Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast

Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast
Chief Anotklosh of the Taku Tribe of the Tlingit people, ca. 1913

The Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, their descendants, and many ethnic groups who identify with those historical peoples. They are now situated within the Canadian Province of British Columbia and the U.S. states of Alaska, Washington and Oregon.


List of people

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast at one time had the most densely populated areas of indigenous people.[1][2][3] The land and waters provided rich natural resources through cedar and salmon, and highly structured cultures developed from relatively dense populations. Within the Pacific Northwest, many different nations developed, each with their own distinct history, culture, and society. Some cultures in this region were very similar and share certain elements, such as the importance of salmon to their cultures, while others differed. Prior to contact, and for a brief time after colonization, some of these groups regularly conducted war against each other through raids and attacks. Through warfare they gathered captives for slavery.

The Tlingit (English pronunciation: /ˈklɪŋkɨt/ klingk-it or /ˈtlɪŋɡɪt/; the latter is considered inaccurate) are one of the furthest north indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their autonym is Lingít [ɬɪŋkɪt], meaning "Human being". The Russian name for them, Koloshi, was derived from an Aleut term for the labret; and the related German name, Koulischen, may be encountered in older historical literature.

The Tlingit are a matrilineal society. They developed a complex hunter-gatherer culture in the temperate rainforest of the Alaska Panhandle and adjoining inland areas of present-day British Columbia and Yukon.


The Nisga'a (pronounced /ˈnɪsɡɑː/ nis-gah) are a matrilineal society with a complex culture. They live in the Nass River valley of northwestern British Columbia. Nisga'a society is organized into four clans: Ganada (Raven), Gisk'aast (Killer Whale), Lax̱gibuu (Wolf), and Lax̱sgiik (Eagle). The Nisg̱a'a people number about 6,000. In British Columbia the Nisg̱a'a Nation is represented by four villages and three urban societies. The Nisga'a are one of the few indigenous in the Pacific Northwest in Canada to sign a treaty with Canada and British Columbia, having pressed for one since the 1890s.


The Tsetsaut were an Athapaskan people whose territory was at the head of the Portland Canal. Little is known about them. Decimated by raiding and disease, their survivors were absorbed into the Nisga'a. The latter tribe now hold their former territory. They are extinct as a tribe.


The Haida people are well known as skilled artisans of wood, metal and design. They have also shown much perseverance and resolve in the area of forest conservation. The vast forests of cedar and spruce where the Haida make their home are on pre-glacial land, which is believed to be almost 14,000 years old.

Haida communities located in Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, and Haida Gwaii (previously referred to as the Queen Charlotte Islands) also share a common border with other indigenous peoples, such as the Tlingit and the Tsimshian. The Haida were also famous for their long-distance raiding and slaving, reaching as far as Mexico.


The Tsimshian, usually pronounced in English as /ˈsɪmʃi.ən/ sim-shee-ən, translated as "People Inside the Skeena River," are indigenous people who live around Terrace and Prince Rupert on the North Coast of British Columbia, and the southernmost corner of Alaska on Annette Island. There are about 10,000 Tsimshian, of which about 1,300 live in Alaska. Along with many other indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, they have a hierarchical society.

Succession was matrilineal, and one's place in society was determined by one's clan or phratry (defined as four equal parts). Four main Tsimshian clans form the basic phratry. The Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan) and Ganhada (Raven Clan) form one half. Gispwudwada (Killer Whale Clan) and Laxgibuu (Wolf Clan) form the other half. Prior to European contact, marriage in Tsimshian society could not take place within a half-group, for example between a Wolf and a Killer Whale. It was considered to be incest even if there was no blood relationship. Marriages were only arranged between people from clans in different halves: for example, between a Killer Whale and a Raven or Eagle.


The Gitxsan or Gitksan, meaning "people of the Skeena River", were known with the Nisga'a as Interior Tsimshian. They speak a closely related language to Nisga'a, though both are related to Coast Tsimshian. This is the English term for Tsimshian spoken on the coast. Although inland, their culture is part of the Northwest Coast culture area, and they share many common characteristics, including the clan system, an advanced art style, and war canoes. They share an historic alliance with the neighbouring Wet'suwet'en, a subgroup of the Dakelh (or Carrier people). Together they waged a battle in the courts against British Columbia known as Delgamuukw v. the Queen, which had to do with land rights.


