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Northwestern Coast Indians


Northwest Coast Indian tribes occupied the region bounded by the Rocky Mountains to the east and north, the High Sierras to the southwest, and the Pacific Ocean to the northwest. The area roughly corresponds to present-day northern Utah, northern Nevada, northeastern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, and southern Alaska. Beginning at the end of the ice age (about 10,000 b.c.) three distinctive cultures emerged in the region as tribes adapted to the varying environments of the Northwest.

The first culture was that of the Great Basin, which is an elevated terrain walled in by the Rockies and the High Sierras. Here tribes including the Shoshone, Bannock, Paiute, and Ute lived simply to survive the rugged region comprised of desert, brush lands, and pine forests. The climate ranged from dry, hot summers to cold, harsh winters. Bands living here hunted small game and foraged for wild grains, nuts, and vegetables; pine nuts were their most important food. Those living near rivers and streams also fished. Dwellings varied by season. During warm months, brush windbreaks served as shelters; in the winter, conical shelters were made of pine poles covered with sod, bark, grass, or skins. The Indians had few possessions, and those they had, such as baskets, were strictly utilitarian.

The second culture lived on the plateaus west of the Great Basin. The inland region tended to be dry but was forged by rivers, principally the Columbia (forming the border between Oregon and Washington) and the Fraser in central British Columbia. Tribes including the Yakima, Walla Walla, Coer d'Alene, and Nez Perce lived off the plentiful seafood, including mussels and salmon. Prime fishing spots were actively protected. These tribes were sophisticated hunters, and their diet was also rich in meat. They foraged for wild bulbs and roots, as well as berries. Dwellings varied by season: in the winter they lived mostly in pit houses (semi-subterranean, circular shelters); in the warm months they made brush or mat-covered windbreaks.

The third Northwestern culture comprised tribes living along the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington, such as the Aleut, Kwakiutl, and Chinook. From their plentiful environment, which was rich in wildlife and teeming with fish and seafood, these tribes developed a sophisticated culture. Living off salmon, seals, whales, bear, caribou, deer, elk, and moose, some families grew very wealthy in this region. Wealth was measured by possessions such as canoes, blankets, and slaves (captured enemies). Multi-family dwellings were made out of posts and beams, with planked sides and gabled roofs. Armor and elaborate face masks were used in battle. Decorative objects included wooden boxes and totem poles, which displayed a family's genealogy and social standing.

Europeans brought horses, tools, weapons, and diseases to the region. They came to the area to mine minerals, and white settlements gradually pushed Northwestern Indians off their lands. Major conflicts between the Indians and the settlers included the Modoc War (18721873) and the Nez Perce War (1877).

See also: Alaska, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Utah

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