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The American indians of the Northwest coastline traditionally lived on a narrow belt of Pacific coastland and also offshore islands. The Northwest Coast culture area follow me from what is currently the southerly border of Alaska to northwestern California. The Pacific s is the west boundary. To the east are the mountains of the Coast variety and the Cascades. In numerous places the coastal hills or mountains fall steeply to a coast or riverbank. Abundant rains support dense, towering woodlands that space rich in pet life. This environment noted a wide range of sources for the Indians.

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Traditional Culture

Peoples and also Languages


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The Northwest shore was densely inhabited when Europeans an initial made landfall in the 1700s. The was residence to peoples speaking Athabaskan, Tshimshianic, Salishan, and other languages. Popular tribes consisted of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), shore Salish, and Chinook.


Northwest shore tribes had no pressing food problems. They can get lot of of fish, shellfish, and also even whales, seals, and porpoises native the sea and also local rivers. The men built weirs (underwater enclosures) and traps come catch huge hauls of salmon and also candlefish together they swam upstream to spawn. The women kept a year supply that salmon by drying the fish end a smoky fire and also pressed the oil native candlefish. The ind used large amounts of this oil, dipping dried foodstuffs into it at meals. Other necessary fish were herring, smelt, cod, and also halibut. People additionally dug clams follow me the beach and also smoked them simply as they walk salmon.

Northwest coastline peoples differed their fish-based diet v hunting and also gathering. Households traveled come the mountains, wherein the men pursued deer, elk, mountain goat, and also bear. The women accumulated bulbs, roots, berries, and seeds.

Settlements and Housing

Most groups built villages close to waterways or the coast. Usually home sites and also settlements were limited to small beaches or terraces due to the fact that the land fell so steeply come the shore or riverbank.

Like various other hunting and gathering peoples, Northwest coastline Indians had actually seasonal settlements. Summer was the moment for catching and gathering food and also processing it because that winter storage. In this season a residence usually had several bases of operation. The members separated themselves into tiny groups that relocated between good fishing and also berry-picking sites. In the winter most human being lived in your kin group’s key building, i beg your pardon was commonly in a town on the coast. Many villages had several together buildings, each one the home base that a big extended family members group. Over there was also at the very least one very big structure in which the highest-ranking group lived and also where the village could organize a large potlatch, or celebration.

Northwest coast Indians do their houses with lumber from the forests, typically red cedar. The buildings were rectangular and also up to 100 feet (30.5 meters) long. The Indians built a frame of cedar posts and also attached pink to kind the walls and also roof. The planks can be bring away down, invited onto canoes, and moved indigenous one site to another. Most homes had a central fire pit.

In northwestern California, in ~ the southernmost limit that the society area, people built smaller homes for single-family use. These peoples additionally built a merged clubhouse and also sweat lodge, which to be the emphasis of masculine activity. These structures were usual in the California society area to the south.



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Dress was fairly simple amongst Northwest coast peoples. Return ceremonial garments and some hats could be highly decorated, most apparel was worn for protection from the atmosphere rather than for show. Throughout the an ar women wore skirts or gowns the buckskin, soft leather, or woven structure or tree fibers. Men’s dress varied from tribe to tribe however was in basic quite minimal—most men wore nothing yet ornaments on warm days. For protection from the rain, they had cedar-bark raincoats and also a brimmed hat. Winter garb included a robe or a blanket. Human being of high status wore robes made of or edged with strips that sea otter fur and also yarn make of the structure of mountain goats. Salish teams near the Georgia Strait wove robes of hill goat structure and likewise of wool from a one-of-a-kind breed the shaggy dog. The blankets to be made of cedar-bark fiber, mountain-goat wool, dogs’ hair, and feathers.

Both women and men customarily wore some mix of necklaces, earrings, sleep rings, bracelets, and anklets. These to be made of assorted materials, greatly shells, copper, wood, and fur. Some human being rubbed grease and ochre (an earthy stole ore) onto their skin to produce a red color, often accented through black. Tattooing was likewise practiced.

Technology and also Arts


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Woodworking was the outstanding skill that the Northwest Coast. Traditional carving tools contained adzes, mauls, wedges, chisels, drills, and curved knives, all made of stone. Sharkskin was supplied for sanding or polishing wooden items. Boatbuilders hollowed logs through fire to do the canoes castle paddled in the streams too as huge seagoing whaling canoes. Various other woodworkers steamed and also bent pink to do boxes, tie the edges along with spruce roots. Some of these crate were constructed to organize the substantial winter stores of dried food. Rather were supplied for cooking, which to be done by adding hot rocks to the food in the boxes. Other daily items do of wood contained spoons and ladles, canoe bailers, trinket boxes, room pots, fishhooks, and also even the cause of pet traps.

