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Introduction | Historical Overview | Defining
Lecture Topics and Reading Assignment | Resources
The Northwest Coast culture area consists primarily of the coastal areas of Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon and has been described as a culture area that is 1,500 miles long and one mile wide. While such a description isn't exactly true, it speaks to one of the unique facts about the Northwest Coast. Nowhere is the region broader than about 50 miles, confined as it is between the Coast Mountains of Canada and the Cascade Mountains of the U.S. on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. The area also includes many large and small islands, of which the most important are the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver Island.
The region is warmed by the Japanese Current while the mountains block off most cold air coming from the interior. The moutains are clothed with temperate-zone rain forests of giant Douglas fir, cedar, spruce, and hemlock, all of which were used by the native peoples as sources of firewood and building materials, materials for cordage, clothing and bedding, canoes, boxes, and a wide variety of tools. The forest's margins were home to many game animals (deer, moose, elk, bear, mountain goats and sheep) and fur-bearing species (fox, mink, beaver). But it was to the sea that the native peoples looked for the bulk of their subsistence resources: whale, seal, sea lion, porpoise, sea otter, many species of fish (quarter ton halibut; half ton sturgeon; shoals of herring, smelt, cod, candlefish, salmon). The tidal flats yield prodigous quantities of shellfish including the giant geoduck clam, so large that a large family could make a meal of six. And in the spring and fall, waterfowl darken the skies on their semiannual migrations. This wealth of food supported an estimated native population of 250,000.
The region was first occupied as early as 11,000 years ago, probably by peoples entering from several different adjacent regions: coastal-dwellers came southward from Alaska and possible northward from southern Oregon; interior groups followed the major rivers that flowed westward into the Pacific. By 7,000 years ago many of the basic features of the Northwest marine-oriented lifeway were well established, including a mixture of large land and sea mammal hunting with fishing and shellfish collecting. Over the next several thousands of years people came to rely more and more upon the plentiful marine resources, especially fish such as salmon.
About 1500 B.C. pit houses were built, a cultural pattern foreshadowing the historic Northwest Coast begins, and by the first millennium B.C. the distinctive Northwest Coast cultural pattern is flowering. Carving in stone and wood is common and bark shredders indicate weaving--very likely of the bark rain cloaks so common historically. By the first millenium A.D. heavy woodworking tools are common implying the splitting of the tall cedars, firs, and redwoods into planks and their fashioning into the large canoes and houses typical of known later cultures. The economic basis in this period was much like that of the historic Northwest Coast: taking salmon, halibut, eulachon (candlefish), herring, and other fish with nets, lines, spears, traps, and weirs, hunting sea mammals, mountain sheep and goat, deer, and bear, and collecting shellfish and berries and roots. Population was so high that serious competition for resources involved warfare, attested by burials of young males killed by heavy blows and the erection of defensive forts. By the time the Europeans arrived in the 18th century, the societies of the Northwest had developed ways of life that rank among the most complex and sedentary for nonagricultural people anywhere.
Europeans first contacted Northwest Coast people in 1741, but it wasn't until 1778 and James Cook's accidental discovery of the value of sea otter pelts (to the Chinese) that intense and prolonged contact between Europeans and the Native People began. Over the next several decades European traders came by ship, exchanging items of European manufacture for sea otter and other pelts. The Spanish estabished a post at Nootka Sound in 1789, the Russians at New Archangel (Sitka) in 1799, and after 1812 the British established numerous posts along the coast of what is now British Columbia.
By the 1850s, the fur trade had died out, as had many of the Native people, primarily through the introduction of infectious diseases, epidemics of which would wipe out entire villages. Fully 96% of the Lower Chinook population succumbed to a smallpox epidemic in the years 1832-1835.
In the1850s Ameropean settlers began to arrive and conflict with the Natives escalated, with the federal governments increasing their economic and political control over the lives of the Native people. In 1867 the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia, but had little use for it (and even less money), so the Native people (mainly Tlingit speakers and some northern Tsimshian-speakers) were left pretty much alone. However, with the rise of the commercial fishing industry, and growth stimulated by the Yukon gold rush, the white population of Southeast Alaska soon outstripped the Native population.
In 1912, ten young Tlingit men met and formed the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB). Brought up under the influence of several missionary societies established in Tlingit villages in the late 1800s, ANB founders had as their major aims:
During the 1920s, ANB revised their aims and took an aggressive stand on a variety of issues including:
Today, the ANB is a major player in relationships between the Tlingit and members and agencies of the non-native society.
In 1973 the U.S. implemented the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) to ostensibly stimulate economic growth and development in Alaska by placing land and capital within the control of the Alaskan natives. The Act authorized Alaska Natives to select and receive title to 44 million acres of public land in Alaska, and $962,000,000 in cash as settlement of their aboriginal claim to land in the State. The Act established a system of village and regional Native corporations (13 regional corporations of Tlingit and Haida peoples living in Southeast Alaska along with another two hundred village corporations elsewhere in Alaska) to manage the lands and cash payments, and made extensive provisions regarding the operations of the corporations.
