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Social Status, Warfare and Slavery

Gallery 1: Early Canada ⟶ Indigenous Nations ⟶ Plank House Villages of the West Coast

On the West Coast, First Peoples created wealth from salmon fishing. Surpluses from the fishery supported large permanent villages led by powerful chiefs and their families.

Productive and stable salmon runs made year-round settlements possible as early as 7,000 years ago. Beginning 4,000 years ago, First Peoples began to build large permanent communal houses. Over time, individuals came to own the right to fish in the richest locales. Powerful chiefs controlled villages and the surpluses which enhanced their power. They redistributed their wealth to display their prestige and sustain their communities.

Just as it is today, social rank was very important in West Coast villages. Chiefs and matriarchs held the highest rank. They administered the economic and political affairs of their clans and performed the rituals that ensured their well-being. Potlatches, or feasts, were held to mark significant events and to display the wealth and prestige of the family by giving gifts to others. These gifts consisted of stored food and many other valuable items.

Signs of Status

Elite women wore labrets — ornaments inserted into pierced holes on the lip. Copper, made into jewellery and other objects, was also a status symbol.


Hairstyles could be used to convey status. Oral history indicates that elites, commoners and slaves often wore different styles.

Status in Stone?

The purpose of these carved objects is not fully understood. They were likely used by elites during public ceremonies.

Warfare and Slavery

Pacific Coast warriors fought with clubs, spears and bows, and sometimes wore armour. Rivalries and vendettas between powerful families could lead to warfare. The capture of slaves was an important motivation in warfare. Slaves held the lowest social rank in coastal societies. Valuable status symbols, they could be traded, freed or killed by their owners.


Photo at top of page:
Pendant, bear tooth
3,500 to 500 years ago
CMH, GbTo-33:3535