First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia


A Chehalis woman and man standing in front of a massive cedar stump, the remains of an ancient forest on the Harrison River that was logged and cleared for agricultural land by settlers. The photo was taken in 1867 during the Caribou Gold Rush, the first large scale colonial invasion by Euro Americans. Millions followed and the indigenous peoples were dispossed of their land and cultures. Photo: BC Archives




The Legislature in Victoria, capital city of the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC), was completed in 1898, three years before the death of Queen Victoria. The palatial building is fronted by a huge sculpture of the monarch herself, symbolizing British sovereign rule and indirectly symbolizing also the disinheriting of the indigenous inhabitants (right). Indeed the BC Legislature was illegally built on stolen Salish land and remained the object of a court case that was not resolved until 2006. The historic usurping of Indian land by white settlers is unashamedly celebrated inside the central cupola where we see an iconography of the subjugation of the indigenous peoples of BC and the systematic theft of their natural resources (below).

Cupola murals: Fishing (left) and Forestry (right).
BC Legislature


Queen Victoria statue, BC Legislature.
BC Legislature

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"Fishing," BC Legislature.
Mural by George Southwell, 1935

The cupola's mural "Forestry" depicts a white man cutting down a giant cedar tree (right). This illustration is also a striking example of commercial appropriation whereby ancient forests, long stewarded by indigenous peoples, became the exclusive property of the colonists. Disinherited of their lands and resources, the natives have had no part in the colonial Euro American exploitation of British Columbia. The motto inscribed in the cupola "Splendor Sine Occasu" (splendor without sunset or end) epitomizes the colonialist creed of greed, which destroys nature and makes waste of the natural resources while dispossessing First Nations. The motto is iconographically developed by a series of four large historical murals (Courage - Enterprise - Labour - Justice) at ground level in which the indigenous peoples are misrepresented while the colonialists are heroized.


The four iconic murals in the cupola represent the four primary industries by which the colonists profited: Fishing, Forestry, Mining and Farming. The murals were completed in 1935 as part of an elaborate scheme to illustrate the history of BC. "Fishing" shows three white men hauling up a net of salmon (left). This illustration is a prime example of commercial profiteering and industrial wealth production whereby the most vital indigenous resource - abundant wild salmon - becomes the possession of the colonial invaders.

"Forestry," BC Legislature.
Mural by George Southwell, 1935

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Colonization disinherited First Nations not only of their lands and resources, but also of their cultural heritage. Sacred relics, ceremonial objects, family heirlooms, personal items, household wares and so on were pilfered and sold. Even burial sites were desecrated and ancestral remains collected and traded. Traditional knowledge too, much of it unwritten and oral, recorded by non natives, was taken away and has become lost to indigenous families and communities.

Ethnology displays at many of the world's major museums contain art and artifacts looted by collectors who paid a pittance while they "nickel-and-dimed" the impoverished indigenous owners and robbed them of their cultural heritage. The Northwest Coast collection at the German Museum of Ethnology in Berlin is one such example and contains many important historic pieces from First Nations communities in BC. Some of the artifacts in this collection were depicted as trophies in the illustration "Indian Culture" published in the encyclopedia Meyers Konversations Lexikon in 1897 (right). In contrast to the earlier era of quasi ethical collecting, today in Canada the protection and repatriation of indigenous artifacts and native heritage is being researched according to First Nations concepts of property and law. See: First Nation Cultural Heritage (University of Alberta); and Intellectual Property Issues (Simon Fraser University).


"Indianische Kultur."
Meyers Konv. Lexikon, 1894

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The Nuxalk Echo mask provides a remarkable instance of an indigenous community acting as a collective to preserve its cultural legacy. Echo (sats'alan) is a supernatural creature central to the Nuxalk origin story. He is represented by a dancer who sings while performing a choreography using the interchangeable mouth parts of the Echo mask. Nuxalk informant Captain Schooner is seen wearing the mask in a lantern slide taken by Canadian government archaeologist Harlan Smith while he was in Bella Coola c. 1920 (right). Believed to be about 140 years old, the valuable Echo mask was passed down through the generations until 1955, when it was surreptitiously acquired by a Victoria dealer in Indian artifacts. To prevent its removal from the Bella Coola community, the Nuxalk people mobilized, using federal legislation. See: Movable Cultural Property Program.

