Colour Me Brown

August 29, 2009

Prior to the white man taking up land in the Pacific Northwest, the First Nations communities punctuated the east coast of Vancouver Island at intervals of approximately 15 to 20 miles apart. Because of the lack of usable land along the west coast of the island and that of the mainland, the frequency of settlement stretched out to a few hundred miles.

These settlements ranged in numbers from a few hundred to many thousand and for the most part this is the way it was until the Americans introduced small pox in the late 1850’s.

Let’s not be fooled to believe that life was peach and harmony for the Natives prior to the white man, for that would be a grave mistruth and injustice to their history. Fact is they fought amongst themselves, at times in such a barbaric way that few if any members of a given community survived. The only lives that were spared where those of women and children who could be used as slaves or instruments of trade.

On one such occasion in the early 1800’s, the Neah Bay nation from the south side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, wanted a portion of the annual salmon run which called the Sooke River home, but the T’Sou-ke were not inclined to share. Consequently the Neah Bay nation, negotiated with the Nitteenats of the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Cowichan band, to combine their forces and annihilate the T’Sou-ke. This they did quite effectively and when their deed was done, they had rendered a 2000 strong population down to a defeated 60 souls.

These battles for domination raged all up and down the coast with the most feared tribe calling the Queen Charlotte Islands home. The Hiada were fierce warriors and would set out in their long canoes in water even today considered the most treacherous on the globe. They would paddle as far south as the Olympic Peninsula in order to wreck havoc.

Wives were taken from the slaves and regretably many were discarded when they were deemed to be of no further use. A man would trade the sexual services of a wife whom he had less interest in for favours or items of value.

The law of the land was survival of the fitest and for those who defamed or harmed another, it was an eye for an eye. Justice was usually swife and lethal.

Thanks to the Spaniards who traded along the coast during the early 1700’s, the natives planted potatoes, turnips and a variety of other root crops. They harvested the wild cranberries that grew in profusion in the Fraser River delta and harvested all form of wild edibles, the likes of the camus bulb which tasted similar to a sweet onion when roasted.

While many would like to consider them backward, in many ways they were well adapted to the land in which they lived. They had no want for a compass and as mentioned would travel hundreds of miles to their determined destination and return without recorded incident. They understood that when Hemlock bark is crushed and boiled, it left a resin called tannin which they could use to weather proof their nets and hides.

As the white man came and took over their land, it was the native who offered a helping hand and made it all possible by providing the timbers needed for the European forts, in exchange for a few worthless trinkets.

For those wanting to fill in the gaps, Alan Twigg has done an excellent job with his book “First Invaders” and for those wishing to go a wee bit further, I would highly recommend “The Terror of the Coast” by Chris Arnett. The latter will give you a true insight as to the plight of the native at the hand of white man justice, during those early days.

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