People of the Interior

The major nations or groups of the Plateau region are the Tsilhqot'in (Chilcotin), Secwepemc (Shuswap), Nlaka pamux (Thompson), Stl'atl'imx (Lillooet), Okanagan-Colville and Ktunaxa (Kutenai or Kootenay) peoples. The Tsilhqot'in people speak an Athapaskan language related to those of the Subarctic region, and the Ktunaxa speak a language unrelated to any other in British Columbia.

Fishing for Salmon
along the Fraser River
The major source of food for most of the people in the southern interior or Plateau region was the annual salmon runs on the Fraser River and its tributaries, and the Columbia River system. The major centres of population were along the salmon rich river systems. Fish were caught by gaffing, harpooning, netting or through fish traps called weirs.

Salmon hung on racks for drying
in the Shuswap area
Detail of A-08313
Once the salmon were caught, they were cleaned by the women and hung out to dry in the sun to preserve them for use during the winter months. A variety of game such as deer, bear, elk, ducks, and geese were hunted for food as well as hides for clothing and bones for various kinds of tools.

Before contact with Europeans metals were not used, except for copper made into objects for personal decoration. Instead of metal tools rocks were used for hammers, seed grinders, pile-drivers, and weights for nets. Special stone materials like chert, obsidian, and basalt were fashioned into a great variety of points for arrows and spears, or into cutting tools and scrapers.

Stl'atl'imx women
drying berries
Agriculture was not practiced but there was an intimate knowledge of wild plants for food and medicine. Various kinds of berries were gathered as well as edible roots of plants. Clothing was made from animal skins and furs, often decorated with feathers, porcupine quills, shells, bear claws and animal teeth.

Interior Salish women making baskets
Baskets were important for carrying, storage and cooking. They were made from either birch-bark or from the split roots of spruce or cedar trees. Both types were water-tight, and used for cooking by placing hot rocks into a water-filled basket.

Social structure among Interior peoples was not as complicated as on the Coast. There were hereditary chiefs and minor chiefs chosen for specific purposes such as hunting or war parties. These leaders were chosen for their personal abilities and knowledge rather than their family's position within the community. Warfare was a part of interior cultures, and First Nations oral histories contain epic stories of raids and wars. The European, Simon Fraser remarked upon this in his diary recording his trip down the Fraser River in 1808, where he mentioned a stockade around a village in the Lillooet area.

The best known art and ceremonial objects produced by Interior peoples are various kinds of stone carvings of animal designs such as bears, bird figures, or stone bowls with human figures. They also made small pendants and beads from soapstone, figures carved from antler, and decorated combs, digging sticks, bows, and clubs.

Still visible today at sites throughout the Interior are the pictographs, or paintings on rock using red ochre. The paintings depict a great variety of subjects of human and animal forms, or mythic figures. It is thought that many of the paintings were made by adolescents as part of their "vision quests" to seek personal guardian spirits to help and protect them throughout their lives.

Winter pit-house in the Nicola Valley
Detail of G-00754
For much of the year Plateau peoples travelled throughout their territories as they hunted, fished, and gathered food throughout a wide area. During this time they lived in conical-shaped tents made of reed mats that could be easily erected and dismantled for travel. But in the winter months they tended to gather in villages and live in pit-houses.

Drawing provided courtesy of the
Canadian Museum of Civilization
These pit houses were dug about a meter or more into the ground, usually round in shape, and covered over by logs, sod and earth. Most were about ten to eighteen metres in diameter and were warm and comfortable.

A group of Ktunaxa people
The Ktunaxa people in the south east corner of the province are different in language and culture from other peoples in the Plateau region. Relatively small in number, their territory extended from the Kootenay River basin in British Columbia into Alberta, Idaho and Montana. This area of forest, grassland and mountain provided a living from hunting and also fishing in the large lakes and rivers. The Ktunaxa people also ventured east through the mountain passes to hunt buffalo on the plains. Indeed many aspects of their culture, including their manner of dress, buffalo hide tents, and use of horses in the recent past, are typical of the horse people of the plains.

In the Subarctic area the First Nations people continued to travel throughout the year to find a subsistence life of hunting, fishing and plant gathering in this harsher climate.

A dance performed by
Carrier people at Fort St. James
in the northern interior
However, along the major rivers with easy access to the coast, there are many cultural and material links to the people on the coast. Note that the dancer's clothing in this photograph is similar to that worn by coastal people.