Pacific Northwest

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Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest extends from Yakutat Bay, Alaska, in the north to roughly the California-Oregon border in the south. There are over three dozen separate identifiable groups in the Pacific Northwest culture area, representing a variety of different language groups and cultures. Living between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountain ranges, the Native people of the Pacific Northwest are traditionally oriented towards coastal and riverine (full of rivers) areas. Their oral traditions and religious expression emphasize the importance that the resources of these environments have held in their cultures.

The Pacific Northwest culture area can be divided into five cultural regions based on similarity of culture and/or language:

  • In the northern area the defining characteristic is the matrilineal kinship system. This means that family name and inheritance, as well as rights to property and privileges, are passed down through the mother’s side of the family. The Tlingit (pronounced KLINK-it), Haida (HIGH-da), and Tsimshian (which includes the Nisga’a, Gitksan, and coastal and southern Tsimshian) are often called the “northern matrilineal tribes.”
  • The Wakashan area, found along the south-central coast of British Columbia and the nearby eastern shores of Vancouver Island (both in Canada), is composed of the Kwakwala-speaking peoples, including the Haisla, Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Oweekeno, and Kwakwaka’wakw, as well as the Nootkan-speaking Nuu-chah-nulth, Ditidaht, and Makah.
  • The Salish include the contiguous tribes and bands of southwest British Columbia, Canada, and western Washington state, the outlying Nuxalk of the central British Columbia coast, and the Tillamook of the northern Oregon coast.
  • Along the Columbia River, from its mouth to the Cascade Mountains, are the several groups of Chinookan-speakers.
  • Along the Oregon Coast are numerous bands of Penutian and Athabaskan speakers.

The variety of culture and experience of the Pacific Northwest tribes presents interesting comparisons. Not only is there a great deal of difference in language and culture, but the different political boundaries have created historical and contemporary issues that differ significantly as well.

European contact

At the time of first European contact the Native people of the Northwest Coast had well-developed political and economic systems. Abundant resources met their needs for subsistence (food, shelter, and other necessities) and provided a surplus that contributed to trade and ceremonial life. Population estimates suggest that the Pacific Northwest was densely populated for a non-agricultural region. At the time of European contact the northern matrilineal area probably numbered about forty-two thousand, the Wakashan area about thirty-four thousand, the Salish about forty-eight thousand, the Chinook about twenty-two thousand, and the Oregon Coast groups about thirty thousand.

First contact with Europeans began with explorations in the 1700s; Pacific Northwest groups briefly encountered the Russians and the Spanish. The latter part of the eighteenth century was characterized by more encounters, primarily for the purpose of trade. This maritime (sea-oriented) trade was stimulated when the British Captain James Cook (1728-1779) discovered that sea otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest could bring high prices in China. After this discovery land-based commerce was established by the Spanish at Nootka Sound in 1789, the Russians at New Archangel (Sitka) in 1799, and the Americans—who established a post at Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River—in 1811. Fort Astoria later fell to British hands, and through the early 1800, British trading companies became well established throughout the Pacific Northwest.

At the time of, or perhaps even before, these earliest encounters, the Native people of the Pacific Northwest suffered from diseases introduced by the arriving Europeans. Infectious diseases—smallpox, measles, influenza, typhoid fever, and many others—devastated Native peoples who had no resistance to them. Thousands died. Estimates suggest that there was a population decline of more than 80 percent by the late 1800s. This had a profound impact on Native culture. And it was at this time, when Native people were most vulnerable, that the European influx began.

New boundaries

In 1846 the boundary between the United States and British North America was established at 49 degrees north latitude, and in 1867 Russian America (Alaska) became a U.S. possession. Since these events the Native people of the Pacific Northwest have experienced somewhat different political and economic forces that have figured prominently in their lives. The Tlingit and Haida in southeast Alaska had cool relations with the Russians. While some Native people adopted the Russian Orthodox Church as their religion and most traded for Russian goods, for the most part, Russian influence was small. When Alaska became part of the United States interactions between Natives and non-Natives continued at a minimal level until the Yukon gold rush of 1897 brought in a flood of settlers. By 1900 the non-Native population outnumbered the Native population, bringing about a major change in political and economic life. Many Tlingit and Haida participated in wage labor in fish canneries and other economic enterprises. Political and educational systems modeled after those of other states soon became common in communities in southeast Alaska. Nevertheless, the Tlingit and Haida have maintained strong ties with their traditional culture and language.

In 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act established Native corporations throughout the state of Alaska. A regional corporation for Alaskan Tlingit and Haida, along with a number of village corporations, were founded in southeast Alaska. The corporations were begun with the intent to use Native-owned land and resources to promote economic development, but success has varied.