The ways in which the Echo mask is wrapped in complex layers of interpretation is described by Jennifer Kramer: Figurative Repatriation (Journal for Material Culture).


Echo Mask, Bella Coola, c. 1920.
Photo by Harlan Smith

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Frog House of Klukwan, c. 1895.
Photo: Alaska's State Library (Winter & Pond)

In 1984, the Seattle dealer Michael Johnson illicitly acquired artifacts from the Whale House at Klukwan, one of the most magnificent monuments of Northwest Coast art (right and below). The sale ignited a fierce battle over the Chilkat birthright, being an example of how the unethical trade in indigenous property traumatizes vulnerable communities. See the investigative report by Marilee Enge (Alaska Native Knowledge Network): The Sale of the Whale House Legacy .

Unscrupulous dealing in Northwest Coast artifacts has been going on ever since the late 19th century when the classic ethnology studies by Franz Boas created a lucrative commercial market for both private and museum collecting. Originally most Indian artifacts were displayed in natural history museums or traded as "curios," but by the turn of the century they had also become valuable as works of art.


The buyer of the Nuxalk Echo mask was the well known dealer Howard Roloff, who had been implicated in the controversial purchase of Tlingit artifacts in 1976. The artifacts came from the communal Frog House of the Chilkat clan in Klukwan, Alaska. Housepost poles and other artifacts from Frog House were featured in a Winter & Pond postcard, c. 1895, along with a young Tlingit girl in a button blanket (left). Over the years, many valuable artifacts disappeared from Frog House and were sold. The scanal of the 1976 sale caused a furore in Klukwan, and village leaders vowed "never to sell our artifacts and to protect those within our possession."

Whale House of Klukwan, c. 1967
Photo by Adelaide de Menil

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"Interior of Chief Klart-Reech's House, Chilkat, Alaska." Whale House at Klukwan, c. 1895.
Photo: Alaska's State Library (Winter & Pond)


Kwakiutl mugs and bowls collected at Fort Rupert (Tsaxis) by F. Boas, c. 1894.
Franz Boas, Kwakiult Society

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Royal BC Museum (left), exhibit poster (right), 2007.
Photos: Karen Wonders

Shamefully, both the governments of Canada and BC failed to come up with funds to purchase the Dundas collection. As a result, it was auctioned at Sotheby's in New York in October 2006, selling at a record price for native North American art. Tsimshian James Bryant, a spokesman for the hereditary chiefs of the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatla, asserts that the Dundas collection belongs to the Tsimshian people. He says: "Two levels of government can't even pay us for the land they took for nothing. Now they are putting a big value on our artifacts" H. Ramsey, The Dundas Collection (Northword). The Royal BC Museum's "Treasures of the Tsimshian" was a public relations fiasco because it featured objects that were widely perceived as stolen. This issue was ignored in the only positive exhibit review to appear - on the government owned website of the "Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC," a group that promotes First Nations culture for profit.


Tsimshian cultural artifacts and ceremonial objects are at the centre of a current controversy over cultural theft. "Treasures of the Tsimshian" was an exhibit organized by the Royal BC Museum in 2007 to display some exceptionally fine examples of Northwest Coast culture (left). Many of these objects belonged to Tsimshian Chief Paul Legaic, who was forced to surrender his family heirlooms at the native village of Metlakatla in 1863 as a prerequisite to his conversion to Christianity. They were collected by William Duncan, one of the first missionaries in BC, and soon after given to his colleague, Robert Dundas, a visiting clergyman who returned home to Scotland with them. For the past 150 years, the Tsimshian collection was held privately in Britain by descendents of Dundas.

