WHEN EUROPEANS FIRST ARRIVED

The earliest explorers, traders and settlers gradually realized that the people whose home was the "New World" had been there long enough to develop a great variety in their languages, dress, habitations, ways of making a living, and countless other cultural identifiers.

The Mi'qmaq on the eastern shore, the Huron and Iroquois further inland, the Cree and the Blackfoot on the Plains, and the Haida on the West Coast were just some of the tribes the newcomers encountered.

While the Mi'qmaq lived in small camps, made their living by fishing and hunting, and developed skills in decorative beadwork, using porcumpine quills, the Huron (Wyandot) lived in villages of longhouses, got their livelihood mainly from agriculture, and used canoes for trading expeditions. On the western plains, before the introduction of the horse by the Spanish, the Blackfoot lived in tipis set up in river coulees, used dogs to transport heavy items, hunted the buffalo on foot, and had a highly-developed warrior culture. On the Pacific coast, the Haida lived in wooden houses, built fortifications, and lived by fishing, hunting and gathering edible plants. The Haida developed impressive skills in carving, weaving and jewellery-making. In the far north, the Inuit (called Eskimos by the European newcomers) constructed igloos from snow and ice, lived by fishing, hunting and whaling, and used kayaks and dog sleds for transportation. Carving of ivory and sculpting of soapstone were two Inuit arts.

Some of the indigenous groups were relatively peaceful, their way of living fairly sedentary, their food sources reasonably stable unless extreme weather struck them. Others were quite warlike, frequently conducting raids on other tribes to capture whatever was deemed valuable or hard to obtain otherwise.

Because their very survival depended so much on their physical environment -- its weather, geography and the food supplies available -- it is not surprising that all indigenous groups in what is now called North America developed a healthy respect, even veneration, for the natural world. Just about every spiritual belief and traditional story reflects a recognition that, ultimately, everything depended on the land, water, air and sun. Some elements of nature were considered gods, and were prayed to and worshipped.

At a time when there is growing concern about human exploitation of, and damage to, the environment, such religious beliefs, once regarded as backward and superstitious, are increasingly gaining respect. And while native leaders and activists have used this to promote the idea that, because of their traditional spirituality, indigenous peoples are intrinsically wiser than other Canadians, there can be no question that their traditional dependent-on-nature way of life is eminently sensible in a world with a swelling population and limited resources.