The northwest coast

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Sharp ridges bristling with firs shoulder into the pounding sea. Rain laps the twisting rivers drowned at their mouths. Footholds for human habitation are narrow shingles backed by dark-green forests. The Northwest Coast of America is a country of blues and greens and dark grey-browns, imposingly beautiful, rich to those who know its resources. It is a maritime region, its densest populations clinging to its shores. Its world is the North Pacific Ocean, looking to Asia, not to the south.

Peoples of the Northwest boast one of the great art styles of the world, expressed in carvings whose power transcends symbols to speak to every viewer of the potent might of the living spirit. Disciplined exuberance is the heart of Northwest Coast art and ceremony, challenge and conquest, and it is also central to a certain chivalry that respects what it seeks to overpower. In totem poles and potlatches, the Northwest Coast societies paralleled the monu­ments and court displays of Europe, and similarly reflected stratified social classes nurturing talented specialists on the surpluses produced by organized workers. To many Europeans, the Northwest Coast appeared an anomaly, a far corner of the world where one expected simple savages but met rude civilizations. Freed from that European perspec­tive, we can see the Northwest Coast to be situated near the center of its hemisphere, drawing to it ideas and technologies from Asia and America and reworking them under its own clearly articulated values.

The Northwest Coast is conventionally divided into three subareas, Northern, Central, and South­ern. The Northern area runs along the Pacific coast from southeastern Alaska through northern British Columbia and the Queen Charlotte Islands. It is inhabited by the Na-Dene (Macro-Athabascan)­speaking Tlingit of southeastern Alaska, the iso­late-language Haida of the Queen Charlottes and adjacent mainland, and the Penutian-speaking Tsimshian of northern British Columbia, including the Nass and Skeena Rivers. The Central area includes the central British Columbia coast, most of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery, the north­western tip of Washington. The peoples of the Central area speak languages of two linguistic families, Wakashan and Salish. From north to south in the Central area, these peoples are the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) of the coast and ad­jacent northern Vancouver Island; the Haisla and Kitamat and the Bella Bella, speakers of Heiltsuk, and the Nuxalk (Bella Coola), all on the mainland coast of British Columbia; the Nuu-chah-nutth-aht (Nootka) and related Nitinat on western Vancou­ver Island, and the Makah on the tip of Washing­ton. All speak Wakashan languages except the Nuxalk, whose language is a Salishan one. The Southern area is inhabited by speakers of Coast Salish languages, from Comox, Pentlatch, and Sliammon (Seshelt or Sishiatl) through Squamish, Halkomelem and Nooksack in southwestern main­land British Columbia; then, around the Straits of Juan de Fuca on the United States-Canadian bor­der, the Lummi, Saanich, Songhees, Clallam, and smaller groups; around southern Puget Sound, the Snoqualmi, Nisqually, Skagit, Snohomish, Puyal­lup, and other small groups, the principal language being Lushootseed; in western Washington, the Salish Quinault, Chehalis, and Cowlitz, and the Quileute and now-extinct Chemakum, which be­long to a separate language family, Chimakuan; and, continuing south, the Salish-speaking Twana (Skokomish and related groups) and the Ti Ilamook and Siletz, in Oregon. The Tillamook and Siletz fit culturally into a lower Columbia River subarea south of the more usually recognized southern Northwest Coast; the Chehalis may be included here as well, and a series of speakers of Penutian-phylum languages, the Lower Chinook, Alsea, Yayuina (not Yakima!), Siuslaw, and Coos, plus the Athabascan-language Umpqua and Tututni. The Penutian Kalapuya of the interior Willamette Valley of Oregon are peripheral to the lower Columbia subarea. The last and south­ernmost subarea of Northwest Coast culture is in northwestern California, and includes the Yurok and Wiyot, whose languages are grouped as "Ritwan," and are isolates in the Macro-Algonkian phylum; the Karok, who speak a Hokan-phylum isolate; and the Hupa and Tolowa, whose languages are Athabascan. Although the Klamath River is the center of the northwestern California subarea just described, the people known as the Klamath and the related Modoc live on the upper portion of the river and thereby on the border of the Plateau. Their language is a Penutian isolate.

Topographically, the Northwest Coast is domi­nated by mountains, the Coast Range in British Co­lumbia and the Cascades in the states of Washington and Oregon. These mountains cut off the maritime peoples of the coast from inland hunters and fisher­men, except where passes funneled movement through the ranges. The easiest and most popular pass was the valley of the Columbia River, discussed in the section on the Plateau in the previous chapter. The Fraser River, which disgorges in southwestern Brit­ish Columbia, offered a pass at the head of its broad and lovely delta, but the pass itself was through a formidable canyon; the Fraser's upper valley is deep and narrow, less inviting for travel than the Columbia. North of the Fraser delta, passes climb through moun­tains and by their difficulty make trade with the interior expensive. Thus, the peoples of the North­west Coast were oriented to the sea and the coves where villages were situated. Abundance of food in the sea-fish, shellfish, and sea mammals-con­trasted with the low density of game in the heavily forested mountains and interior, further influenced the Northwest Coast peoples to view the country behind their villages as a hinterland suited only to the adventurous or exiled. Along the coast, the dissected, rocky terrain tended to isolate communities, resulting in a great number of autonomous societies sharing a cultural pattern and technologies but unaccustomed to recognizing ties.


