B.C. is rich with living and historical Aboriginal culture. Archaeological evidence and Aboriginal oral history suggest that complex cultures lived here as long as 10,000 years ago. B.C. is home to approximately 156,000 Aboriginal people, belonging to 40 major cultural groups. Many live in small communities throughout the province and continue traditions established hundreds of years ago.
Tap into the culture of B.C.’s First Nations. Whether you travel by car, ferry, or plane, there are many unique attractions highlighting the province’s Native peoples.
Vancouver Island is a great place to start. The climate is mild and it offers lots of opportunities for observing and participating in Aboriginal culture. Your first stop should be Victoria’s Royal British Columbia Museum, which has an exemplary permanent display of Native totem poles, a longhouse and many artifacts. An hour’s drive north takes you to Duncan – “the city of totems” – where you can take a walking tour and view more than 80 totem poles carved by Pacific Northwest artists. Or enjoy first-hand the art, food, and traditions of the Northwest Coast Native people at the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) Cultural and Conference Centre. (Be sure to check out the world-famous Cowichan sweaters.)
Further up the island, a 10-minute ferry trip from Campbell River, is Quadra Island’s Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge & RV Park, a Kwagiulth big-house featuring authentic Pacific Coast art and culture. Quadra Island is also home to the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre. Near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, a 40-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill takes you to the charming town of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island and the U’Mista Cultural Centre. The centre contains a culturally significant collection of potlatch and mask artifacts. You can also view the memorial totem poles at the Nimpkish Burial Grounds and crane your neck at the world’s tallest totem pole (173 feet or nearly 53 metres). Guided tours are available through Tourism Alert Bay.
In Prince Rupert, the heart of the Tsimshian Nation, head for the Museum of Northern British Columbia. Housed in Chatham village and designed to reflect the architecture of a Northwest Coast longhouse, this museum traces the 10,000-year settlement history of the area and includes exhibits on the local Tsimshian culture as well as a collection of First Nations art. Drop by the First Nations Carving Shed to watch fine B.C. Native carvers at work on copper, silver, gold, cedar, and argillite. In summer, there are tours to nearby Laxspa’aws Pike Island, home to five significant archeological sites and three Tsimshian village sites which date back over 1800 years.
One of the best-kept secrets about B.C. coastal travel is the Queen Charlotte Islands ferry which links coastal Prince Rupert and Skidegate (skid-uh-git). This six-hour sailing (reservations required) operates six days a week in summer, one sailing per day, so it takes a little planning, but the rewards are well worth it: ancient rainforest, abundant marine life, and a thriving Native culture. The Queen Charlotte Islands, also known by their Native name Haida Gwaii, comprise a triangular archipelago of some 150 islands of cultural and ecological significance.
Visitors in search of First Nations history and culture will find Haida Gwaii very rewarding. In the southern region is Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, an outstanding natural and cultural heritage attraction and a legacy of Haida culture present and past. The protected area is accessible only by boat or floatplane. To preserve the ecological integrity of the archipelago there is a limit on the number of visitors allowed, so you must reserve in advance by calling Tourism BC at 1-800-HELLO BC. If travelling on a guided trip, book through one of a number of tour operators licensed to access Gwaii Haanas.
You will be well rewarded for your efforts if you choose to make the trip. Haida archeological features remind visitors of more than 10,000 years of history, and Haida Watchmen protect village sites and link visitors with living Haida culture.
If you are travelling by car east from Prince Rupert, take the two-day Hands of History Tour. It takes in area Aboriginal villages including ‘Ksan, where Gitxsan and We’Suwet’En Nations live at the junction of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers, the Kispiox Valley where you can view Native villages and totems, and the totems of Kitwancool, Kitwanga.
‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum is gaining recognition as a popular First Nations tourist destination. Located near Hazleton, it features both a historical and living display of the ‘Ksan culture. The site comprises a museum (collection of 450 items), historical village (seven houses, guided tours only), totem poles, cultural information, current Gitxsan performing arts and a restaurant serving traditional Gitxsan dishes.
In the Cariboo Chilcotin region, the Xats’ull (hat-shul) Heritage Village (located north of Williams Lake at Soda Creek) explores the spiritual, cultural and natural world of the northern Shuswap Native peoples. Visitors can attend workshops in herbal medicine, Native crafts, and Shuswap language, attend storytelling, or try spiritual cleansing in the sweat lodge.
Further south, in the Thompson Okanagan region, is the Native-owned Quaaout (kway-out) Lodge Resort. Owned by the Little Shuswap Indian Band and located near Chase, the lodge offers cultural activities and world-class cuisine which taps into Native regional traditions. Activities include hiking, biking, golf and a spa.
As you travel B.C., you will notice that many of the place names are derived from Aboriginal languages, most of which describe the landscape or the people living there. From Ahousat (“people living with their backs to the land and mountains”) to Kitimat (“people of the falling snow”), the influence of B.C.’s First Nations people is felt everywhere.