The Indians of American Northwest Coast

The Northwest coast offers a mild climate with a wide array of food resources. Several distinctive cultures developed on the Northwest Coast from the Columbia River through coastal British Columbia to the top of the Alaskan panhandle. The cultures are very similar in some ways and remarkably diverse in others. People from all regions developed a rich ceremonial and spiritual life. They invested tremendous creative energy in artistic expressions, including songs, dances, legends and spectacular, philosophically powerful art work.

There are several different languages indigenous to the Northwest Coast, each with its own subdivisions or dialects. Since there were no large political units outside of the individual village, the cultures are conveniently grouped today according to language. The southern portion of the Coast, including the mainland and lower Vancouver Island, is the home of the Coast Salish. The Nuu-hah-nulth people live on the west coast of Vancouver Island were formerly called the Nootka, a name originally given them by Captain Cook.

Kwakiutl man

They are closely related to the Makah on the tip of the Olympic peninsula in Washington state, and the national boundary that separates them is a relatively recent development in the history of the Northwest Coast. The Southern Kwakiutl villages are in northeastern portions of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland. The language of the neighboring Bella Coola people is related to that of the Salish; they originally moved to central British Columbia from the south and adopted some cultural traits of central groups.

Bella Coola Indians

The Queen Charlotte Islands are the homeland of the Haida Indians, whose large seaworthy cedar canoes kept them from being isolated. A few centuries ago a group of the Haida moved northward and settled what is now the southern portion of Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. They are now known as Kaigani Haida but have maintained communication with they relatives on the Charlottes. Tlingit Indians live along the panhandle of southern Alaska; some also moved  into inland British Columbia.

Tlingit woman

Northwest Coast peoples enjoyed a relatively favourable natural environment compared to most other places in North America. While the entire region can get harsh winds and rain, only the portion in the north regularly gets freezing winters and heavy snowfalls. The yearly salmon runs offer a fairly reliable food resource; and there are variety of other fish, shellfish, sea mammals and plants, roots and berries to supplement the diet and compensate for poor salmon season.

Traditionally  people lived in numerous villages along the coastline and inland rivers. Often large extended families lived together in communal longhouses spread in a row along the beach. The villages were permanent settlements inhabited for generations or longer. People made excursions from them for hunting and fishing, trading, social activities and military raids. The village was the major political unit, and people identified first and foremost with the leadership in their village.

Alaskan Indian house

The villages were always located along waterways, either the coastline or rivers closely connected to the coast. From the sea came food, but also materials that were used in manufacturing clothes and tools – skins from sea mammals, as well as bones, bladders, and sinew. The great temperate rainforests were also vital to the cultures. Trees, especially cedar, provided the materials for large communal houses, sturdy canoes, and variety of utilitarian and ceremonial items. Women used the inner bark of the cedar and the roots of cedar and spruce to weave highly functional baskets, capes, mats, and cordage. Some of these baskets were woven so tightly that they could hold water.

Traditional painted canoe

The coastline of the region is rocky and irregular, and land transportation was much less practical than than travel by canoe. Again, it was the Indians’ technological skill that made it possible for them to take advantage of this opportunity. They built large canoes, spreading them to a functional width with steam. In this method, water is placed in the bottom of the dugout log and hot rocks are dropped into it to create the steam. The sides of the canoe must be well balanced in width to create a stable and seaworthy vessel, and the entire process takes considerable work and skill. The canoes were vital for hunting and fishing, and social exchange between villages. In some Haida oral traditions there are stories of voyages to Hawaii, although these have yet to be corroborated by any archeological record.

Haida village

On all parts of the Northwest Coast, family ties were extremely important. people identified closely with extended families and with lineages, and in many places rank and political leadership were hereditary. These ranged from the right to perform specific dances to the right to use resources in a certain geographic area. In most places on the coast there were various levels of social status, including people of high rank, people of lower rank, and slaves who were captured in battle or purchased through trade.

Northwest Coast Indians

Among the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian on the northern coast, the society was matrilineal, and children inherited through their mother. Thus, a leader might be succeeded by his sister’s son rather than by his own son, and boys were often trained by their maternal uncles. In the northern groups with matrilineal descent, social divisions based on kinship were especially important. for instance, the Tlingit divided themselves into two basic hereditary groups, known as moietes. One was known as the Raven, while the other was called the Wolf (or occasionally the Eagle). Everyone in society belonged to the Raven or Wolf moiety, and people could only marry someone from the opposite moiety. Each moiety was subdivided into smaller groups, which anthropologists often call clans or sibs. The Raven moiety had some 27 clans. Within each village, there would be a leader for every clan that lived there. Many clan had branches in more than one village, but leadership always remained local. Social organization among Haida and Tsimshian was similar, with some clans also among the northern Kwakiutl.

Chilkat dancers

In all parts of the coast, ties between different kinship groups were politically and economically essential. These ties were solidified through trade, and often – as in Europe – marriages helped promote political and economic relationships between different kinship groups or different villages. Ceremonial gatherings also served to develop and reinforce these ties. Today they are often all referred to by one term – potlatch – which is a word from the Chinook trade jargon meaning “to give”. There was tremendous diversity in the nature and purpose of the ceremonies. They were very complex institutions combining social, cultural, spiritual, political and economic elements. Because the diversity on the coast and the complexity of the celebrations themselves, it is difficult to discuss them without reducing them to a much too simplistic level.

