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Classical America: The West: Pacific Northwest

Classical America: The West: Pacific Northwest


Early Prehistory: 8000400 b.c. The Pacific Coast was home to some of the most complex Archaic hunter-gatherer societies in the prehistoric world. Clovis sites are scarce in the region, but the first settlers drifted into the area around 8000 b.c. By 1500 b.c. an expansive coastal trade in obsidian, a volcanic glass used to make knife blades and other sharp tools, and other goods linked the disparate coastal communities to other far-flung societies. Around 400 b.c. improvements in hunting and, more particularly, fishing technology led to a large growth in population. Like most coastal Indians and like all hunter-gatherer peoples, the Salishes and the Nootkas migrated from place to place depending on the season. In the summer they lived by the ocean and spent the bulk of their time fishing. In the fall they moved inland by rivers and streams and poised themselves 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. Potlatch ceremonies were particularly important occasions in which wealthy chiefs and elites shared their food and other resources with less-fortunate members of the population.

Indigenous Slavery. The inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest, like other indigenous groups, incorporated war captives into their societies. However, whereas other groups considered captives as kinsmen, the Pacific Coast peoples held them as slaves. Masters had power of life and limb over their bondsmen, and slave adults passed their status on to their children. Taboos on marriage between slaves and free people further reinforced social boundaries and ensured the maintenance of a permanent laboring class.

Salish: 1200 b.c. to 1600 a.d. The Salishes lived on the present-day border of British Columbia and Washington State, an area first settled around 4500 b.c. The first distinct non-Clovis culture, which archaeologists call Locarno Beach, emerged around 1200 b.c., and it established the basic outlines of precontact Salish culture. Indeed, there is a great continuity between the early cultures who depended heavily on fishing for their livelihood and later periods. What changed, however, was the degree to which the society was stratified. Whereas there is little evidence the Locarno people were divided between elites and commoners, by the early centuries a.d. prestige burials and a high degree of socio-economic stratification mark the Salish culture as typical of the Pacific Northwest.

Nootka: 400 b.c. to 1600 a.d. The Nootkans lived on Vancouver Island and were famous whale hunters. Each summer they gathered at prime whale spots and took to the seas in red-cedar dugout canoes. Like the Salishes, their culture underwent little substantive change over the centuries. As they improved their subsistence techniques they developed into an increasingly more stratified society characterized by wealthy elites, commoners, and slaves. The potlatch, however, helped smooth over social tensions by providing for the redistribution of foodstuffs and other material items.

The Columbia Plateau: 10,000 b.c. to 1600 a.d. The Columbia River drains much of the hinterland of the Pacific Northwest, and the Columbia Plateau is, in general, arid because the Cascade Mountains, which run parallel to the coast, block most of the rainfall from reaching the interior. The Plateaus first inhabitants migrated into the region around ten thousand years ago and gave rise to the Nez Percés, so named by the French for their habit of wearing bits of shell or stone pierced through the nostrils. Life was hard on the Plateau, and its inhabitants had to move about to find adequate supplies of food. The Nez Percés built permanent towns that consisted of clusters of pithouses in which they lived during the winter. At other times of the year they moved from site to site in small bands to look for food. In the spring, before heading for the river valleys, they congregated at sites along the Columbia River where they met with members of tribes who lived on the Great Plains, the Great Basin, and the coast. The fairs enabled the groups to trade for items that they could neither manufacture nor find for themselves. Cultural exchange also occurred at the fairs as the Nez Percés learned specific basket designs and the practice of flattening childrens heads for aesthetic reasons. After the fairs they moved in to cool mountain valleys where they erected pole lodges and awaited the annual spawning runs of the salmon. The Nez Percés did not grow crops for their own use but instead relied heavily on starchy roots and bulbs that women pried out of the ground with digging sticks.


Robert H. Ruby, Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981);

Wayne Suttles, ed., Handbook of North American Indians: Northwest Coast (Washington, d.c.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990).

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