In Canada, Native affairs are handled by the federal government under the comprehensive law known as the "Indian Act." The first Indian Act was passed in 1884 and it has been revised several times since then. The Act established a system of "reserves" with the idea that the Native people would used these reserves to remain self-sufficient (unlike the situation in the U.S. where the purpose of the reservations was to encourage the Native people to abandon their traditional lifeways). Many of the Canadian reserves consist of areas that contain a fishing location, a cemetery, or a village site that is of significance to the local group.
The Indian Act also outlawed the potlatch and at the beginning of the twentieth century Indian agents targeted the abolition of the ceremonies as a means to "civilize" the Natives. Fortunately, this section of the law was repealed in 1954 and potlatching has returned to many communities.
For the coastal dwelling Native people of the state of Washington, the situation was quite different from both British Columbia and Alaska. White settlement along the Washington coast was more rapid and in some ways more devastating than the Alaska and British Columbia. Early on, the U.S. formulated plans for reservations that had a dramatic influence on the Native people. Beginning in 1853 five treaties were signed covering most of the western part of Washington. LIke all U.S.-Indian treaties, the Native People relinquished control to their lands in return for small reservations set aside for their sole use and occupancy, along with yearly payments for lands they ceded to the U.S.
During this same period, the U.S. implemented numerous policies aimed at assimilating the Native people into the mainstream of Ameropean life. Most of these were of the negative variety: they aimed at destroying the tribal unit and often included the kidnapping of Native children and shipping them off to Indian boarding schools in California and Pennsylvannia. The government also decided to hasten assimilation by dividing up the reservations into small farms (a policy known as the General Allotment Act) to encourage the Indians to pursue a white lifestyle. Since many of the western Washington reservations were not in agriculturally productive areas, the small farms alloted to the Indians were inadequate to meet their needs and were quickly sold to non-Indians. Also, because the Act allowed for the sale of excess land left over after allotment, by the 1920s much of the reservations lands of Washington had passed into non-Indian hands.
During the 1930s the federal government implemented a new set of policies, the so-called "Indian New Deal." Tribes (meaning groups living on federal reservations) were "encouraged" to adopt constitutions and govermental forms in order to, ostensibly, have a body with which the federal government could establish relations. Since the government had the final say in how the tribes reorganized, who sat in the chairs of power, and how things would be run, many of these reorganized tribal governments were nothing more than puppet government which rubber-stamped agreements favorably to the U.S. and a host of non-Indian business consortiums.
Since the 1950s, federal policies toward the Native peoples have continued to vascilate. Following World War II, federal Indian policy focused on "Termination," or the end of all federal aid to tribes. Although a few tribes elsewhere were terminated (with disastrous results for the tribes), none were in Washington. A program that did affect Indians in Washington was known as "Relocation," the intention of which was to terminate the reservations through attrition. Indians (mostly young males) were encouraged to leave the reservations in pusuit of wage labor in urban centers. Unfortunately, the majority of relocatees were undereducated and unskilled, so the jobs found for them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs were insufficient to meet even minimal subsistence needs.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century, the federally recognized tribes of Washington are attempting to have the terms of the 1850 treaties honored by the federal and state governments (especially with regards to fishing rights); to utilize their reservation resources to bring economic stability to their people; and to take advantage of the special status Indian tribes enjoy, especially through gambling casinos and tax-free markets.
The native people were so blessed with natural food resources that they reached the limits of complexity attainable in a fishing-hunting-gathering economy. They built huge, durable houses; made large dugout canoes that could carry sixty people or more; excelled as craftsworkers and artists; staged elaborate musical dramas and ceremonies; engaged in intricate economic activities, including give-away feasts called potlatches; and developed a complicated system of social stratification.
NOTE: It is most frequently the case that when anthropologists and others speak of Northwest Coast "tribes" what they are really referring to are various linguistic groupings (e.g., Tlingit, Bella Coola, Haida, etc.) that do not correspond to any native political and/or social units. People saw themselves as members of villages or kin groups (lineages, clans, extended families), not as members of the anthropologist's named linguistic units, and their loyalties were to the local group, not the linguistic group. Anthropologists use these linguistic labels for convenience sake (for the anthropologists, not necessarily for the native people).
Salmon were taken using a variety of techniques, ranging from the simple (nets, spears) to the technologically sophisticated (seine nets, reef nets). Although salmon were eaten fresh, prodigious amounts were wind or smoke dried and stored for later use. That salmon was the most important staple food source can be seen from the per capita use patterns. For example, 300 pounds per year per person among some Nootka-speaking groups; 500 pounds among Tlingit-speaking groups; and up to 1,000 pounds among some Coast Salish-speaking groups.