Investigation of the prehistory of the Northwest Coast is made difficult in many sections of this area by changes in sea level during the early Holocene period as well as in the preceding Pleistocene epoch. The first evidence of humans in the culture area dates to the beginning of the Holocene era, around 8000 B.C. In British Columbia, these earliest people appear to have migrated from the north, although whether along the Pacific coast or down from the Yukon-interior Alaska region cannot yet be determined. Sites on islands indicate the early inhabitants were accustomed to using boats, but they were not exclusively maritime, for they hunted land game as well as fish and sea mammals. In the United States section of the coast, the early inhabitants were Western Archaic, similar to inland peoples except in their greater exploitation of fish, as seen in sites on the lower Columbia and the coast.

Archaeological research has encountered great difficulty investigating some districts of the north­ern British Columbia coast, such as the homeland of the Tsimshian, where sites earlier than 3000 B.C. may be drowned or hidden by the rain forest. The southern British Columbia coast, which until 3000 B.C. enjoyed a lower sea level and therefore more habitable land, was occupied by hunters of land mammals, sea mammals, and fish. These hunters apparently lived in small settlements. Beginning about 3000 B.C., settlements were built in the for­merly wild districts, and many have been more or less continuously occupied through today. The hunting of land mammals, including caribou, which later became extinct along the coast, was important in the third millennium B.C., since the slow stabilization of the sea level had not yet fully established the great annual spawning runs of salmon and eulachon. Land hunting no doubt aided in the maintenance of contacts between the coast and the interior; archaeologists have noticed that in this period, chipped-stone artifacts were often manufactured inland from stone quarried in the river valleys, and carried downstream to be used on the coast, where local stone was ignored or poorly utilized. Once the sea level stabilized after 3000 B.C., permanent winter villages that relied on stores of dried salmon but were close to shellfish beds developed along the coast.

About 1500 B.C. in the United States section of the coast, pit houses similar to those on the Plateau were built and a cultural pattern foreshadowing the historic Northwest Coast can be glimpsed. One pit house of this period in western Washington had on its floor 125 polished stone beads, of chert, jasper, and serpentine, demonstrating the owner's ability to collect beautiful stone from several distant sources and subsidize its laborious manufacture into ornaments. Perhaps it reflects the person's participation in a widespread trade network. What kind of houses were built in the northern sector of the Northwest Coast cannot be told from the poor evidence in excavated sites, but the rarity of adzes and woodworking wedges makes it unlikely that the historic plank houses were constructed; pit houses may have been used in the north, too.

The first millennium B.C. displays the dowering of the distinctive Northwest Coast pattern. Some of the many prehistoric intertidal fish weirs along the coast, designed to trap fish as the tide goes out, have been radiocarbon dated to the first millen­nium t3.c. Along the Oregon coast, sites with offshore bird and halibut bones indicate use of boats on the ocean, in addition to taking land and shore resources including quantities of clams. The Fraser Delta region, around Vancouver, seems to have been a center of development. Carving in stone and probably wood (the latter not preserved there) includes both plain bowls and elaborate ones representing humans or animals holding the con­tainer. Small adzes of nephrite, a variety of jade, and ornaments prove the artisans' skill in handling difficult materials. Bark shredders continue in use from the preceding period, suggesting weaving­—very likely of the bark rain cloaks so common historically. The existence of heavy woodworking tools by the early first millennium A.D. implies 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 definitely that of the historic Northwest Coast: taking salmon, hali­but, eulachon, herring, and other fish with nets, lines, spears, traps, and weirs, hunting sea mam­mal , mountain sheep and goat, deer, and bear, and collecting shellfish and berries and roots. Marine resources, which here would include salmon beginning their runs, dominated. Population was already so high that serious competition for re­sources involved warfare, attested by a number of burials of young men killed by heavy blows to the upper body, probably by warclubs, and finds of such clubs, trophy heads, and slat armor of the type made popular in Shang Dynasty China in the sec­ond millennium B.C. and thence spread along the North Pacific Rim.

After about A.D. 500, the richness of the historic Northwest Coast culture is evident. A variety of specialized, efficient tools facilitated exploitation of the natural resources and production of houses, canoes, boxes of steam-bent cedar, baskets, and ornaments. Many of the tools themselves were so lovingly made, so polished, that they were clearly a joy to own, Obsidian, jade, and copper were used, as were amber beads and pendants, dentalium and many other shells, and whalebone. Clubs of whale­bone and stone probably were used in warfare, which may have been an alternative to trade in obtaining the rare or distant materials sought. De­fensive forts (sites on top of narrow steep ridges, easily defended) seem to date after about A.D. 1000, suggesting wars became more frequent in the late prehistoric period. Differences from region to re­gion and strong continuities within regions lead to the postulation that the historic peoples of the Northwest Coast were for the most part resident in their eighteenth-century territories for at least the previous two thousand years. Similarities between regions and between the coast and the Plateau seem more likely to be due to trade than to migration on any scale larger than occasional individual adven­turers or families fleeing landslides or attacks.

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