British Columbia - Pre-history

Athabascan

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The Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia are believed to have originated in Asia, crossed across the Bering Straits to Alaska and then migrated to the interior of British Columbia over thousands of years. The exact origins of the Athabascan people in BC are not well documented, but it is known that they have lived in the region for a long time and have a rich cultural heritage.

When the Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia came into first contact with Europeans, they occupied a large portion of the interior of the province, including the areas around the Nass, Skeena, and Bulkley Rivers, as well as the upper Fraser River valley. These Indigenous peoples have a long history of inhabiting this region, and their cultures and traditions are deeply rooted in the land and its resources.

The Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia had complex relationships with other Indigenous peoples in the region. They were part of a larger cultural and linguistic group that extended throughout the interior of western North America, and they had trade and intermarriage relationships with neighboring Indigenous groups. Some Athabascan groups also had alliances and conflicts with other Indigenous groups in the region. These relationships were shaped by a variety of factors, including access to resources, cultural practices, and historical events.

The Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia traditionally spoke Athabascan languages. These languages belong to the Athabascan language family, which is one of the largest Native American language families and is found across a large portion of western North America. There are several dialects of Athabascan spoken in BC, including Babine-Witsuwit'en, Carrier, and Chilcotin. Some Athabascan communities in BC continue to use their traditional language today, while others have shifted to using English or other languages.

Alexander Mackenzie was a Scottish explorer who made contact with the Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia in the late 18th century. Mackenzie was one of the first Europeans to explore the interior of what is now Canada, and his journeys had a significant impact on the region's history. In 1793, he became the first European to cross the continent of North America, traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the Mackenzie River. During his travels, he encountered many Indigenous peoples, including Athabascan communities in what is now British Columbia. While Mackenzie's interactions with the Athabascan people are not well documented, his explorations helped to open up the interior of the province to European trade and settlement, and had a lasting impact on the region and its peoples.

The Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia traditionally recorded their history through oral storytelling, songs, dances, and other cultural practices. They passed down their cultural traditions and history from generation to generation through storytelling, which was an important part of their community life. They also used various objects and symbols, such as masks, clothing, and carvings, to preserve their cultural heritage and record their history. The arrival of Europeans and the subsequent disruption of Indigenous cultures had a profound impact on these traditional methods of recording history, and much of the Athabascan people's history has been lost or altered over time. However, many communities have continued to preserve their cultural heritage and maintain their connection to their ancestral traditions, and their history and cultural practices remain an important part of their identity today.

Timeline

  • Pre-contact: The Athabascan people have lived in the region for thousands of years, adapting to the resources and environment of the area and developing a rich cultural heritage.
  • Late 18th-early 19th century: The first contact between Athabascan communities and Europeans occurs as explorers and fur traders venture into the interior of British Columbia.
  • Late 19th century: The arrival of European settlers and the expansion of the fur trade have a profound impact on Athabascan communities, leading to displacement, cultural loss, and the spread of new diseases.
  • Late 19th-early 20th century: The Canadian government begins to implement policies of assimilation and cultural suppression, aimed at forcing Indigenous peoples to adopt European ways of life.
  • Mid-20th century: A resurgence of Indigenous culture and political activism begins, as Indigenous peoples across Canada organize to assert their rights and protect their cultural heritage.
  • Late 20th century to present: Athabascan communities in British Columbia continue to work to preserve their cultural heritage and assert their rights, including through the establishment of land claims and self-government agreements.

Culture & Politics

The culture of the Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia was rich and diverse, shaped by the unique environment, resources, and history of the region. Some of the key elements of their culture included:

Oral storytelling: oral storytelling was an important part of Athabascan culture, used to preserve history, cultural traditions, and values.

Spiritual beliefs: Athabascan spirituality was closely tied to the land and its resources, and many communities had strong beliefs in the spirits of animals, plants, and other natural features.

Fishing and hunting: the Athabascan people relied on fishing and hunting for their livelihood, and these activities played a central role in their culture, economy, and community life.

Interpersonal relationships: the Athabascan people had complex relationships with other Indigenous groups in the region, including trade, intermarriage, and conflict.

Material culture: the Athabascan people created a variety of objects, including clothing, tools, weapons, and art, that reflected their cultural traditions and beliefs.

The Athabascan Indigenous people in British Columbia had a unique political structure that was shaped by their cultural beliefs, social organization, and the resources and environment of the region. In general, Athabascan communities were organized into small, semi-autonomous groups that were led by respected elders and leaders. These leaders were responsible for making decisions about community life, mediating disputes, and representing the community in interactions with other groups. Some Athabascan communities also had a system of "chiefs," who held more formal positions of authority and were responsible for maintaining order and overseeing the distribution of resources.

The political structure of the Athabascan people was highly adaptive, changing in response to new circumstances and challenges. For example, in the face of European colonization and the arrival of the fur trade, some Athabascan communities formed alliances with other Indigenous groups in the region to negotiate with Europeans and protect their interests. Despite these challenges, many Athabascan communities have continued to maintain their political structure and decision-making processes, and they remain an important part of their cultural heritage and identity today.

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Reference: Article by (Staff Historian), 2023

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