Of course, there was a good deal more involved to subsistence than just salmon and cedar. Other fish and shellfish resources were also important, including rock fish, halibut, flounder, eulachon (candlefish), smelt, and stugeon, among others. And while some groups considered shellfish as "starvation food," clams were harvested in quantity, dried, and were an important trade item with native people east of the mountains. Also, most groups used sea mammals, especially seal, but also whales and porpoise. Land mammals also were hunted, but their use was greatly overshadowed by the people's heavy reliance on marine resources.
Houses in the north were often built over a rectangular excavation, conforming to the general shape of the house. All floors were carefully finished with plants and across the groiund level floor at the back of the house were the sleeping places of the families of eminent men. Often these were made as apartments, set off from each other by mats or even with small replicas of the greater plank houses. The large splendid houses of the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit were inhabited by any where from several to as many as ten or a dozen nuclear families (husband, wife, small children). In fact, a single house could be regarded as a village in itself, and sometimes it was. Although some villages had as many as 40 houses, most were small and it was rare to find a community with more than a dozen such communal houses. Ideally, a village consisted of several separate houses, carved poles, fish-drying racks, caches of food and raw materials, and sweathouses.
A highly complex and intricate set of social relations existed among the Northwest Coast societies, with social distinctions between individuals and between groups permeating every aspect of social life. Typically societies consisted of a four-level set of relationships (loose social "classes"):
Within each of these classes, people were ranked from low to high status. A person's social rank resulted from a combination of inheritance and wealth, plus an individual's achievements. Rank also was variable, rising through the manipulation of wealth, or by inheriting a higher position from another branch of the family, or by a chief rewarding one with a higher title. One's rank could also fall, through loss of wealth, loss of face, etc.
Although there were strong similarities of social organization among the Northwest Coast people, there were also some differences. Some groups, such as the Kwakiutl, were organized on the basis of houses, each of which was led by a chief who claimed descent from a mythical or quasi-historical personage. Chiefly lineages generally owned a large residential house for their clinet families, and the rights to use of display particular designs, songs, ceremonies, and prized heirlooms. They also owned local resource procurement areas. Senior men represented the lineages in village councils and at feasts, and they and the senior females planned and organized the group's economic activities so that each of the lineage's resources was efficiently harvested and stored and that each lineage house was comfortably supplied with foods, textiles, implements, etc.
Other groups, such as the Nootka of western Vancouver Island, had no lineages, clans, or great houses that controlled resources. Instead, the real units of society were extended families with the highest-ranking head of an important extended family acting as village chief. Extended families held land, including resource procurement sites, as well an intangible property rights to crests, titles, and ceremonies. Sometimes extended families joined into larger units in response to external pressures (war, etc.), but broke apart as soon as the external threat disappeared.
Potlaches were a kind of investment, for the givers were guaranteed a return potlatch in the future. The potlatch, then, was a type of social security regardless of its immediate purpose, because future return was assured. It was also a way of redistributing the community's welath, for everyone in the community came and everyone got food, blankets, and equipment, and had an enjoyable time they could not have afforded on their own. The giver's kin grup expressed its solidarity by helping with preparations and acting as co-hosts, and shared in the glory and esteem of giving a great potlatch.
Through potlatches the Northwest people confirmed their social positions, distributed wealth to the community, integrated their social groups (by making kin more dependent on each other), invested (often with interest) in their future, and perhaps channeled aggression into a harmless kind of rivalry, thus avoiding more physically and socially destructive conflict.
A guardian spirit gave a person some basic skill (gambling, basket-weaving, hunting, fishing, berry picking, etc.) or, in the case of the so-called "shaman spirit," some special knowledge (healing). Shamans among the Northwest Coast people, like shamans everywhere, had the ability to both heal and harm people. If a person had lost their soul, a shaman would travel to the world of the dead to retrieve it; if someone had placed a foreign object in a person's body, the shaman used both physical and non-physical means to extract it.
Although much of Northwest Coast religious belief centered on the highly individualistic guardian spirit complex, most Northwest Coast societies conducted communal rites on behalf of the group as a whole. The most important were those termed "first species ceremonies." The actual species honored by the ceremony varied from group to group, but generally the first caught fish of the species most important to the local groups was the object of these ceremonies.
It was believed that salmon lived in the ocean in houses much like human houses and once a year they put on their fish clothes and swam up streams and make themselves available to humans. If humans treated the salmon with respect the salmon would allow themselves to be caught and would continue to return year after year. Therefore, when the first salmon was caught it was ceremoniously brought into the village, rituals were performed over it, it was ritually cooked, then all members of the village ate a small piece. Afterwards, the bones were gathered up, put back into the water, the fish would resume its living form and return to its people to tell them how well (or ill) it had been treated.
Lecture: The Kwakiutl: Those of the Smoke of the World
Reading: This Land Was Theirs, Chapter 7: The Tlingit: Salmon Fishers of Alaska
Updated: 09 Mar 2000