CANADA'S FIRST NATIONS
B. Map - Native-European Encounters Preserved in Native Oral Tradition and
Pacific Coast: Cowichan
Upon encountering European explorers, the diverse First Nations of the Pacific Coast region quickly became involved in the fur trade, but their participation was short lived.
Cowichan Encounter with Europeans
The Cowichan did not have contact with Europeans, whom they called 'Moon people', until the late eighteenth century. From the anthology collected by Ella Clark, entitled Indian Legends of Canada, there is the chronicle of a chief who first witnesses the arrival of European explorers.
A chief believed he was about to die, so he climbed a mountain by his village. He wanted to look at the ocean one last time. A moon appeared on the horizon and in the moon's path a large white canoe sailed towards his island. The chief thought the moon children must be coming down to earth because this large canoe had the white wings of a bird. He believed it was a prophecy and ran to the village to warn his people. None of the Cowichan believed the chief's claims and scoffed at his story. The following day the large canoe off shore neared the village. A council was called and twelve men were chosen to approach the canoe. They set off and were welcomed aboard and offered blood and bones on a plate. Men of the ship admired their sea otter fur clothing and the Cowichan offered the clothing as a gift. A fire-stick was aimed at a flying duck which was shot out of the air. The captain of the ship gave the Cowichan shiny dishes, which were hung over the chief's doorway. According to the narrative this was the first time the Cowichan people encountered Europeans, handled a gun and ate molasses and biscuits.
European Encounter with Pacific Coast First Nations
The possibility that the Pacific Coast First Nations made contact with Japan or Russia before the seventeenth century is difficult to determine. Archaeologists have connected certain West Coast artistic designs with that of Asian influence, but at this time the archaeological evidence is inconclusive. European explorers of the eighteenth century, however, did document their encounters with Pacific Coast First Nations groups. The Pacific Coast region was explored and became a centre for Russian exploitation of sea otter by the middle of the eighteenth century. By 1780 the Russians had made solid contacts with the Eyak and Tlingit. The Spanish also explored the Pacific Coast region during the 1770s. Englishman James Cook's third voyage, in 1778, reached Nootka Sound. The French were also actively exploring the region by 1786. Exploration was extensive during the eighteenth century due to the search for the Northwest Passage and for resources such as fur and whales.
Pacific Coast Societies
Life in Pacific Coast groups was based upon a system of reciprocity that provided a social, economic, and political foundation to their societies. Living along the Western Cordillian these bands were primarily sedentary, relying on inland and ocean harvests.
The fisheries, which relied on a Native workforce, were the primary industry in the Pacific Coast, and the sea otter pelt was the principal object of trade. Although Russians had traded for pelts since the mid-eighteenth century, the trade began on a large scale when Natives gave otter pelt coats to Captain Cook during his visit to Nootka Sound. Cook later sailed to China where the Chinese saw the coats, and were willing to pay a high price. The British began trading the otter pelts in 1785 but soon Boston traders dominated the trade. The China Clipper Trade that grew between New England, the Northwest Coast, and China involved a three-year round trip. Sea otter pelts were traded in China for silks, porcelains, and spices. The Pacific First Nations traded the pelts for iron goods, which influenced changes in toolkits, for materials used in the manufacture of art, and for buckskin clothing. The new trade brought wealth to some chiefs. Items of copper became important potlatch goods and the potlatch ceremony became bigger and more elaborate as new chiefs gained power. The trade for furs in the coastal interior started in the nineteenth century with the introduction of Hudson's Bay Company's 'Beaver' steamboat, which utilised the extensive river systems of the area.
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