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Haida houses


An Introduction to
North America's Native People

Northwest Coast Culture Area

Introduction | Historical Overview | Defining Features
Lecture Topics and Reading Assignment | Resources



Introductionmap of northwest culture area

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.




Historical Overview

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.


Defining Features

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.


Lecture Topic and Assigned Readings


Resources on the Northwest Coast Culture Area


Northeast Woodlands | Southeast Woodlands | Plains | Southwest
California | Plateau | Great Basin | Northwest Coast
Subarctic | Arctic

Last Updated on: 7 December 1999