Many items do by the woodworkers were artistic and functional. Dishes, because that example, were occasionally in the kind of animals or monsters. Faces of animals, birds, and also people were carved on boxes, home fronts, house posts, boats, and grave posts. Woodworkers made wooden helmets and also masks for ceremonial dances and also dramatic performances. Many spectacular the the artworks was the totem or memorial pole.

Northwest craftsmen also had some native copper to occupational with. Castle made some of their arrowheads from it, and also copper knives for tools of war. Lock engraved draft on a plaque, referred to as a “copper,” that offered in the ar of a beneficial bank note. One well known copper to be valued at 7,500 blankets.

Another great skill that the Northwest Indians was weaving. The women wove long, ribbonlike strands of inside cedar bark into mats and beautiful baskets. Warehouse containers, receptacles for valuables big and small, and rain hats were likewise woven.



Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. No. LC-USZ62-51435)

The social company of the Northwest coastline Indians was unusual among hunting and also gathering cultures. Many such peoples developed only small bands in which everyone was taken into consideration to be society equals. This plan helped them to fulfill the food demands of the team as a whole. ~ above the Northwest Coast, however, food was plentiful. Less work was forced to meet the needs of the population, and also there to be food surpluses. These situations were comparable to those of part farming societies, such as those of the Southeast society area. As in the Southeast, the Northwest shore peoples occurred a system of ranked social classes. Their class system of ruling elites, commoners, and slaves was unique among nonagricultural societies.

Tribes regularly organized themselves right into groups referred to as “houses.” these were made up of a couple of dozen to 100 or much more people who considered themselves to be related, though sometimes only distantly. Castle lived with each other for in ~ least component of the year and also shared the rights to certain resources, such as sites because that fishing, berry picking, and hunting. House groups also held a range of other privileges, consisting of the exclusive usage of specific names, songs, dances, and, specifically in the north, totemic representations or crests.

Within a house group, every member had actually a social rank that was identified according come the individual’s level of relatedness to a founding ancestor. The greatest in rank organized a one-of-a-kind title that in every language was interpreted into English as “chief.” normally a guy or the widow of a past chief, this leader determined countless of the patterns of day-to-day life—when to move to the salmon-fishing site, once to construct weirs and also traps, as soon as to do the first catch, which other groups should be invite to feasts, and so on.

In theory, people of high location had substantial powers. However, since a house group’s residential property was organized in common, every adults other than slaves could voice their opinions on group affairs. Most leaders avoided abusing other members the the house and also community—not only were castle kin, however the chief likewise needed their participation to achieve even the most simple tasks. Because that example, many solid arms and also sturdy backs were needed to acquire, assemble, and position the heavy materials forced to construct or fix a house.

Slaves, however, had few or no civil liberties of joining in house team decisions. They usually had actually been captured in childhood and taken or traded so far from their original houses that castle had little hope of detect their way back. They were property and also could it is in traded away, married, killed, or freed at your owner’s whim. A common house group owned at the very least one slave yet rarely much more than a dozen.

The social status of every member of a house group was hereditary but was not instantly assumed at birth. Together things had actually to it is in formally and publicly announced at a potlatch, an occasion sponsored by each team north the the Columbia River. The term originates from the profession jargon offered throughout the an ar and way “to give.” A potlatch constantly involved the invitation of another house (or houses), whose members were received with an excellent formality as guests and witnesses that the event. Potlatches were offered to note a wide range of occasions, consisting of marriages, the building of a house, and also the funerals of chiefs.

Having experienced the proceedings, the guest were offered gifts and served a feast. The social statuses of the hosts and guests to be affirmed with the potlatch. Such events were really expensive to sponsor, which reflected the rank of the hosts. Presents were dispersed according come the standing of each guest, with the much more splendid gifts given come the guest of highest status. Even if it is hosting or acting as guests at a potlatch, all members that a residence usually participated in the proceedings. This served to strengthen everyone’s identification through his or her group.

An interesting facet of Northwest Coast society was the focus on teaching etiquette, moral standards, and also other social traditions. Every society has processes by which children room taught the behavior suitable to their future roles, however often such teaching is no a formal process. On the Northwest Coast, however, were instructed formally. This instruction started at an er when were tho in their cradles or toddling, and also all elder relatives, an especially grandparents, participated in it. Youngsters born to high standing were given formal instruction throughout childhood and adolescence. They had to discover not just routine etiquette but additionally the an extensive traditions the went together with their rank, consisting of special rituals, songs, and prayers.


The religious beliefs of the Northwest shore had several ideas in common. One was that salmon were supernatural beings who voluntarily take it the kind of fish yearly in order come sacrifice themselves for the advantage of humankind. On being caught, these spirit-beings went back to their house beneath the sea. There they were reincarnated if their bones or innards were returned to the water. If offended, however, they would certainly refuse to go back to the river. Therefore the indians prohibited acts the were believed to offend the spirit-beings and held a variety of ceremonies to acquire their goodwill. Chief among them to be the first-salmon ceremony. This rite affiliated honoring the an initial salmon that the fishing season by sprinkling them with eagle down, red ochre, or some various other sacred substance and also welcoming castle in a formal speech. Climate the ind cooked the salmon and also distributed your flesh, or morsels the it, to every the members that the group and also any guests.