Tsimshian mask, c. 1863. Dundas Collection.
Photo: Frank Tancredi

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European contact wiped out many traditional First Nations societies and turned the surviving ones upside down while pillaging their material culture, often in the name of salvage anthropology. Today the robbery continues apace, belying government rhetoric to the contrary. On Canada Day 2007 in Victoria, capital city of British Columbia (BC), a commercial display called "Window to the Spirit World of the Canoe People: Exhibition and Sale of Traditional Salish Art and Artifacts" opened at the Out of the Mist Gallery. Coast Salish - Songhees First Nations activist Cheryl Bryce asks the gallery owner if he is "selling sacred." She regards the public display and selling of stolen indigenous objects that are private and sacred as unethical, and she says the gallery owner must prove that the artifacts are not stolen:

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  "How did you acquire all of these sacred cultural ceremonial masks and other regalia of the Salish people? How did you accumulate these artifacts? They are supposed to be protected under the BC Heritage Conservation Act. Indigenous people can tell you and most other settlers can tell you what has happened to sacred sites and significant cultural regalia over the past 150 years. Who do you think you are fooling? Who gave you permission to exhibit and exploit cultural practices? Who is certifying the artifacts as authentic – an archaeologist or so called 'Indian expert'?" Cheryl Bryce, 1 July 2007, Letter to Tom Stark.

Protest outside Out of the Mist Gallery, 1 July 2007.
Victoria, British Columbia


"Selling Sacred."
Victoria, British Columbia


Protest outside gallery, July 2007.
Victoria, British Columbia


Gallery poster, 1 July 2007.
Victoria, British Columbia

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The pillaging of indigenous cultures included the desecration of sacred sites and burial grounds. Traditional burial practices, often combined with Christian customs, marked the graves with carved wooden monuments and offerings for the dead. As a result of the horrendous loss of life caused by European introduced diseases during the early period of colonization, burial sites multiplied. These were routinely looted by collectors of Indian curios, including churchmen and government officials. The first Indian Agent at Bella Coola, a Norwegian settler and school teacher called Iver Fougner, was such a trader and he sold the eagle sepulchral monument for the casket of a small Nuxalk child to the American Museum of Natural History (right).


"Bella Coola Indian grave box," c. 1909.
Photo: Archives Canada (Harlan Smith)

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Grave monument collected by F. Boas, c. 1884.
F. Boas, The Kwakiutl Indians, 1897


Another Northwest Coast sepulchral object deposited at the American Museum of Natural History is "Ho'Xhok" from Tsaxis (Fort Rupert). A photo of it appears in the 1896 book on the Kwakiutl by Franz Boas (left).  The inscription reads: "This monument is six feet in height and was carved from red cedar bark. On the stomach of the bird is a carving representing a face. Originally the wings were painted in black, representing feathers, but only faint traces of color now remain."

Unfortunately no legislation exists in Canada similar to the US Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). As a result, rules for ethical First Nations conduct have yet to be formulated, leaving archaeologists free to ignore the need for protection of native cultural heritage from the ravages of resource extraction and real estate development.


Woodpecker-shaped medicine rattle. Collected by BC's first Indian Agent (Israel Wood Powell) in 1879 at Bella Coola.
Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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The commercial appropriation of First Nations peoples and cultures is omnipresent in western Canada and the US, although it tends to be more subtle today than in earlier times. A fruit box label from the 1930s shows how images of Indians were used to sell products like apples, a settler introduced crop raised on stolen agricultural land with no traditional or economic value to the indigenous peoples.

Salmon can label, c. 1910.
Photo: BC Archives


Apple box label, c. 1930.
Photo: University of Washington

A salmon can label printed c. 1910 shows how an Indian warrior is used to sell salmon produced by the BC Packing Company (left). This company dominated the BC fishing industry for over a century, yet its huge profits were not shared with the indigenous owners of the fishing grounds who were banned from taking part in their birthright.

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Cowichan tribal territories on Vancouver Island were once home to the biggest trees in the world. Settlers invaded in 1848 and founded the town of Duncan in 1888. Its primary industry was forestry and as a result, the Cowichan lands were clearcut logged - including the ancient cedars needed to carve totem poles. Ironically, to stimulate tourism, Duncan now promotes itself as a "City of Totems" (right). To date, it has commissioned some 80 poles by native artists (who find it increasingly difficult to locate big enough cedar trees in BC to carve). In 2007, local officials decided to copyright the totem poles in order to profit from the commercial sale of their images. But the totem pole carvers do not share in these copyright profits, another case whereby First Nations culture is claimed by non natives who reap the benefits.

Native motif for non native helicopter business.
Photo: Bella Coola Heli Sports


Oxymoronic welcome sign, Duncan, BC.
Photo: Karen Wonders

Northwest Coast motifs are routinely taken out of their original mythological context and used against First Nations. An example of this sort of subversion is the logo for the Bella Coola Heli Sports Company which is based on a traditional eagle motif (right). This company operates in Nuxalk Territory against the House of Smayusta, which accuses the company of disrespecting and degrading the sacred Nuxalk mountains.

