Indigenous societies were long established in most of the places visited by expeditions of exploration. At times, European captains like Cook would gain valuable navigational information and invite or force local people of the northwest and south Pacific to come aboard as advisors and interpreters. The lack of a common language was only a temporary barrier as gestures and openness inspired by curiosity led to communication. Both sides instigated trade and gift exchanges as First Nations and new arrivals saw economic potential in their contact. Leaders in the coastal communities used local resources and strong bargaining skills to increase the wealth, territory, and power of their villages and tribal networks.
Curiosity and trade led to drawings and written accounts by Russian, Spanish, British, and North American expeditions, detailing the language and appearance of the “natives.” The First Nations peoples added the arrivals of the Europeans to their oral and artistic histories, carving white or bearded men into pipes and masks, and using iron traded from the ships to make tools and decorative objects.
Explorers were often on military vessels, representing Christian kings, queens, and czars, on expeditions far from home. The local peoples were living among their families, with a way of life that depended upon the environment and its resources for spiritual and physical survival. The meeting of these two different ways of understanding the world brought change to both. When 18th century exploration gave way to 19th century forts and settlements, the First Nations peoples began an ongoing struggle to regain control over their lands and traditions. Ironically, they were often forced to rely on archaeology and records like explorers’ journals to verify their own history in the Pacific Northwest.