The Canadian province of British Columbia has been the home of First Nations for thousands of years. Long oppressed, the indigenous cultures are now experiencing a rebirth. Three descendants talk about their origins and how they continue to honour their ancestors.

Giant trees, up to fifty metres high, rise into the blue sky. Beards of lichen dangle from their branches, their furrowed trunks are covered in green moss. “These trees are talking trees,” Erica Vader says. “Each one has a story to tell.” The cultural anthropologist could be mistaken for one of the many students who spend their free time in Vancouver’s Stanley Park: ponytail, jeans and gym shoes. But, this morning, she has come to the park as a representative of the Shishalh, one of the over 200 First Nations communities in Canada’s British Columbia province. Erica shows the visitors the indigenous side of Canada’s largest urban park – and it is a matter close to her heart: “I have always been interested in edible plants and how to survive in the wilderness, even as a little girl,” she says.

Photos: Dan Toulget and Oliver Gerhard

Using nature’s treasures

The young Shishalh is from the small coastal town of Sechelt near Vancouver where she grew up with the traditional knowledge of her people: her grandmother showed her which berries and herbs taste best, her aunts taught her how to weave with cedar bark. Before the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the eighteenth century, the First Nations people lived a life of abundance: “The Ocean supplied us with fish and seafood, the forest was a grocery shop, chemist, pharmacy and a hardware store in one,” the confident young woman explains. For thousands of years, Stanley Park was also part of the First Nations’ hunting / gathering territory. “That is why, still today, we have the right to harvest here,” says Erica Vader who currently earns her living in Vancouver giving guided park tours. She has something to say about every tree, every bush and every blossom: tea made from grand fir bark helps to fight the flu, Douglas fir wood was used for smoke signals, horsetail served as dental floss. And if you hang hemlock fir needles in water, herring will lay their eggs on them. “Yum, fish roe with dried berries is a delicacy for us,” Erica sighs, her eyes gazing at the giant conifer.

Oppression of First Nations people

Then she points to a particularly mighty trunk: a western red cedar, a gigantic tree of life. The First Nations people carve their traditional totem poles from the wood (there are eight totem poles in Stanley Park) and use it to make dugout canoes for up to forty passengers. They also craft baskets and hats from the bark and, in the past, mixed wood flour with bear fat and fish oil, to make a skin cream. “Very cumbersome; these days we prefer Nivea,” Erica says and laughs. She talks about her Shishalh community that, at one time, feared their indigenous language Sháshíshálh would become extinct. An ominous situation for a people whose history has always only been passed on orally, and the result of state oppression: for a long time, aboriginal ceremonies were forbidden by the Canadian government, and the children were placed in so-called “residential schools”. These institutions were boarding schools far away from the parents, where the children were alienated from their culture and sometimes also abused. Meanwhile, timber and energy companies exploited their ancestral territories.

A sense of new beginnings among the younger generation

But, in recent years, there has been a bit of a turnaround: courts now often pass judgements in favour of First Nations people in land disputes. The last residential school closed in 1996; a commission has documented the human rights violations which took place in these institutions. And whilst the parent generation –the so-called "lost generation“– feels alienated from their language and culture, there is a sense of new beginnings among the younger generation. They are looking to find their own path, somewhere between old rancour and a positive view of the future. Like Erica Vader, many of them are acquiring knowledge from their indigenous elders and learning their language. In an effort to save their language, the Shishalh people spent several years working with linguists to create a dictionary. These days, not only preschool children are beginning to learn the language, but their parents are doing so too – so as to be able to converse with their children in sháshíshálh. Even some non-indigenous people in coastal municipalities have decided to learn the language of their neighbours.

In search of one’s own identity

Inez Cook is also taking up old traditions, but in the form of cooking recipes. Seven years ago, the vivacious woman from the Nuxálk community founded the "Salmon n’ Bannock” bistro ( with a friend. It is currently Vancouver’s only First Nations restaurant. Inez grew up believing she was white: she was taken from her parents by the authorities and placed for adoption – yet another instrument of forced assimilation.

“It was a long time before I was ready to address my aboriginal identity,” Inez explains. She has short hair and is fashionably dressed. “But then I made up for it as an adult.” She was given the indigenous name Snitsmana and presented with the traditional dress of her people in a festive ceremony. Inez also had a lot to learn about indigenous cuisine: “When I started, I knew nothing about it.” But then she travelled the country collecting recipes of First Nations peoples and tried them out.

