NORTH WEST COAST INDIANS
(by Mr. Leech)

 

Background:

The north west coast of America has a lot of rainfall and mild weather.  The Indians of this area lived very close to nature and believed strongly in spirits.  They lived on a very narrow band of land between the sea and the mountains.  There were huge forests lining the hills and this provided lots of good wood which the Indians used for many things.  In the summer months they would live near their fishing grounds fishing for salmon and other types of fish.  For the rest of the year they lived in large, wooden houses in small communities.

 

Tribes:

White people described Indians as living in tribes.  Each tribe spoke a different language.  The main North West coast tribes were: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Nootka, Kwakiutl and Salish.

 

Totem Poles:

The Indians did not see themselves as belonging to a ‘tribe’.  For them the most important things were their family, their status (how important they were), their lineage (all their ancestors), their clan (all their relatives) and their moiety (their social group – Raven, Wolf, Eagle or Killer Whale).   An Indian’s moiety was very important because there were strict rules to obey.  For example, a Raven could not marry another Raven.  People of the same moiety were expected to offer each other help and hospitality.North West coast Indians carved huge totem poles from the trunks of cedar trees to display their family status and history (a bit like coats of arms in medieval Europe).  By looking at a totem pole you can see the family’s moiety, important events in the family’s history (e.g. any marriages or potlatches), any spirits who have helped the family and any myths (stories) about those spirits that are important to the family – North West Coast Indians loved telling stories.

 

Status:

North West Coast Indians were not all equal.  Some were nobles, some were commoners and some were slaves.  Nobles were the most important and they liked others to know it.  They would hold potlatches – big parties at which they would give away presents to show how important they were. Slaves were Indians who might have been captured in battle or even kidnapped from other tribes.  They did all the hard work and boring jobs like cleaning or paddling the canoes.  Commoners could become rich by trading with the Whites and they, too, might hold potlatches but they couldn’t become nobles. Each village had a chief.  His job was hereditary – that means he got the job from his father or mother.  But a chief did have to prove himself otherwise his people might give their loyalty to someone else.

 

Family life:

A man had to buy his wife from her family. If she was a noble’s daughter then he might receive valuable things like fishing grounds from her parents.  Once married they each had different jobs to do.  The man did the fishing and the hunting.  He also did things like carpentry or making any tools that were needed.  Women collected firewood, gathered fruit and vegetables, prepared the food for the family to eat and made clothes for everybody.  During childhood, children learned the things they would need to know when they got older.  Life was not easy!  Indian children, like their parents, needed to be tough.

 

Religion:

The Indians’ survival depended on there being plentiful food so hunting and fishing were very important.  The Indians believed the animals lived to provide food for them. But each animal had a spirit and the Indians had to keep in with these spirits.  So they would often make sacrifices and perform religious acts to thank the spirits.  When they caught their first salmon they celebrated with speeches thanking the salmon! All the bones of the fish they ate were returned to the sea because they believed that if they fed them to their dogs then the spirits would be offended and the fish wouldn’t return next year.  Indians only killed animals for food – never for pleasure like some white men. Indians believed that there were spirits everywhere – in the sea, in the trees, in the sky – and all had to be praised to keep them happy.

 

Shamans:  

The Indians also placed great importance on the shaman. These were what we sometimes call witch doctors but were men or women who they believed had special powers.   They could make contact with the spirits and help heal the sick.  Some of their methods seem far-fetched like singing and dancing to drive away evil spirits but they were also good at making potions – medicines from plants etc – which did sometimes work.

 

Food:

The north west coast of America was very mountainous, wet and full of forests.  As a result the Indians of this area did not farm the land.  They could live without farming because there were lots of other food supplies mainly fish.  Salmon, whales, seals and other fish existed in great numbers.  These could be used with the berries and roots which the women would gather.  In order to catch their fish the Indians had many methods.  Spearing, clubbing, netting and lines and hooks were all used.  They would often narrow the rivers with logs to make pools where it was easier to catch the fish.  To make the food last the Indians dried and smoked the fish.  They fished from canoes which were tree trunks they had hollowed out with tools they had made.

 

Potlatches:

What others thought of you mattered to the Indians of the north west coast.  It was important that others thought well of you.  To make sure people continued thinking well of you the Indians would hold a potlatch.  This was like a big party when people would celebrate.  A potlatch might be held to celebrate a marriage, a boy reaching puberty, a great battle, a new totem pole, a new house etc. But it was important for the host (the person holding the potlatch) to give presents to his guests.  This would show how important he was.

 

Trade:

At a potlatch, the host would give away things like blankets, baskets, furs and chests.  It was necessary for him to get hold of these in the first place so trade (the buying and selling of goods) became important. When the White man arrived he wanted furs and fish and often paid the Indians to get them for him and so trade became even more important and potlatches became even bigger.  They sometimes lasted for days.  Firstly, people would eat a huge feast.  After the feast the chief would tell stories of the great things done by his ancestors and by himself. All his family and friends witnessed this. Then, finally, he gave out the gifts starting by giving them to the most important guests.