Native Americans – The Northwest Coast

With the Native Americans of the northwest coast extend from Alaska to California. The mild climate and abundant food supplies made it possible for them to develop a unique culture characterized by advanced woodworking and artwork.

The peoples of the northwest coast lived in villages. Society was split into three major classes: the elite, the commoners, and the slaves. The elite class used their wealth to maintain their status. They held potlatches, rituals where they would shower other villagers with gifts.

The Northwest Coast Indians believed that humans were linked not only to the physical world but to animals, spirits, and even the dead. The world was a dangerous place – animals, monsters, vengeful spirits, and more threatened. Rituals were used to neutralize the threat, while shamans and guardian spirits would help protect the tribe.

Through fasting and loneliness, natives would meet their guardian spirits. From that point on, they could communicate with their guardian spirit through dreams, visions, and trances.

Often, totem poles were carved and directed. They were created to honor ancestors and were often placed at the entrance to the family home. This pole could also be used as the corner post of the home. In both cases, the poll represents the close relationship between the living and the dead.

In examining these poles, it becomes apparent that the symbols show amazing transformations. The natives of the Northwest Coast believed that as creatures could transform from one shape to another, so could humans. Intricate wooden masks are used during ceremonies to represent transformations.

Shamans could be male or female. In either case, they were expected to follow a strict code of behavior. Shamans would call upon their guardian spirit before healing the sick and wounded, in case the illness was caused by supernatural forces.

Today come with the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast are famous for their art. What is a common material used for everything from large plank houses to canoes, boxes, and totem poles. They created a variety of items, often carved and painted with symbols to represent their culture, beliefs, and tribal pride.

Tribes were often part of a larger group like a clan. They would decorate their goods with symbols meant to represent the entire group, not the smaller tribe. In European culture, this could be compared to a coat of arms or the flag of the country.

Today, the tribes of the Northwest Coast include the Haida, the Coast Salish, and the Tlin’git.

The Kwakwaka’wakw continue the practice of potlatch. Illustrated here is Wawadit’la in Thunderbird Park, Victoria, BC, (aka Mungo Martin House) a Kwakwaka’wakw “big house” built by Chief Mungo Martin in 1953. Very wealthy and prominent, hosts would have a longhouse specifically for potlatching and for housing guests. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Chief Anotklosh of the Tlin’git tribe, ca. 1913. Courtesy Wikipedia.