The indigenous coastal peoples of the northern Pacific have a tradition of maritime knowledge and skill. Massive cedar trees have been used to make canoes for thousands of years, allowing for both travel on fierce seas and the ability to manoeuvre along shallow and rocky coastlines. A proper understanding of exploration in the Pacific Northwest includes the stories of the First Nations peoples who paddled their canoes past the breakers and into the ocean beyond.
It is very difficult to find information about individuals or expedition parties who were First Nations “explorers.” Perhaps this is because of the way we have come to think about exploration in the Pacific Northwest – we often understand it to be something that took place in the last few centuries, each encounter and geographical feature recorded in journals and on charts by European men who found exciting and exotic places far from their homelands. But coastal navigation was essential to the culture and interests of the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Haida, the Tlingit, the Salish, and the other coastal peoples living beside the Pacific.
The nations of the coast knew the features and dangers of the shoreline, the prevailing winds and currents, and the point at which their lands ended and the territories of their neighbours began. This knowledge came from thousands of years of travel and trade, with information passed to each generation by elders and teachers. What might be called the “age of exploration” for the coastal First Nations was not the 18th century. It was the time following the last ice age, between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago. Exploration and discovery from these ancient times is part of stories and teachings about the origins of people, emphasizing connections to the land.