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Peoples Of The Northwest Coast

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



FROM Puget Sound northward to the neighbourhood of Mt. St. Elias and the Copper River the coast is cut by innumerable fiords and bays, abutted by glaciated mountains, and bordered by an almost continuous archipelago. The rainy season is long and the precipitation heavy on this coast, which, on the lower levels, is densely forested, conifers forming the greater part of the upper growth, while the shrubbery of bushes furnishes a wealth of berries. The red cedar (Thuja plicata) is of especial importance to the natives of the coast, its wood serving for building and for the carvings for which these people are remarkable, while its bark is used for clothing, ropes, and the like. Deer, elk, bear, the wolf, the mountain goat, the beaver, the mink, and the otter inhabit the forest, the hills, and the streams, and are hunted by the Indians; though it is chiefly from the sea that the tribes of this region draw their food. Besides molluscs, which the women gather, the waters abound in edible fish: salmon and halibut, for which the coast is famous, herring, candlefish, from which the natives draw the oil which is an important article of their diet, and marine mammals, such as the seal, sea-lion, and whale. The region is adapted to support a considerable population, even under aboriginal conditions of life, while at the same time its easy internal communication by water, and its relative inaccessibility on the continental side, encourage a unique and special culture.

Such, indeed, we find. While no less than six linguistic divisions are found on the North-West Coast, accompanied by a corresponding diversity of physical types, the general culture of the region is one, and of a cast unlike anything else on the continent. Its foundation is maritime, the Indians of this region building large and shapely canoes, and some tribes, such as the Nootka and Quileute, even attacking the whale in the open sea. Villages are built facing the beach, and the timber houses, occupied by several families, represent the highest architectural skill of any Indian structures north of the pueblos. The wood-working craft is nowhere in America more developed, not only in the matter of weapons and utensils, but especially in carvings, of which the most famous examples are the totem-poles 61 of the northern tribes. Work in shell, horn, and stone is second in quality only to that in wood, while copper has been extensively used, even from aboriginal times. Basketry and the weaving of mats and bark-cloth are also native crafts. In art the natives of the North-West attained a unique excellence, their carvings and drawings showing a type of decorative conventionalizing of human and animal figures unsurpassed in America, as is also the skill with which these elements are combined. The impulse of this art is almost wholly mythical, and it finds its chief expression in heraldic poles, grave-posts, and house-walls, in ceremonial masks and rattles, and in the representation of ancestral animals on clothing and utensils.

The social structure of the peoples of the North-West reflects their advancement in the crafts. The majority of the tribes are organized into septs and clans determining descent and marriage relations. In the northern area descent is counted matrilinearly, in the southern by the patrilinear rule. The Kwakiutl have an institution which seems to mark a transition between the two systems : descent follows the paternal line, but each individual inherits the crest of his maternal grandfather. In some village-groups parents are at liberty to place their children in either the maternal or the paternal clan. Clan exogamy is the rule. Within the tribe the various clans are not of equal status; consequently, there is a similar gradation in the rank of the nobles who are the clan heads or chiefs. These nobles are the real rulers of the North-West peoples, whose government is thus of an oligarchic type. Clan membership carries with it the right to use the ancestral crest, certain totems involving the privileges of rank, while others mark plebeian caste. Slavery is another institution prominent in the North-West, slaves being either prisoners of war or hopeless debtors.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of these tribes is the Potlatch. Primarily this word designates a festival at which a chieftain or a man of means distributes a large amount of property, often the accumulation of years. These riches are not, however, a free presentation, since the recipients are bound to return, with interest, the gifts received, so that a wealthy man thus ensures to himself competence and revenue, as well as importance in the tribal councils. Rivalry of the intensest sort is generated between the great men of the several clans, each striving to outdo the others in the munificence of his feasts, which thus become a matter of family distinction, entitled to record on the family crest. The recognized medium of exchange is the blanket, but a curious and interesting device is the "Copper" the bank-note of the North-West a hammered and decorated sheet of copper of a special form, having the value of many hundred or of several thousand blankets, according to the amount offered for it at a festal sale. These Coppers are, in fact, insignia of wealth; and since the destruction of property is regarded as the highest evidence of social importance, they are sometimes broken, or even entirely destroyed, as a sign of contempt for the riches of a less able rival.

Of the stocks of the North-West the most northerly is the Koluschan, comprising the Tlingit Indians, whose region ex-tends from the Copper River, where they border upon the Eskimoan Aleut, south to Portland Canal. The Skittagetan stock, of the Queen Charlotte Islands and the southern part of Prince of Wales Island, is formed of the Haida tribes; while on the opposite mainland, following the Nass and Skeena rivers far inland, is the district of the Tsimshian and other Chimmesyan peoples. South of these begin the territories of the Wakashan stock, which extend on the mainland to Johnston Strait and, beyond, over the whole western part of the is-land of Vancouver. Powell divided this stock into the Aht and Haeltzuk (Bellabella) tribes, but later authorities prefer Kwakiutl and Nootka, the latter holding the seaward side of Vancouver. The fifth group comprises the Coast Salish: a northern division, about Dean Inlet and the Salmon and Bella Coola rivers, adjoining the Wakashan territories; a central di-vision extending from the head of the Strait of Georgia south-ward to Chinook lands about the Columbia; and a southern group holding the Oregon coast south of the Chinook peoples. A single tribe, the Quileute, about Cape Flattery in Washington, represents the almost extinct Chimakuan stock. In general, the culture of the Tlingit and Haida tribes show an identity of form which distinguishes them as a group from the like community manifested by the Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and North-Coast Salish.



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