Learn About the Northwest Coast Native Americans

At one time, more than seventy Native American tribes lived and worked along the 2000 mile Pacific Northwest coast running from Northern California to Alaska. Northwest Coast Native Americans are known today for their intricate wood carvings, including totem poles and ceremonial masks, as well as baskets and weavings.

Pacific Northwest Native Americans and Potlatches
Pacific Northwest Native American potlatches are an important part of these tribes' culture. Potlatches are ceremonies to commemorate important events such as weddings, births and funerals. In the past, potlatches were also used to demonstrate wealth and status.

During a potlatch, there were feasts, ceremonies and dance performances. Gifts were given to show the wealth of the hosts. Sometimes, families would compete with each other to give the best potlatch.

Christian missionaries were not fond of potlatches, considering them to be pagan and evil. Missionaries succeeded in getting potlatches banned in the early 19th century in Canada and the late 19th century in the United States. Fortunately, they were never completely able to stamp out the practice. It became legal to have potlatches again in the United States in 1931 and in Canada in 1951.

Pacific Northwest Native Americans
Known for their large dugout red cedar canoes, the Haidas consisted of two clans, the eagles and the ravens. People could not marry someone from their own clan. The Haida called themselves "Xa'ida" or "people." Haidan winter homes were constructed from cedar planks with bark roofs.  The most important home, that of the village chief, was located in the center of town. Like other Native Americans, the Haidan population was decimated by disease after contact with Europeans.

Some experts think that the Tlingit started living in southeast Alaska about 11,000 years ago, making them much older residents of the area than the Haida. At one time, the Tlingit people were quite powerful, controlling trade routes to the interior of North America. Like the Haida, Tlingit people depended on the ocean for food. Tlingits were also born into raven or eagle clans.

The Makah hunted seals and whales as sources of food and are still allowed by law to hunt whales today. They had five permanent villages, each of which had plank longhouses that measured about 30 feet by 70 feet. Like other tribes, the Makah traveled during the warmer months away from their permanent villages. The name "Makah" was given to these people by other nearby tribes. They call themselves "Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx." Makah means "generous with food" while Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx means "people who live near rocks and seagulls.

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