The Canadian province of British Columbia maintains different relations with Native groups, or First Nations as they are known in Canada, than either Alaska or Washington and Oregon. Throughout the late 1800s reserves (land set apart for First Nation use, similar to U.S. reservations) were established for the Native groups; in the early twenty-first century there were more than two hundred reserves in British Columbia. In Canada the Indian Act—which was first put into place in 1876 and has been revised five times since—defines Native rights. The Indian Act determines who can claim status as a Native, outlines the relationship between Native peoples and the Canadian government, and establishes band (tribe or Native community) government. One of the most controversial actions of the Indian Act was when the potlatch (a very important ceremony in Pacific Northwest cultures; see “Customs”) was outlawed in 1884. Although the law was repealed in 1954 the Native people of British Columbia are still angered over this government action. In the mid-2000s land and resource rights were a major issue, especially as British Columbia, the federal government of Canada, and the First Nations entered into treaty negotiations.

The experience of Native peoples in Washington and Oregon have more in common with other Native peoples of the contiguous United States. Many of the tribes signed treaties with the United States in the 1850s that established reservations, reserved certain resource rights, and instituted relations with the federal government of the United States. Political and economic forces have played an important role in the lives of the Native peoples of Washington and Oregon—adjusting to changing and often contradictory federal policy, competing with non-Native interests for land and resource rights, and struggling to maintain ties with traditional language and culture against the forces of the dominant society. Treaty issues have occupied much of the attention of Native groups in recent decades as increasing development in the Northwest decreases the resources upon which Native peoples depend for their economic and spiritual well-being.

Oral literature

Pacific Northwest oral traditions are as varied as the numerous tribes that live in this area. All groups have origin myths, which tell of the first people, migrations, or the origin of kin groups. Each group in the Pacific Northwest differentiates between oral traditions that tell of mythical times and those that tell of historical events. Among northern Pacific Northwest tribes these traditions may be displayed on totem poles or in other art forms. Raven, as trickster (a culture hero), is common as a character responsible for much of the natural world. The transformer (one who can change something’s outward form) also plays an important role in the oral traditions of many Pacific Northwest tribes as a sometimes benevolent teacher and a sometimes harmful or evil transformer of people into natural objects.


Pacific Northwest religion is animistic, meaning that the people traditionally believe in the existence of spirits and souls in all living, and in some non-living, objects. While these beliefs are acted out in ceremony and ritual, they also find constant expression in everyday life. Winter ceremonies are an important series of events that celebrate the religious belief system. These cermonies may involve the expression of a personal relationship with a spiritual entity, or it may involve a community expression of supernatural understanding.

A common community event is the First Salmon Ceremony, which all Pacific Northwest groups celebrated. Honoring the first fish taken from the most important run of salmon was a way of paying respect to the resource and ensuring its continuation. The First Salmon Ceremony is still practiced by many Pacific Northwest tribes.


The diversity of languages in the Pacific Northwest has been a puzzle to linguists (people who study languages) for over a century. The region is comprised of speakers from several not very closely related North American language groupings. In fact, several languages and language groups have no known relation to any other language.

One result of this diversity of languages was the development of Chinook Jargon, a trade language used to communicate across these language barriers. Many of the languages of the Pacific Northwest are still spoken, but many are in danger of becoming extinct. Most tribes in the Pacific Northwest culture area have instituted programs to preserve their language and to teach it to younger tribal members.


Multi-family longhouses were the norm throughout the Pacific Northwest culture area. These long, narrow dwellings were built of planks split from cedar logs, these dwellings would commonly house from five to ten related families. In general each family lived in a section of the house with the central area open for cooking and heating fires. When celebrations were held the partitions dividing the family units would be taken down. The Pacific Northwest longhouse was no longer used as a dwelling after about 1900, but the structures continue to be built and used as community buildings and for winter ceremonies or potlatch houses.


The most important source of sustenance throughout the Pacific Northwest are the salmon runs, in which the fish swim up into the rivers from the ocean. Several different species of salmon are native to the west coast of North America, but not all species are available in all local areas. Fishing in the Pacific Northwest involved a variety of techniques ranging from simple spears and dip-nets to complex weirs (traps) and seines (nets). Salmon provided a staple food and also a surplus for trade and ceremony.

While salmon was important, it was by no means the only food resource. Some groups fished for marine (ocean) species, such as halibut, and most groups gathered shellfish. Land mammal hunting provided food for many groups; sea mammal hunting was important for others. The Nootkan-speaking peoples were especially known as whale hunters, and many groups utilized whales that had become beached, or stranded on land. Plant foods included tubers and berries, camas and wapato (common bulbs harvested as a starchy food), and fern roots. Plants were also used for technology and medicinal purposes.

Clothing and adornment

The traditional Pacific Northwest style of garb included cedar-bark skirts and capes and, during cold weather, a blanket worn around the shoulders. Cedar bark was either shredded or woven into material used for clothing. Leather clothing was used by some groups. Most made rain hats out of cedar bark or spruce root. Blankets were items of wealth as well as clothing and bedding. Blankets were made of cedar bark, other plant fibers, mountain goat wool, or dog fur. As cloth blankets became available through trade with whites in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they largely replaced the blankets of Native manufacture.

