Explorers were recording, charting and assessing land, in the belief that if it was not used the way they thought it should be – farm fields, cities with large buildings, fences and divisions – they could come and take it. So many expeditions sent boats of men ashore to “claim” land on behalf of their king and country.
The history of Pacific First Nations peoples was passed on orally and displayed in elaborate carvings and other works of art. There were no written documents stating claims to land. When the Pacific Northwest was divided up for settlement, many indigenous peoples had no “proof” of their presence, except for settled villages. The European powers did not recognize fishing waters, summer berry picking grounds, or temporary seasonal villages because they could not see evidence of their use, nor that people were associated with a region and connected to its resources. By charting the Pacific Northwest, explorers were asserting their rights to lands that were already inhabited. The explorers opened the door for colonists and settlers.
Today, the struggle to assert rights to lands lived on, cultivated, harvested, hunted, and fished by indigenous ancestors at the time of the explorers’ visits is ongoing. Ironically, many First Nations have had to rely on the findings of archaeology to verify their historic presence in a particular area: excavations at Namu, on the central British Columbia coast, have revealed 10,000 years of continuous occupation at the same site. Many archaeologists come from First Nations communities or work with First Nations peoples. A combination of oral history and archaeology can be used to create a historic time line for communities, to enrich the understanding of history. The journals of exploration expeditions and first contact stories have been used in a similar way.