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The California-Oregon Tribes

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

A GLANCE at the linguistic map of aboriginal North America will reveal the fact that more than half of the radical languages of the continent north of Mexico nearly sixty in all are spoken in the narrow strip of territory extending from the Sierras, Cascades, and western Rockies to the sea, and longitudinally from the arid regions of southern California to the Alaskan angle. In this region, nowhere extending inland more than five degrees of longitude, are, or were, spoken some thirty languages bearing no relation to one another, and the great majority of them having no kindred tongue. The exceptional cases, where representatives of the great continental stocks have penetrated to the coast, comprise the Yuman and Shoshonean tribes occupying southern California, where the plateau region declines openly to the sea; small groups of Athapascans on the coasts of California and Oregon; and the numerous Salishan units on the Oregon-Washington coast and about Puget Sound.

It is this latter intrusion, the Salishan, which divides the Coast Region into two parts, physiographically and ethnically distinct. From Alaska to Mexico the Pacific Coast is walled off from the continental interior by high and difficult mountain ranges. There are, in the whole extent, only two regions in which the natural access is easy. In the south, where the Sierra Nevada range subsides into the Mohave Desert, the great Southern Trail enters California; and here we find the aborigines of the desert interior pressing to the sea. The Northern, or Oregon, Trail follows the general course of the Missouri to its headwaters, crosses the divide, and proceeds down the Columbia to its mouth; and this marks the general line of Salishan occupancy, which extends northward to the more difficult access opened by the Fraser River. The Salishan tribes form a division, at once separating and transition-ally uniting a northern and a southern coastal culture of markedly distinct type. Indeed, the Salish form a kind of key to the continent, touching the Plains civilization to the east and that of the Plateau to the south, as well as the two coastal types; so that there is perhaps no group of Indians more difficult to classify with respect to cultural relationships.

The linguistic diversity of the southern of the two Coast groups bounded by the Salish is far greater than that of the northern. In California alone over twenty distinct linguistic stocks have been noted, and Oregon adds several to this score. Such a medley of tongues is found nowhere else in the world save in the Caucasus or the Himalaya mountains regions where sharply divided valleys and mountain fastnesses have afforded secure retreat for the weaker tribes of men, at the same time holding them in sedentary isolation. Similar conditions prevail in California, the chequer of mountain and valley fostering diversity. Furthermore, the nature of the littoral contributed to a like end. The North-Western coast, from Puget Sound to Alaska, is fringed by an uninterrupted archipelago; the tribes of this region are the most expert in maritime arts of all American aborigines; and the linguistic stocks, owing to this ready communication, are relatively few. From the mouth of the Columbia to the Santa Barbara Is-lands, on the contrary, the coast is broken by only one spacious harbour the bay of San Francisco and little encouragement is offered to seafarers. Among the tribes of this coast the art of navigation was little known: the Chinook, on the Columbia, and the Chumashan Indians, who occupied the Santa Barbara Islands, built excellent canoes, and used them with skill; but among the intervening peoples rafts and balsas, crudest of water transports, took the place of boats, and even sea-food was little sought, seeds and fruits, and especially acorn meal, being the chief subsistence of the Californian tribes.

In the general character of their culture the tribes of this region form a unity as marked as is their diversity of speech. Socially their organization was primitive, without centralized tribal authority or true gentile division. They lived in village communities, whose chiefs maintained their ascendancy by the virtue of liberal giving; and a distinctive feature of many of the Californian villages was the large communal houses occupied by many families. Grass, tule, brush, and bark were the common housing materials, for skill in woodworking was only slightly advanced; northward, however, plank houses were built, such as occur the length of the North-West Coast. Of the aboriginal arts only basket-making, in which the Californian Indians, and especially the Athapascan Pomo, excel all other tribes, was the only one highly developed; pottery-making was almost unknown. In other respects these peoples are distinctive: they were unwarlike to the point of timidity; they did not torture prisoners; and in common with the Yuman and Piman stocks, but in contrast to most other peoples of North America, they very generally preferred cremation to burial. Intellectually they are lethargic, and their myths contain no element of conscious history; they regard themselves as autochthones, and such they doubtless are, in the sense that their ancestors have continuously occupied California for many centuries. Physical and mental traits point to a racial unity which is in part borne out by their language itself; for although their speech is now divided into many stocks between which no relationship can be traced a clear indication of long and conservative segregation, yet there is a similarity in phonetic material, the Californian tongues being notable, among Indian languages, for vocalic wealth and harmony.

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