Native North Americans of the Pacific Northwest
Native North Americans of the Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest consists of the northeast corner of the United States including Oregon and Washington , the islands of southern Alaska , and parts of northern Idaho , northwestern Montana , and the coast of British Columbia, Canada. The area was home to many different cultures. The Nootkas and Kwakiutls (pronounced kwah-kee-OO-tul) lived along the coast of present-day British Columbia and Washington. The Salish were divided into two groups: the Coastal Salish and the Interior Salish. Among the Coastal Salish, who lived in northwestern Washington on the Puget Sound and in British Columbia, were the Chehalis (sha-HAY-lis), Nisqualli (nis-KWALL-ee), Cowlitz, Squamish, Comox, Tillamook, and Bella Coola tribes. The Interior Salish were Native North Americans of the Plateau . The Klamaths and Modocs lived along the present-day border between California and Oregon. The Chinooks lived farther north, near the mouth of the Columbia River. Finally, there were the southern Alaskan tribes—the Tlingit (pronounced KLINGK-it), the Ank, the Chilkat, and the Sitka.
The earliest known inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest appeared in the area around 8000 bce. By 1500 bce, they had developed a large coastal trade in obsidian, a volcanic glass used to make knife blades and other sharp tools, and other goods. Around 400 bce, improvements in hunting and fishing tools led to a large growth in population.
The early peoples of the Pacific Northwest migrated with the seasons. In the summer, they lived by the ocean and spent the bulk of their time fishing. In the fall, they moved inland to the rivers and streams to harvest salmon. Winter drove them into sheltered bays, where they rode out the cold weather. They did not raise plants or vegetables for their own use, but their hunting-and-gathering economy worked well in the rich coastal environment and enabled them to enjoy a considerable amount of free time.
The inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest held captives of war as slaves. Masters had power of life and limb over their slaves, and slave
adults passed their slave status on to their children. Marriage between slaves and free people was forbidden to ensure a permanent laboring class.
Culture in the early eighteenth century
At the time of first European contact in the early 1700s, the population of all the Pacific Northwest tribes numbered at least seventy thousand, and probably many more. The native people of the Pacific Northwest had well-developed political systems and were among the most prosperous and densely populated of Native Americans. Coastal tribes depended on fish, seals, sea otters, and beached whales for food and materials, which they procured with nets and clubs. To travel and fish, they used canoes, hollowed out from the trunks of the tremendously tall cedar trees that lined the Pacific shore. Some ornately decorated canoes, holding as many as seventy people, made impressive warships.
Cedar was also used to make enormous multifamily longhouses, in which forty or fifty people could live. Built side by side along the shore facing the sea, each longhouse had canoes moored in the front and one shore-side entrance. Cedar planks formed the siding for the homes, and cedar tree trunks—spaced evenly from front to rear—served as support posts.
Wood-carving also produced the important totem poles of many Pacific Northwest tribes. A totem was a representation, usually in the form of an animal, of the clan's ancestor. A clan is a group of families that traces back to a common ancestor. The people of the Pacific Northwest regarded the totems as heroic protectors of their clans. Because members of other clans married into the clan of a household, one house might be home to members of numerous clans. Each of those clan totems would be displayed on the totem pole in front of the longhouse.
Pacific Northwest Native Americans are also known for their pot-latches—celebrations in which wealthy chiefs and other elite members of the community shared their food and other resources with less-fortunate members of the population. Clans or tribes gathered for potlatch ceremonies, during which the host bestowed as many blankets and as much fish as possible. The more he gave away, the more prestige he earned for himself, his clan, and his protective totem. Every clan and tribe reciprocated with a later potlatch, and enormous amounts of goods, and even slaves, were given away in this manner.
Interaction with other settlers
Most of the early encounters among the Pacific Northwest Indians and Europeans were with the Russians, the Spanish, and later the British, and they were primarily for the purpose of fur trading. As contact with Europeans increased, the people of the Pacific Northwest were devastated by the infectious diseases the newcomers carried—smallpox, measles, influenza, typhoid fever, and others. Thousands died; by some estimates, 80 percent of the native population of the Northwest had died by the late 1800s, a period when white (European) settlers began to arrive in the Pacific Northwest in large numbers.
Many of the tribes of Washington and Oregon signed treaties with the United States in the 1850s that established reservations, land that would be held forever for their use, and reserved certain resource rights, such as the right to fish and hunt in traditional areas. The Coastal tribes never experienced extended warfare with the United States.
One area of conflict that arose between the native people of the Pacific Northwest and the U.S. government, however, was the potlatch. In the search for prestige, potlatch generosity sometimes developed into the intentional destruction of materials. Blankets were frequently burned, and fish were sometimes tossed back into the sea. The destructive behavior bothered European missionaries and American settlers. The federal government began discouraging the practice in the early 1900s and eventually banned it altogether. The last known potlatches were held in the 1940s (though the ceremonies were carried out in secret after that time). In the early 1970s, the potlatch was reintroduced, and it is popular in the Pacific Northwest today.