The Haisla (also Xa’islak’ala, X̄a’islakʼala, X̌àʼislakʼala, X̣aʼislak’ala) are an indigenous nation living at Kitamaat in the North Coast region of the Canadian province of British Columbia. The name Haisla is derived from the Haisla word x̣àʼisla or x̣àʼisəla, "(those) living at the rivermouth, living downriver".


The Heiltsuk (pronounced /ˈhaɪlstʊk/ hyl-stuuk[4]) are an indigenous nation of the Central Coast region of the Canadian province of British Columbia, centred on the island communities of Bella Bella and Klemtu. The Heiltsuk are the descendants of a number of tribal groups who came together in Bella Bella in the 19th century. They generally prefer the autonym Heiltsuk. European-Canadian settlers commonly called them the Bella Bella Indians. a


The Wuikinuxv, also known as the Owekeeno or Rivers Inlet people (after their location), speak a parallel language to Heiltsuk, Wuikyala or Oowekyala (they are dialects of a language that has no independent name; linguists refer to it as Heiltsuk-Oweekyala). Together with the Heiltsuk and Haisla, they were once incorrectly known as the Northern Kwakiutl because of their language's close relationship with Kwak'wala. Greatly reduced in numbers today, like other coastal peoples they were master carvers and painters. They had an elaborate ritual and clan system. The focus of their territory was Owikeno Lake, a freshwater fjord above a short stretch of river at the head of Rivers Inlet.


The Kwakwaka'wakw are an indigenous people, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland. The autonym they prefer is Kwakwaka'wakw. Their indigenous language, part of the Wakashan language family, is Kwak'wala. The name Kwakwaka'wakw means "speakers of Kwak'wala". The language is now spoken by less than 5% of the population—about 250 people. Today 17 separate tribes make up the Kwakwaka'wakw, who historically spoke the common language of kwak'wala. Some Kwakwaka'wakw groups are now extinct. Kwak'wala is a Northern Wakashan language, a grouping shared with Haisla, Heiltsuk and Oowekyala.


The Nuu-chah-nulth (pronounced [nuːtʃanˀuɬ], anglicized as /nuːˈtʃɑːnʊlθ/ noo-chah-nuulth) are indigenous peoples in Canada. Their traditional home is in the Pacific Northwest on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In pre-contact and early post-contact times, the number of nations was much greater, but as in the rest of the region, smallpox and other consequences of contact resulted in the disappearance of some groups, and the absorption of others into neighbouring groups.

They were among the first Pacific peoples north of California to come into contact with Europeans. Competition between Spain and the United Kingdom over control of Nootka Sound led to a bitter international dispute around 1790, which was settled when Spain agreed to abandon its claim of exclusivity to the North Pacific coast, and to pay damages for British ships seized during the dispute. The Nuu-chah-nulth speak a Southern Wakashan language and are closely related to the Makah and Ditidaht.


The Makah are a Southern Wakashan people and are closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulth. They are also noted as whalers. Their territory is around the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

Coast Salish

The Coast Salish are the largest of the southern groups. They are a loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples spans from the northern limit of the Gulf of Georgia on the inside of Vancouver Island and covering most of southern Vancouver Island, all of the Lower Mainland, all of Puget Sound except (formerly) for the Chemakum territory near Port Townsend, and all of the Olympic Peninsula except that of the Quileute, related to the now-extinct Chemakum. The Tillamook or Nehalem around Tillamook, Oregon are the southermost of the Coast Salish peoples

The Coast Salish cultures differ considerably from those of their northern neighbours. It is one of the few indigenous cultures along the coast with a patrilineal, not matrilineal, culture. They are also one of the few peoples on the coast whose traditional territories coincide with contemporary major metropolitan areas, namely Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle.


The Nuxálk (pronounced [nuxalk]), also known as the Bella Coola, are an indigenous people of the Central Coast. They are the furthest north of the Coast Salish cultures. Linguists have classified them as independent of both Interior and Coast Salish language groups. Their language is a Salishan language, very different from that of their coastal neighbours. It is believed to have been more related to Interior Salish, in a historical connection before the Athapaskan-speaking groups now inland from them spread southwards.