Ceremonial garb was quite different from daily wear. Clothing worn at ceremonials and potlatches might be highly decorated with clan or family symbols or with wealth items, such as precious shells. One of the items of wealth often used in decoration was the dentalium shell. A small shell harvested by the Nuu-Chah-Nulth people of the west coast of Vancouver Island, the dentalia was traded north and south along the Pacific Coast and as far inland as the American Plains. During ceremonials Pacific Northwest people often painted their faces to express a spirit relationship.

Healing practices

The shaman (a traditional medical practitioner) played an important role in all Pacific Northwest tribes. Shamans could practice both good and evil medicine. While some practitioners cured with herbs or other medicines, shamans generally were called upon to cure supernatural ailments. This included removing foreign objects from a person’s body that had been placed there to make them ill, or performing an elaborate ceremony designed to rescue an individual’s lost soul. Often in this latter case the shaman would travel to the Land of the Dead, or some other place where the lost soul had strayed, and return it to the person’s body.

Shamans still practice among many Pacific Northwest societies. Among groups from the Salish southward, the Indian Shaker Church has taken over many of the responsibilities of spiritual healing that were formerly the responsibility of shamans. The Indian Shaker Church originated with the experiences of John Slocum, a Salish man, who in the 1880s had an after-death experience which led him to form this new religion.


Of all cultural practices, the Pacific Northwest people are best known for the potlatch. A potlatch is a public ceremony that involves the giving away of accumulated goods. Feasting, ceremonies, rituals, and other activities might also surround the potlatch event. The climax of the potlatch was the display and distribution of goods, which demonstrated the status or inherited privilege of the giver. Potlatching was carried out for a variety of reasons, including naming a child, marriage, funerals, house raising, totem pole raising, or to show affluence.

Potlatching was banned by the Canadian government in 1884 and actively discouraged in the United States. Nevertheless, potlatching continued in secret or in a disguised form until it was revived in recent years. It has since returned as a central activity in many Pacific Northwest communities.

Other customs centered around rites of passage—including birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and death. All of these life stages were recognized by ceremony and ritual, often involving a potlatch.

Current tribal issues

The Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest culture area are politically active on local and national levels. Because political boundaries have separated them into different jurisdictions, their actual experiences vary somewhat. But current interests tend to center around land and resource claims, tribal sovereignty (self-rule), and cultural resource control.

The Native peoples of Alaska are subject to provisions of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which established regional enterprise and made tribal members shareholders in the corporations. Generally the Native corporations have maintained some control over certain lands and resources but are expected to use these lands and resources to generate profits in the U.S. economic system. This often conflicts with traditional uses of the land for subsistence-based resource gathering and is often at odds with Native perceptions of how development should proceed. In recent years the Tlingit and Haida in Alaska have strengthened tribal government by extending jurisdiction (their power to apply law and legislate) over certain legal matters. A tribal court system exists to hear cases and determine punishment. Current efforts include the attempt to increase the power of tribal government and strengthen the control of the clan system. As the influence of the tribes has increased in the educational system, Native language and cultural programs have been instituted in most Tlingit and Haida communities.

In British Columbia the First Nations entered into treaty negotiations with the province and the federal government of Canada. In 1992 the British Columbia Treaty Commission was established, putting into place a negotiation procedure by which the individual bands could begin the treaty process. This is the culmination of nearly one hundred years of conflict over aboriginal (native) rights in the province. Most bands in British Columbia never entered into treaty negotiations and this process promises to be one of the most influential events in their history. Coupled with treaty negotiations is the conflict over natural resources, especially salmon. In 1990 a court ruling clarified that fishing is an aboriginal right protected by the Canadian Constitution. Since that decision Native peoples of British Columbia have participated in salmon fishery under provisions of the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy (AFS), a federal action designed to avoid conflict. The AFS is highly controversial and fuels the ongoing debate over what is included in constitutional aboriginal rights in British Columbia.

The Native peoples of Washington and Oregon are embroiled in issues centered around land and resource control, tribal sovereignty, gaming, and cultural resources. As treaty tribes many of the groups have treaty-assured access to resources, such as salmon; however, the serious decline of many of these resources in recent years has often meant that the right exists but the resource does not. Tribal groups have attempted to increase the power of tribal government in the decision-making process, but with mixed success. As sovereignty issues, including gaming (running gambling casinos), emerge in the 1990s the tribes find themselves constantly battling to maintain what control they managed to gain in the last few decades. This control often includes land and resources off-reservation as well as on-reservation and tends to center around religious or subsistence use of public lands, supposedly protected by treaty or the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (signed in 1978 “to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express and exercise their traditional religions.”) These issues promise to command the attention of tribal leaders into the foreseeable future.

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Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California

Laurie Edwards

Daniel Boxberger, Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University

Laurie Edwards

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