Traditional is becoming hip again

The walls of her restaurant on West Broadway showcase indigenous art, the staff are all First Nations, and the ingredients used, even the wine, are from indigenous production. With "Salmon n’ Bannock“, Inez Cook has struck a chord: it regularly figures among the top five of Vancouver’s almost 2900 restaurants ranked by TripAdvisor. The menu features bison ribs, Canadian elk sausage and, of course, bannock (traditional bread). "We are unable to offer many of the old ingredients,” Inez explains. Bear meat, for instance, is unhealthy for humans – and who wants to eat beaver, Canada’s national symbol? Instead, caribou, the North American version of reindeer, was once served: “It took us five years to get hold of a portion of it. It was so small we served it as an appetiser in a goldfish bowl. It sold out within five minutes.” But most guests come to taste the wild salmon, available in all variations: cured or marinated, smoked over sage leaves or the candied variation, known as “Indian Candy”. The coastal areas with their fjords and islands are home to wild salmon. For gourmets, wild salmon is a delicacy, but for First Nations people it is simply part of their staple diet. Each summer, they still, even today, wait excitedly for the return of the salmon. Starting in mid-July, the fish look for places to spawn; first pink salmon, later chinook, and then chum as the latecomers at the end of autumn.

The word of the day on Twitter

However, for some years now, the number of salmon has been in steady decline. Last autumn, grizzly bears even swam from the mainland to Vancouver Island in search of food – an alarm signal, given that Vancouver Island is not really grizzly territory. “The salmon farms are to blame for this,” says Mike Willie. “They are adding medications to the feed which then enter the food chain.”

The young Kwakwaka’wakw is active in the preservation and revitalisation of his traditional culture and engaged in the fight against salmon farms – not just with demonstrations and lobbying, but also by way of social media: Mike sends the latest information to his fellow activists via Facebook and Twitter, and promotes indigenous language-learning by including a “Word of the Day”: “Gwabała” is the word for north wind, for instance, and “xwaxwtsa n” means to canoe.

Taking in nature with all one’s senses

It is early morning in Port McNeill on Vancouver Island and the harbour is still bathed in the light of dawn, when Mike Willie –clad in waterproof trousers and heavy boots– starts the engine of the canary-yellow motorboat of his “Sea Wolf Adventures” tour business ( The engine roars as he steers his boat to the protected islands of the Great Bear Rainforest. The land there is home to bears, cougars and wolves, and the water to orcas – and salmon of course. The boot enters the maze of canals and islands. Some of the islands are just barren rocks occupied by snoozing sea lions. Their throaty grunts are audible from a distance. Other islands are covered by dense rainforest – the branches along the flood line look as if they have been cut with a razor. The boat slices its way through seaweed as thick as anchor ropes.

“I experience this nature almost every day,” says Mike, who is from the village of Kingcome set in the heart of the Fjord landscape. “My fellow Kwakwaka’wakw should come out here, too, to get a sense of their roots. But they are stuck in the reservation.” Many of them have lost the connection to the area and have grown lethargic. He points to a bay with a white sandy beach: “That is the home of my ancestors. Explorer George Vancouver counted at least seventy canoes there at the end of the eighteenth century.”

Mike Willie tells of his ancestors who hunted and traded here; of orcas, which they referred to as “sea wolf” because they catch their prey like wolves do, i.e. in packs; of salmon farms on their land, to whom his people recently delivered a notice of eviction – now the courts will have to decide. Sometimes Mike shuts off the engine, and listens: to the spouting of the humpback whales echoing across the calm sea; to the roaring thunder of a distant storm; and to the splashing of the salmon: again and again, their long, shimmering bodies can be seen as they leap out of the water and topple back in again. They are on their way home to the rivers – where the First Nations fishermen await them.

Author’s Choice

Campbell River on the eponymous river on Vancouver Island has been touted as the "Salmon Capital” – not just because it has a salmon breeding station, but also because visitors can snorkel with the salmon. This three-hour adventure is a great way to get close to the fish in the raging river.

Mid-July until mid-October, Destiny River Adventures, 1995 Island Highway, Campbell River, BC V9W 2G3

Phone: +1 2 50 287 48 00

Text: Oliver Gerhard