The Willapa were an Athapaskan-speaking people in southwestern Washington. Their territory was between Willapa Bay (named after them) and the prairie lands around the head of the Chehalis and Cowlitz Rivers.


The Chimakum people were a Chimakuan-speaking people whose traditional territory lay in the area of Port Townsend, Washington. Beset by warfare from surrounding Salish peoples, their last major presence in the region was eradicated by the Suquamish under Chief Seattle in the mid-19th century. Some survivors were absorbed by neighbouring Salish peoples, while some moved to join the Quileute on the southeast side of the Olympic Peninsula.


The Quileute (/ˈkwɪli.uːt/) are a Chimakuan-speaking people. Their traditional territory is in the southeastern Olympic Peninsula, around the Quillayute and Hoh Rivers.


The Chinook were once one of the most powerful and populous tribes on the southern part of the Northwest Coast. Their territories flanked the mouth of the Columbia River and stretched up that river in a narrow band adjacent to that river. Their language is known as Chinookan. It is distinguished from the Chinook Jargon, which was partly based upon it, and is often called "Chinook". Close allies of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, they were also a canoe people.


On the northwest coast of North America, the mild climate and abundant natural resources made possible the rise of a complex Aboriginal culture. The people who lived in what are today British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon were able to obtain a good living without much effort. They had time and energy to devote to the development of fine arts and crafts and to religious and social ceremonies. Among the most prosperous of the Northwest Coast peoples were the Haida and the Tlingit.[citation needed]

European colonization

Current times

Since colonization, the political and current context of life for these indigenous peoples varies, especially considering their relationship to Canada and the United States.



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 plankhouse specifically for potlatching and for housing guests.

A potlatch is a highly complex event where people gather in order to commemorate a specific event (such as the raising of a Totem pole or the appointment/election of a new chief). These potlatches would usually be held in competition with one another, providing a forum to display wealth within a tribe.

In the Potlatch ceremony the chief would give highly elaborate gifts to visiting peoples in order to establish his power and prestige, and by accepting these gifts the visitors conveyed their approval of the chief. There were also great feasts and displays of conspicuous consumption, such as the burning of articles, or throwing things into the sea, purely as a display of the great wealth of the chief. Groups of dancers put on elaborate dances and drammas. These dancers were many times members of secret "dancing societies". Watching these performances was considered an honor. Potlatches were held for several reasons: the confirmation of a new chief; coming of age; tattooing or piercing ceremonies; initiation into a secret society; divorce; the funeral of a chief; battle victory.


Among the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the music varied in function and expression. As some groups have more cultural differences then the rest (like the Coast Salish and the more northern nations), there remains a lot of similarities.

Some instruments used by the indigenous were hand drums made of animal hides, plank drums, log drums, box drums, along with whistlers, wood clappers, and rattles. A great deal of the instruments were used mostly in the potlatch, but also carried over in to other festivities throughout the year.

The songs employed are used with dancing, although it is also for celebration chants, which would not usually be accompanied by dancing. Most singing is community based. There are some solo parts, usually in the first line of each round of a song, but not long solos. For some ceremonies, solo songs would be used by men and women without the accompaniment of any person or instrument.

Usually slow in tempo and accompanied by a drum. Principle function of music in this area is spiritual; music honors the Earth, Creator, Ancestors, all aspects of the supernatural world. Sacred songs are not often shared with the wider world. Women and men, families own their own songs as property which can be inherited, sold or given as a gift to a prestigious guest at a Feast. Professionals existed for some communities, but music is taught and then rehearsed. For some nations, the tradition was those who made musical errors were punished, usually through shaming. Employing octave singing, but rather than running up and down the scale, it is not uncommon to jump notes and go from bottom to top or top to bottom in a couple of notes. Vocal Rhythmic patterns are often complex and run counter to rigid percussion beats. The tribes would dance in groups in circles.


The creation of beautiful and practical objects (for all tribal communities) served as a means of transmitting stories, history, wisdom and property from generation to generation. Art provided Indigenous people with a tie to the land by depicting their histories on totem poles the Big (Plank) Houses of the Pacific Northwest coast – the symbols depicted were a constant reminder of their birth places, lineages and nations.

Due to the abundance of natural resources and the affluence of most Northwest tribes, there was plenty of leisure time to create art. Many works of art served practical purposes, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, and shelter; but others were purely aesthetic.

