People sought guardian spirits (from animate or inanimate objects) to confer special powers or skills. Spirits were acquired in dreams or by fasting or other physical tests. The Northern Coast Salish Indians celebrated two forms of winter ceremonials: spirit dancing, which was inclusive and participatory, and masked dancing, which was reserved for only certain high-status families. Shamans as well as various secret societies provided religious leadership.
Villages were headed by chiefs, who were the heads of the leading or established households. Chiefs had little or no power to govern; they were wealthy and influential men who entertained guests, made decisions about subsistence activity, and arbitrated disputes.
Among most groups, the "local group" consisted of members who traced their descent patrilineally from a mythical ancestor; it was identified with and controlled certain specific subsistence areas. The right to hold potlatches and certain ceremonies, including dances and songs, was also inheritable. Northern Coast Salish people were either chiefs, nobles, commoners, or slaves.
Both parents, but especially the mother, were subject to pregnancy and childbirth-related taboos and restrictions. Infants' heads were pressed for aesthetic effect. Pubescent girls were secluded and their behavior was restricted, but boys were physically and mentally trained to seek a guardian spirit. Those who embarked on extended training and quests became shamans.
People were considered marriageable when they reached adolescence. Men, accompanied by male relatives, first approached women in a canoe. Polygyny was common, and multiple wives resided in the same household. Corpses were washed, wrapped in a blanket, and placed in a coffin that was in turn set in a cave or a tree away from the village. Possessions were burned. The Comoxes and Pent-latches erected carved and painted mortuary poles.
Northern Coast Salish people built three types of permanent plank houses (semiexcavated and with shed and gabled roofs). Planks could be removed and transported to permanent frameworks at summer villages. Some houses were up to sixty or seventy feet long and half as wide. Most were fortified with either stockades or deep trenches. The Pent-latches and Island Comoxes had enclosed sleeping areas and separate smoke-drying sheds. Structures housed several related households, including extended families and slaves.
Fish was the staple, especially salmon. Fall salmon were smoke-dried for winter storage; the catch from summer salmon runs was eaten fresh. The people practiced the ritualistic preparation and consumption of the season's first salmon. They also ate lingcod, greenling, steelhead, flounder, sole, and herring roe. Other important foods included sea mammals (sea lion, harbor seal, porpoise); shellfish; land mammals, such as deer, bear, and some elk and mountain goat; birds and fowl; and plant foods, including berries, shoots and leaves, roots, bulbs, and cambium.
Fish were taken with gill nets, basket traps and weirs, gaffs and harpoons, tidal basins of stakes or rocks, dip nets, and rakes (herring). Seal nets, clubs, and harpoons with an identifiable float served as marine mammal hunting equipment. Land mammals were taken with pitfalls, snares, bow (2.5 to 3 feet long, made of yew) and arrow, nets, knives, traps, and spears. Waterfowl were snagged in permanent nets stretched across flyways. They were also hunted with bow and arrow, flares and nets at night, and snares.
Important raw materials included wood, hides, antler, horn, mountain goat wool, beaver teeth, wood, bone, stone, and shell. Wooden items included house materials, canoes, bent-corner boxes, dishes, tools, weapons, and ceremonial items. Shredded bark was used for towels, mattresses, and similar items. Sewn mats of cattail leaves and tule lined interior house walls, covered frames of summer shelters, and were made into mattresses, rain covers, and sitting or kneeling pads. Women made several types of baskets of cedar limb splints or roots, including wrapped lattice, coiled, twined, and woven.
Juan de Fuca may have encountered the Northern Coast Salish in 1752. British and Spanish trade ships arrived in 1792 to a friendly reception. Owing to the lack of sea otter in the Strait of Georgia, however, most Northern Coast Salish did not participate in the local maritime fur trade.
Miners and other non-Natives founded Victoria in 1843. By this time local Indians had experienced severe epidemics with some concomitant village abandonment and consolidation. Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1860s, and many Natives converted and renounced their ceremonials, including potlatching. Some self-sufficient overtly Christian villages were established, complete with a missionary-imposed governing structure. By the end of the century, the missionaries, along with Catholic boarding schools, had largely destroyed the Native language and culture.
With their traditional economy severely damaged, many Indian men took jobs as longshoremen, loggers, and migrant farmers. They also worked in commercial fishing, including canneries. Canada officially established Indian reserves in 1876, by which time Indians had already lost much of their aboriginal land. In the early twentieth century, several Indian organizations, such as the Allied Tribes and the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, formed to pursue title to aboriginal lands. The Alliance of Tribal Councils continued this work in the 1970s and worked to foster a positive self-image as well as political unity. Partly as a result of its activity, in 1986 the Sechelt band became the first self-governing Indian group in Canada.