Three leaders of Chilkat

In brief, potlatches were sponsored by a host who had saved food and material goods for the express purpose of the occasions. During the potlatch, the host displayed and emphasized certain rights or prerogatives. For instance, these privileges might include the right to take the name, political title or other relatives who had recently died. In some potlatches parents or other relatives would confer certain prerogatives on their children.  The prerogatives were expressed at the potlatch through dances, songs, oration and display of art. People also passed stories of potlatches they had attended, creating a communal memory of the event and of the affirmation of the host’s right to the privileges he displayed there. This system of witnessing, of communal memory and of oral tradition functioned very  efficiently as a way of keeping records, and made a written language unnecessary.

Illustration showing Tlingit man with traditional house and totem pole

The potlatches served an economic role, for they kept goods circulating in several ways. A leader saving for a potlatch would often loan goods, receiving goods of their value back with interest as the time of the celebration grew near. Ceremonies took place in the winter months, when families were living on food they had stored during the summer and autumn.

Traditionally woven baskets

Whatever the season, Northwest Coast peoples surrounded themselves with artistic expression. There was no firm demarcation between “art” and “daily life”, as tends to exist in Western cultures today.  Northwest Coast arts were functional arts, adapted to perform a task or convey a message. The purpose of the art went far beyond aesthetics, and it was intended for much more than contemplation. Northwest Coast people decorated tools and utensils they used in daily life, and they created spectacular and dramatic masterpieces to display crests or for use in dances.

Traditional totem poles today

Men carved wood, bone and antler and sometimes also worked in stone. Women wove with plant and animal fibers, decorating their vessels, mats and blankets with careful designs. Carvers of totem poles, masks and similar art works apprenticed with master carvers to learn the skills. They earned high reputations for their proficiency, and leaders commissioned art from these masters. In the Tlingit region, usually art was commissioned from an artist who belonged to the opposite moiety from the patron.

Native Indian masks

The earliest record of contact between Northwest  Coast Indians and Europeans occurred in 1741, when the Russian explorers Vitus Bering and Alexii Chirikov harboured his ship briefly in the area in southeast Alaska near present-day Sitka. The next recorded contact was in 1774, when the Spanish explorer Juan Perez reached Queen Charlotte Islands and traded with Haida Indians there. Perez was followed by another Spanish expedition the following year, and by the English captain James Cook in 1778. In the initial years of exchange with Europeans, iron – especially iron with a blade – was particularly in demand. In return, Indians traded food and furs, especially the thick furs of the sea otter. The maritime fur trade introduced a great influx of material wealth into Northwest Coast societies in a short period of time. This new wealth helped support ceremonialism and cultural expression.

Beautifully carved traditional knife

This  situation began to change as European and Euro-American settlers moved to the Northwest Coast. These settlers expected to be permanent residents, and they wanted land resources that belonged to Indians. Except for the  Sitka region, where Russians had the settlement of New Archangel, indians in southeast Alaska did not feel  great pressure from non-natives until after Alaska was transferred to the United States in 1867. After some time, the white settlers and their government appropriated lands that belonged to Indians and restricted their access to these lands. Gunboats patrolled the coastline, ready to shell native villages if there were signs of insurrection.

Sir James Douglas

The first Governor, James Douglas, had recognized native title to land, but his successors denied Indians ever had title. Entering the 1990s Indian land settlement issues in British Columbia remain unresolved. In southeast Alaska the situation was much the same. Land issues there were dealt with through a settlement in 1959  – following decades of pressure – and the state-wide Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.

Alaskan native Indian woman, 1903

Along with the settlers, Christian missionaries came to the Northwest Coast. Russian Orthodox missionaries had been active among the Tlingit in New Archangel in southeast Alaska since the mid-19th century, and in the last quarter of the century also saw the arrival of Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Friends missionaries. In addition to church services, missionaries ran schools for children and adults. Some, such as William Duncan, established “model villages” separated from the existing villages, where Indians lived in European-style houses and agreed to abandon traditional forms of cultural expression such as the  potlatch.

William Duncan

The potlatch was a particular target of missionaries and government officials both in British Columbia and in Southeast Alaska. They viewed it as a threat for a variety of reasons. Since they measured wealth only in material possessions, it seemed wasteful to give away summer earnings during winter ceremonies. Indian agents in British Columbia, who wanted Indians to become agriculturalists, would have greatly preferred to see the money spent buying farm equipment and seeds. Missionaries charged that children were taken out of schools during potlatches, while employers complained the ceremonies made workers unreliable.

Potlatch ceremony

However, probably the most fundamental reason for opposition to the potlatch was the recognition that those ceremonies kept native culture alive. Soon missionaries and government officials launched an active campaign against native ceremonialism. Many Indians – and some white authorities – protested the legislation in British Columbia immediately, but to no avail. In southeast Alaska white people put strong pressure on Indians to stop potlatches, and many agreed to do so voluntarily. Some felt that with white attitudes as they were they could not afford the prejudice that came from native cultural expression.

Totem poles carved in wood

By the first decades of the 20th century, the open expression of native ceremonialism had been effectively suppressed by white authorities. In British Columbia Indians could and were prosecuted for continuing their ceremonialism.There were fewer contexts in which traditional art was used, and fewer ceremonial art works were made. Some artists made works to sell to tourists and other non-native peoples.

Sitka Native Indian performance

Despite the extreme cultural oppression and social disruption, though, native peoples retained their sense of ethnic identity and their cultural values. Artist are active again making making traditional forms of art, both to sell to collectors as fine art and to use in their own ceremonies. Indians are also very well organised politically and are still seeking redress of injustice of the past. They are also playing a strong role in environmentalism, for the preservation of their culture is integrally tied to the preservation of the forests in their traditional homelands of the Northwest Coast.