Pacific Northwest Coast: Spiritualism, the supernatural and the importance of the environment played integral roles in day-to-day life. Therefore, it was not unusual for their worldly goods to be adorned with symbols, crests and totems that represented some important figure(s) from both the seen and unseen worlds.

Often different northern tribes would adorn their possessions with symbols that represented a tribe as a collective (i.e., clan); this would often be a signal of differentiation among tribal groups. Such symbols could be compared to a coat of arms, or running up the flag of a country on a sailing ship, as it approached a harbour.

After the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous artifacts suddenly became a hot commodity to be collected and placed in museums and other institutions, and many tribal groups were looted of their precious items by over-zealous collectors.

It is only in recent years that many Native organizations have been calling for a return of some of their sacred items, such as masks and regalia, that symbolize their cultural heritage.


Haplogroup Q1a3a is a Y chromosome haplogroup generally associated with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.[5] The Q-M3 mutation appears on the Q lineage roughly 10 to 15 thousand years ago, as the migration throughout the Americas was underway by the early Paleo-Indians.[6] The Na-Dené, Inuit and Indigenous Alaskan populations exhibit haplogroup Q (Y-DNA) mutations, however, which are distinct from other indigenous Amerindians along with various mtDNA mutations.[7][8][9] This suggests that the migrant ancestors of the current inhabitants of the northern extremes of North America and Greenland derived from later migrant populations.[10]


  1. ^ Aboriginal Identity (8), Sex (3) and Age Groups (12) for the Population of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2006 Census-20% Sample Data Click to view table notes, BC Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  2. ^ Number and percentage of population reporting Aboriginal identity, Canada, provinces and territories, 2006 Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  3. ^ Percentage of Aboriginal people in the population, Canada, provinces and territories, 2006 Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Fagundes, Nelson J.R.; Ricardo Kanitz, Roberta Eckert, Ana C.S. Valls, Mauricio R. Bogo, Francisco M. Salzano, David Glenn Smith, Wilson A. Silva, Marco A. Zago, Andrea K. Ribeiro-dos-Santos, Sidney E.B. Santos, Maria Luiza Petzl-Erler, and Sandro L.Bonatto (2008). "Mitochondrial Population Genomics Supports a Single Pre-Clovis Origin with a Coastal Route for the Peopling of the Americas" (pdf). American Journal of Human Genetics 82 (3): 583–592. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2007.11.013. PMC 2427228. PMID 18313026. Retrieved 2009-11-19. 
  6. ^ "Genetic Variation and Population Structure in Native Americans". PLoS Genetics. 2007. p. 3(11). Retrieved 2009-11-18. 
  7. ^ Zegura SL, Karafet TM, Zhivotovsky LA, Hammer MF (January 2004). "High-resolution SNPs and microsatellite haplotypes point to a single, recent entry of Native American Y chromosomes into the Americas". Molecular Biology and Evolution 21 (1): 164–75. doi:10.1093/molbev/msh009. PMID 14595095. 
  8. ^ Ruhlen M (November 1998). "The origin of the Na-Dene". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95 (23): 13994–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.95.23.13994. PMC 25007. PMID 9811914. 
  9. ^ "mtDNA Variation among Greenland Eskimos. The Edge of the Beringian Expansion". Laboratory of Biological Anthropology, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research,University of Cambridge, Cambridge, University of Hamburg, Hamburg. 2000. Retrieved 2009-11-22. "The relatively lower coalescence time of the entire haplogroup A2 including the shared sub-arctic branches A2b (Siberians and Inuit) and A2a (Eskimos and Na-Dené) is probably due to secondary expansions of haplogroup A2 from the Beringia area, which would have averaged the overall internal variation of haplogroup A2 in North America." 
  10. ^ "Native American Mitochondrial DNA Analysis Indicates That the Amerind and the Nadene Populations Were Founded by Two Independent Migrations". Center for Genetics and Molecular Medicine and Departments of Biochemistry and Anthropology, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia. Genetics Society of America. Vol 130, 153–162. Retrieved 2009-11-28. "The divergence time for the Nadene portion of the HaeIII np 663 lineage was about 6,000–10,000 years. Hence, the ancestral Nadene migrated from Asia independently and considerably more recently than the progenitors of the Amerinds" 


See also

Portal icon Indigenous peoples of North America portal
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