Human habitation of what is now British Columbia  began around 15,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens migrated from northeast Asia across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. During this time, the northern latitudes of North America were covered by an ice cap, forcing these people to travel south down the west coast before fanning out across the ice-free southern latitudes. As the ice cap receded northward, the people drifted north also, perhaps only a few kilometers in an entire generation, and began crossing the 49th parallel about 12,000 years ago. By the time the ice cap had receded from all but the far north and the highest mountain peaks, two distinct cultures had formed: one along the coast and one in the interior. Within these two broad groups, many tribes formed, developing distinct cultures and languages.
Around 12,000 years ago, Canada’s west coast had become ice-free, and humans had begun settling along its entire length. Over time they had broken into distinct linguistic groups, including the Coast Salish, Kwagiulth, Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Haida, and Tlingit, but all had two things in common: their reliance on cedar and on salmon. They lived a very different lifestyle from the stereotypical “Indian”—they had no bison to depend on, they didn’t ride horses, nor did they live in tepees, but instead developed a unique and intriguing culture that remains in place in small pockets along the west coast. These coastal bands lived comfortably off the land and the sea, hunting deer, beaver, bear, and sea otters; fishing for salmon, cod, and halibut; and harvesting edible kelp. They built huge 90-meter-long (295-foot-long) cedar houses and 20-meter-long (65-foot-long) dugout cedar canoes, and developed a distinctive and highly decorative arts style featuring animals, mythical creatures, and oddly shaped human forms believed to be supernatural ancestors.
West coast native society emphasized the material wealth of each chief and his tribe, displayed to others during special events called potlatches. The potlatch ceremonies marked important moments in tribal society, such as marriages, puberty celebrations, deaths, or totem-pole raisings. The wealth of a tribe became obvious when the chief gave away enormous quantities of gifts to his guests—the nobler the guest, the better the gift. The potlatch exchange was accompanied by much feasting, speech-making, dancing, and entertainment, all of which could last many days. Stories performed by hosts garbed in elaborate costumes and masks educated, entertained, and affirmed each clan’s historical continuity.
Moving north with the receding ice cap around 10,000 years ago, the Salish fanned out across most of southwestern and interior British Columbia . After spending summers in the mountains hunting and gathering, they would move to lower elevations to harvest their most precious natural resource: salmon. At narrow canyons along the Fraser River and its tributaries, the Salish put their fishing skills to the test, netting, trapping, and spearing salmon as the fish traveled upstream to spawn. Much of the catch was preserved by drying or roasting, then pounded into a powder known as “pemmican” for later use or to be traded. The Salish wintered in earth- covered log structures known as pit houses. Depressions left by these ancient structures can still be seen in places such as Keatley Creek, alongside the Fraser River. Within the Salish Nation, four distinct tribes have been identified: the Lillooet, the Thompson (Nlaka’pamux), the Okanagan, and the Shuswap. The Shuswap occupied the largest area, with a territory that extended from the Fraser River to the Rocky Mountains; they were the only Salish who crossed the Rockies to hunt buffalo on the plains.
The Kootenay (other common spellings include Kootenai, Kootenae, and Kutenai) were once hunters of buffalo on the great American plains, but they were pushed westward by fierce enemies. Like the Salish did farther west, they then moved north with the receding ice cap. They crossed the 49th parallel around 10,000 years ago, settling in the Columbia River Valley, along the western edge of the Canadian Rockies . Like the Salish, they were hunters and gatherers and came to rely on salmon. The Kootenay were generally friendly, mixing freely with the Salish and treating the earliest explorers, such as David Thompson, with respect. They regularly traveled east over the Rockies to hunt—to the wildlife-rich Kootenay Plains or farther south to the Great Plains in search of bison.
Athabascan (often spelled Athapaskan) is the most widely spread of all North American linguistic groups, extending from the Rio Grande to Alaska. In 1793, when Alexander Mackenzie made his historic journey across the continent, he spent the last summer before reaching the west coast in Athabascan territory, which at that time included most of what is now northern British Columbia . The largest division of the Athabascans within this area was the Carrier group, so named for their custom requiring a widowed woman to carry the ashes of her husband with her for at least a year. Aside from the fact that they cremated their dead, the Carrier had similar traits to those found throughout the Athabascan peoples—they lived simply and were generally friendly toward each other and neighboring tribes. They lived throughout the northern reaches of the Fraser River basin and along the Skeena River watershed. The Carrier, along with Athabascan tribes that lived farther north (including the Chilcotin, Tahltan, and Inland Tlingit), adopted many traits of their coastal neighbors, such as potlatch ceremonies and raising totem poles.
Another Athabascan group inhabiting British Columbia was the Beaver, who were forced westward, up the Peace River watershed, by the warlike Cree (the name Peace River originated after the two groups eventually made peace). With no access to salmon-rich waters west of the Rocky Mountains, the Beaver hunted bison, moose, and caribou and were strongly influenced by the fur trade. Over the subcontinental divide to the north is the upper watershed of the mighty Mackenzie River; extending into the northeast corner of the province, this area was the traditional home of the Slavey, one of seven groups of the Dene (DEN-ay) people. Like the Beaver, they were nomadic hunters and gatherers but also relied heavily on fishing.