Peoples of the Northwest Coast live along the coastal region of the mainland Northwestern United States, the shores of Southwestern & Western Canada, and the Southeastern Alaska Archipelago. Their region provides incredible amounts of rain, enormous rain forests of which a few still remain, and richly abundant food resources. The oldest, most diverse, and complex cultures and languages of the Western Hemisphere in pre-Columbian times were located here, rather than in Mexico or Central America as many mistakenly assume. The population densities of some villages were also the greatest of any found on this side of the world.
Part of the understanding, that these Peoples have been there for so long, comes from the level of linguistic differences among groups living side by side. A fairly remarkable amount of time must pass for these great of differences to occur. Additionally, if a People remain intact over a longer period of time, the cultural aspects of the society usually broaden and deepen, particularly if there is a solid population base whose basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter—are readily met.
The ‘Northwest’ had a near perfect environment for supporting phenomenal quantities of shellfish, saltwater & freshwater fish, marine mammal and coastal land mammals. The forest woods of Cedar, Spruce, and, Alder were also ideal for the construction of homes, watercraft, utensils, and ceremonial items. As long as the people could tolerate near constant cool and wet weather, they thrived.
Proximity to other successful Peoples comes with a cost. Each group learned the art of warfare and, by and large, battles remained on a smaller scale out of respect towards others’ ability to defend their lands.vvExpansion became more internal than external. Clans and moieties became intricate. Political factions arose and dealing with the influencing of or by others became a time consuming part of life. What also evolved in this atmosphere were elaborate, multi day ceremonies, that invoked the spiritual beliefs and affirmed the social norms of the People.
Contact with the outside world, first the Russians and later the Europeans, began in the mid 1700’s. By the late 1800’s, the people understood that their ways were going to change drastically and others would have a say in determining what their world would entail. While the intense warfare between the Northwest Coast Peoples and the governments of Canada and United States did not occur, as it had with many other People of North America, the attempts at suppressing their cultures and assimilating the individuals to the Western ways were as forceful and brutal as had occurred anywhere. Dogged persistence in the face of hopelessness and trauma for decade after decade, finally paid off. The people eventually regained their natural rights to have and practice their culture, although much of their lands were gone.
The mandatory residential school systems implemented throughout the United States and Canada inflicted immense multigenerational harm on the First Peoples. Continued documentation and reporting of cultural genocide has recently lead to the establishment of National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.
Today, the richness and resiliance of the People is on full display in their artwork, from the world famous totem poles to ceremonial masks to jewelry and representative prints. The Northwest Coast Peoples, once again, are carrying forward their ancient traditions.