Another religious concept top top the Northwest coastline was the achievement of an individual power by seeking contact with a spirit-being. Such contact usually came with a superordinary experience dubbed a vision quest, i m sorry typically affiliated isolation and fasting. Amongst Coast Salish every success in life—whether in hunting, woodworking, accumulating wealth, army ventures, or magic—was granted by spirit-beings encountered in the vision quest. From these spirits each person obtained special symbols, songs, and dances. Take away together, the dances comprised the major ceremonies that the Northwest shore peoples. Recognized as the spirit dances, they were performed during the winter months.

Shamans supplied supernatural strength to heal the sick and also to recuperate souls the strayed from their bodies. It to be commonly thought that some shamans had the strength to reason illnesses as well as to healing them. Witchcraft was used to kill others or to make them ill and also was believed to be carried out by malicious persons with expertise of mystery rituals.

European contact and social Change

The Tlingit were the an initial Northwest coastline Indians to conference Europeans, once Russian traders come in Tlingit territory in 1741. The Russians did not establish a short article in the an ar until 1799 and then only after boil resistance. Spain sent out parties come the Haida in 1774, Britain come the Nuu-chah-nulth in 1778, and the United says to various groups in around 1800.

The colonizers seek sea otter pelts, which were particularly dense and highly prized in China. Although the Russians forced Aleut males to hunting sea otters because that them, lock traded v Northwest coastline peoples because that furs and food. In exchange they lugged manufactured goods, such together steel blades, come the tribes. Some aboriginal peoples profited considerably from this trade. The Tlingit sold vast quantities the fish, game, and also potatoes to the commerce posts. The Tsimshian and also others gained manage of significant trade routes, demanding fees for passage and also vessel rental. Still other groups hired the end their slaves as prostitutes or laborers.

Beginning in the 1840s the Northwest shore tribes faced a overwhelming of settlers from the eastern united States and also Canada. In the United claims this occupation to be accompanied by the removed of the people to small reservations in what are currently Washington and Oregon. Missionaries taught the indians not only Christianity but additionally etiquette, punctuality, and other aspects of the leading culture. Classic ceremonies, such together the potlatch and spirit dancing, were banned in Canada for decades. In addition, the officially schooling that native youngsters was in the hands of missionaries on lot of the coastline for countless decades.

From the late 1700s v the 1800s the most disruptive events for Northwest coast peoples were epidemics of conditions such as smallpox and measles. Having actually no immune to this illnesses, the ind suffered really high fatality rates. That is estimated that between 1780 and also 1900 the native population in the an ar declined through as much as 80 percent.

In the late 1800s the fur trade collapsed, and Northwest coast peoples struggled economically. Having lost many of their lands and also increasingly dependence upon produced goods, they needed to develop brand-new sources the income. Part people began working because that wages, miscellaneous that most other native American individuals refused to do. At very first jobs to be mostly limited to guiding prospectors, backpacking cargo over mountain passes, cutting wood for coastal steamers, and also working as farm and also domestic labor. Yet once the box salmon industry developed, wage job boomed. Through their considerable knowledge that the ar salmon, indigenous men and women had a clear benefit in the fishing industry. Some Indians, frequently of high social status, developed their own businesses; they typically employed, fed, or otherwise aided the lower-status members of their house group. Fishing proceeds to be a mainstay of the region’s economy.

Having kept a high level of economic independence contrasted to other native American groups, Northwest shore peoples were able come organize relatively effectively versus government interference. Beginning in 1912 the Tlingit, Haida, and other people in southeastern Alaska developed political groups dubbed Native Brotherhoods and, later, indigenous Sisterhoods come act on instead of of the people in legal and also other proceedings. Comparable groups were subsequently created in seaside British Columbia. These organizations pursued a variety of legal techniques to certain equal therapy under the law. Very early success was the 1915 i of one act approving territorial citizenship to aboriginal Alaskans that met specific requirements.

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Later in the 20th century these teams filed a number of successful antidiscrimination lawsuits and also land claims. In the United claims the land cases led to the Alaska Native claims Settlement act of 1971. This act turned over some 44 million acre (17.8 million hectares) of land and almost 1 billion dollars to native Alaskans. The Canadian establishments brought around the repeal, in 1951, of legislations prohibiting potlatches and also the submit of land claims. After numerous years that discussion, the provincial federal government of british Columbia agreed in 1990 come negotiate lack land insurance claims through a body recognized as the brothers Columbia treaty Commission. However, the negotiation procedure was painstaking, and also progress to be slow.