Northwest Coast. We suggest that you read the information below before teaching one of the attached lesson plans. We also understand that teachers have a limited amount of time so it is our hope that this resource will be helpful in your First Nation studies unit. If you wish to learn more, please download this Additiont Resources PDF.  We wish you the best of luck in teaching about First Nations' cultures.

These activities will be focusing on First Nations groups within British Columbia and more specifically the groups along the Northwest Coast. At the bottom of this page you will find some maps to show where the different language groups on the coast are. We recommend that you display these maps within the classroom. We also recommend that you give extra attention to the First Nation group whose traditional territory your school is located on. For example, present day Vancouver is located on the the traditional territories of the Musqueam people.

Language

British Columbia is home to 60% of the First Nations languages in Canada with 32 distinct languages (First Nations in British Columbia). In recent years there has been a movement to Language revitalization within many First Nations' communities.

Shelter

First Nations along the Northwest Coast traditionally lived in longhouses or bighouses made from cedar. These houses were constructed out of cedar planks. A house could range from 50-150 feet in length and 20-60 feet in width. Typically, a number of families inhabited each longhouse. Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins all lived together. A number of longhouses formed together to create a village. The majority of the First Nations' villages on the Northwest Coast (NWC) were very close to the water. All of the longhouses were faced directly to the waterfront. In many cases longhouses were inhabited during the winter season and during the summer season families lived in summer camps because they were gathering food supplies for the winter.

Many First Nations along the NWC still have forms of longhouses within their communities. Today they are used for cultural ceremonies.

Cedar

The cedar tree is one of the most important resources to First Nations people along the NWC, it has been referred to as the Tree of Life. The tree has been used for shelter, clothing, totem poles, masks, tools, bracelets, hats, canoes, boxes, and for spiritual cleansing. We suggest you refer to the book Cedar by Hilary Stewart for detailed information on cedar and its many uses.

Totem Poles

Many people often get confused with classifying totem poles. It is important to teach children that poles represent different things.

Mortuary- in honour of a Chief whose body was placed in a box for burial

House post- a type of interior support post distinct to Coast Salish groups. These posts would be carved or painted depicting ancestors, family history, or supernatural beings.

Memorial- in memory of a distinct person

Frontal- found in front of the longhouse and often used as an entry

Welcome figure- shaped as a person with his/her hands out welcoming people

These totem poles often told stories, some about historical events, significant people, and family rights. Depicted on these totem poles were different beings and animals such as the bear, eagle, raven, whale, salmon and thunderbird. Some totem poles had paint while others were left in their original condition. Totem poles can be seen at Stanley Park, in Victoria at the RBCM, and at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Carving totem poles is still a tradition for many First Nations groups.

Food

First Nations people have lived off of the land since time immemorial. They have been known as hunters and gatherers. The whole village would contribute to food gathering and preparation. Salmon is considered to be one of the most important food resources in the Northwest Coast. Other diet items include deer, moose, oolichans, clams, crab, and berries. The food collected over the summer was distributed amongst the village members. Hunting and fishing is still a common practice among many of the First Nations.

Social Structure

Many of the villages had a chief in charge. In some cases each house had a representative. Some villages also had slaves.

Residential Schools

One very devastating event to First Nations culture/people was the creation of residential schools. Children were taken away from their families and sent to these religious schools that were intended to assimilate First Nations people into European ways. Children were punished for speaking their traditional language. Today people are still recovering while continuing on with their cultural practices.

Repatriation

Like many other culture groups in the world, First Nations people have also had their cultural items taken away from them and housed in museums. The topic of repatriation is very complex, however museums are beginning to collaborate with First Nations groups to return these items. 

* L. Wilson_First Nations Map of BC.jpg
First Nations Map of British Columbia © Lyle Wilson, 1998. Photo: Jenn Walton.

See also: The First Nations People of British Columbia map and information provided by the Government of B.C.