The Musqueam – people of the river grass- have flourished and dwindled over the past nine thousand years, just like the river grass. Before the arrival of Europeans, they lived to the rhythm of the land. They fished, hunted, gathered, and trapped for subsistence along the shores of Burrard Inlet, the Mouth of the Fraser, and the borders of English Bay.
The Musqueam enjoyed a varied diet in the prosperous Greater Vancouver area. Salmon, the Musqueam’s staple diet, were caught using specialized equipment like trawl and dip nets and weirs. They were then cooked with hot stones in wooden troughs or smoked for winter. Bows, arrows, nets, and snares were used to catch deer, elk, bear, goat, and birds. Cleverly designed harpoons contained heads tied to lines that separated from the shafts upon contact. These enabled the hunting of seal, porpoise, and sturgeon. Shellfish, edible roots, berries and the wapato (a type of native potato) were gathered and harvested as well.
Their vast stores of preserved food allowed the Musqueam to live in comfort during the wet, cold winter. Elders recounted stories before smoldering fires. Ritual dances were performed accompanied by singing and drumming. These dancers often wore feathered costumes or plumed, bug-eyed skhwaykhwey masks. Feasts were savored and a host of games were played. Work that could be performed indoors was also done. Stones, bones, and wood were carved into sacred and utilitarian objects. Clothing was also sewn and objects such as nets repaired.
Cedar plankhouses, divided into rooms by mats, served as spacious dwellings for family groups. Outside, totem poles with life sized statues of people, birds, and beasts guarded the homes. Holes carved at the base of these totem poles allowed comings and goings. Separated from the plankhouses, smoke and sweat houses served ritual purposes of cleansing.
Trade was an important element of Musqueam life. With neighboring tribes, they traded decorative and ceremonial items - dentalia shells, mother-of-pearl, copper, iron and jade. Foodstuffs, textiles, and domestic materials were also readily exchanged.
Kinship patterns dictated the lives of the people, determining a family’s fishing, hunting and gathering rights. At the bottom of the hierarchy, slaves, captured during inter-tribal warfare, performed menial tasks for high ranking chiefs.
The Musqueam did not bury their dead. Wrapped in a blanket or mats, the deceased was ceremoniously laid to rest on elevated platforms built on treetops.
Beauty to the Musqueam was very different from today’s cover girl. Cedar boards were tied to the heads of infants and secured with a strap to the cradle in order to bend the skull into a pointed shape and attain a flat, wide forehead. Men kept their hair cropped at shoulder length. When at war or working, it was pinned in the back. Otherwise, they left it down. Women braided their hair in two from a center part. At puberty, a girl’s hairline was slightly raised through plucking.
Clothing was fashioned from skins or cedar bark. In the summer, men went about naked while women wore a knee-length skirt of wool, deerskin, or shredded bark. Clothing for cooler weather consisted of a large animal skin, usually with the fur on. A hole was cut in the middle and a belt tied the garment to the waist. Difficult to prepare and rare, buckskin was mostly reserved for the winter dancers. Goat skin, even rarer than buckskin, marked a person’s status. Only the wives and daughters of rich men could afford to wear the aprons produced from this material.