The Pacific Northwest is the home of indigenous peoples who are part of a wide range of cultural groups. The regions in which they lived determined what kinds of foods they ate, the arts they created, who their main trading partners were, and where and how they made contact with the new arrivals from Europe. During the 18th century, language was one of the most important ways of learning what tribe or nation coastal peoples belonged to.
From north to south, some of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest include the Tlingit people from the northern Pacific; the Haida people from the Haida Gwaii or Queen Charlotte archipelago; the Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Kwagiulth, and Coast Salish from the mainland coast; and the Nuu-chah-nulth from the west coast of Vancouver Island. These nations are made up of smaller groups. For example, the Mowachaht and Ahousaht chiefly families are part of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation, and the Stó:l? from the Fraser River are part of the Coast Salish nation.
The ability to communicate without language proved useful to many who could mimic motions such as paddling, eating, or a smile of enjoyment. They were used to sign everything from a trade deal to the directions to a pass. A Spanish journal from the 1790s notes that, “our interpreter, who knew the Nootka language about as well as he knew Greek, generally didn’t make himself understood, and to communicate we had recourse to actions.”
During the fur trading years, European and American traders and local peoples used a dialect known as “trade Chinook” for commercial purposes. The Spanish composed a song in honour of Chief Maquinna using local words, and over the course of his career in the fur trade, Maquinna learned to communicate in English and Spanish.
Explorers made a point of recording language in dictionaries that could assist future expeditions. The expeditions of Malaspina and Galiano collected and compiled a lengthy list of Tlingit words in the north Pacific and a Spanish-Mowachaht glossary was produced during a stop on the Vancouver Island coast.