The company's Swedish owner, Peter Mattsson, brags that Bella Coola is the new Whistler - an untouched wilderness paradise with "two million acres of world class ski terrain." In truth, this is contested Indian land, tenured to Mattsson by the BC government as part of its unethical and underhanded practice of promoting winter sport development to circumvent Aboriginal Title.

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"Haida Brave," self dumping log barge.
Photo: Kingcome Company (text added)

  A further blatant example of commercial appropriation of First Nations is provided by the Kingcome Company. Its log barge fleet boasts vessels with names like "Haida Brave" (left), "Haida Monarch," "Haida Transporter," and the tug "Haida Warrior." With a cargo capacity of 11,000 cubic meters of raw logs, "Haida Brave" facilitates profiteering by the transnational forest industry. To protest against the clearcut logging of the irreplaceable ancient forests of Haida Gwaii, Haida warriors set out in a cedar canoe. On 1 August 1996, they prevented "Haida Brave," the world's largest logging barge, from proceeding through Masset Inlet with its cargo of old growth cedars. The Haida demanded to know: "How Many Canoes Are On That Black Ship?" See Spruceroots: Learning To Open Our Eyes Wide. An eye witness to the event was the Rocking Raven Haida artist and political activist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.


Also the regalia and ceremonial practices of First Nations are often appropriated by non natives for commercial purposes. Among the most frequent offenders are government officials anxious to serve their big business sponsors. On the right is a threesome of Anglo Dutch descent politicians dressed up and taking part in various government ceremonies. From the left: Mike De Jong, BC Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation (2007); Tom Christensen, BC Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation (2006); and Pat Bell, BC Minister of Agriculture and Lands (2007).

Such ridiculous spectacles highlight the longstanding cynical practice by the colonial rulers to cover up their systemic theft of the possessions of First Nations by seeming to pay tribute to native culture through public acts of Euro - Indigenous conflation. Today we see this seductive form of appropriation on display in the inumerable public relations photos flaunted on the websites of the Canadian and BC governments.


White BC politicians appropriating native regalia.
Photos: BC government (collage)

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First Nations website banner. (text added)

  A glut of deceptive "First Nations" websites has flooded the Internet (left). These are commercial productions by the BC government to stimulate big business in conjunction with the 2010 Whistler - Vancouver Winter Olympics. Empty rhetoric and disingenuous imagery of Indians and Nature are used to promote corporate investment while concealing the government's dismal record of aboriginal relations and nature protection.


A crude case of commercial appropriation was also a cheap shot at the Bella Coola Indians, the people of Nuxalk Nation. The Bella Coola "Spirit Tree" (right) was the centrepiece of BC Canada Place at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. A giant cedar log from Bella Coola and a Bella Coola raven mask carved in red cedar were used to promote BC's 2010 Winter Olympics. According to BC government media hype, Bella Coola "figures" in this Olympics "because it was the original home of the 240 year old 'Spirit Tree' that is supposed to bring good luck to those who touch it."

The BC government's newly formulated sales motto "Super, natural BC means big business" was presented to the world at Torino in 2006. Taking a prominent role was BC Wood, an international lobby group for wood products (i.e. the forest industry). Due to BC Wood's inordinate economic power, the environmental battle to stop the extermination of last giant trees in BC has been all but lost. Nowhere in the "live, work and play" selling of BC is there an admission of the tragic loss of biodiversity caused by big business and how this is paralleled by the abuse of Aboriginal Title and Rights. The BC Canada Place website provides no information about the brilliant and world renowned indigenous Bella Coola (Nuxalk) culture. No recognition is given to the Nuxalk people, many of them elders, who have courageously defended their land - Nuxalk Territory - against the relentless pillaging by logging companies operating with full government complicity.


Bella Coola cedar and mask, Torino, 2006.
Photo: BC government

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Copyright: All Rights Reserved. Researched, written, compiled, formatted, hyperlinked and encoded by Dr. Karen Wonders. Images and intellectual property rights reside with the credited owner. Commercial transmission and/or reproduction requires written permission. Use for educational and research purposes requires proper citation.