The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 6 – California


The California mission system was one in which the Spanish used to colonize the Native Americans under their control. Whatever Father Junipero Serra’s intentions, the California mission system ended up to be one of forced labor, exploitation, disease, fatalities, and cultural genocide. However, they weren’t the only agents responsible with the mass genocide pertaining to the California tribes in the 19th century in which 90% of them were wiped out. But what you can’t dispute is that they had pretty nice architecture which became popular with the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (which was intended to expose the cultural genocide).

Before the contact of Europeans and Saint Junipero Serra’s Spanish missionary system of forced indigenous labor, assimilation, and cultural genocide, California was home to the largest population of Native Americans and the most distinct tribes of any US state and the highest population density north of Mexico. Over 150 of them are said to have US federal recognition to date. They even had 500 distinct sub-tribes or groups on top of that. And before European contact, native Californians spoke 300 dialects of approximately 100 distinct languages. Of course, when the Spanish came with their missionary system, all the ecological disruption, forced labor exploitation, and introduction of Spanish diseases took care of all that that population was reduced by 90% during the 19th century from 200,000 to 15,000. Still, most of the havoc was unintentional save for the assimilation and forced labor part. But those Spanish missions started a tradition by which we know California today, one in which white people cause a lot of ecological disruption as well as exploit minorities even when they think they’re helping. Also, displacing people who’ve resided in their hometown longer than you have with either guns, germs, or steel or simply raising their property values. Nevertheless, the most common language of the Native Californians was Valley Girl speak as well as took part in rituals like surfing, playing Beach Boys music, and disrupting the private lives of celebrities. Okay, I’m kidding about that. In reality, California’s diversity in climate, topography, and wildlife was part of why these Native American communities thrived in this place. Now even the state’s ecology is under threat due to climate change, drought, wildfires, earthquakes, and what not. Basically if an area in California isn’t made a state or national park, there’s not much protection going for it before it’s turned into some shopping mall. Yet, despite all the bad things that have happened to these California tribes, their descendants still live in the state today. Just don’t mention the canonization of Father Junipero Serra as a good idea. Just don’t.


Pre-contact California had a diverse environment including the coastal beach communities, the tall redwood forests, high mountain ranges, and southern deserts. Yet, most of these people were hunter-gatherers as well as had acorns as their primary food.

Location: Most of the state of California.

First Peoples: Evidence of human occupation in this region dates to 17,000 B.C.E. Early Southern California peoples include the La Jolla and Pauma Complexes each dating 6050 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E. The earliest inhabitants hunted with darts powered by throwing sticks at large game and resided in either open air dwellings or caves. Yet, from 9000 B.C.E., people from this region gradually started to depend on seed collection for food as well. Around 3000 B.C.E., the Windmiller culture flourished in the Sacramento Valley where they were known for fine craftsmanship, charmstones, and burying their dead face down facing west.

Environment: Has a wide variety of climates and geographical features, rivaling any other area of comparable dimensions. Mostly a mild temperate climate with coastline, rivers, and lakes. Features range from high mountain ranges, oak and conifer forests, mixed forest grasslands, vast grasslands, coastal plains, to long semiarid deserts in southern region. Precipitation is higher in the north than the south while forests can be susceptible to wild fires. Earthquakes and floods also occur.


Despite that California had a region of great abundance, a lot of the Native Americans in the area mostly lived in a hunter-gatherer existence. Here are some Native Californians who just caught a deer.

Subsistence: Mainly hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence since there was a local abundance of food. Yet, some did practice a form of low density “wild” agriculture and “fire stick” farming. And it’s known that these Indians practiced various forms of forest gardening. Hunted animals like deer, elk, rabbits, sheep, squirrels, chipmunks, quail, mountain sheep, and bear as well as seals and sea otters. Fished for trout, salmon, mollusks, and shellfish. Occasionally ate insects as well as gathered mushrooms, roots, nuts, and seaweed. Acorns were said to be a main staple of food there as well as ground into flour to make mush or bread.


California native housing depended on location, season, climate, available resources, and whether it was for temporary or permanent use. This straw wigwam house is known as a kicha.

Housing: Depends on the location, season, available resources, climate, and whether it was for temporary or permanent use. Ocean area tribes tended to build grass mat houses. Those in the northwest forest areas built cedar or redwood plank houses. Central tribes lived in subterranean round pit houses. Southern tribes could build conical homes of tule or croton and whalebone structures on the coast.


Since it was mostly warm and mild, the Native Californians typically wore very little clothing, save in winter in the colder areas. These women and girls are wearing grass and bead skirts with basket hats and lots of jewelry over their bras (the only article not part of the traditional outfit but necessary).

Clothing: People in this region mostly wore very little. Yet, those who lived in colder areas would wear skins and furs during the winter.


The coastal Native California tribes fished from redwood dugout and plank canoes. Southern tribes had double paddled oars called “tomols” which were made by a secretive craftsman guild. These could hold up to a dozen people and hundreds of pounds to trade goods.

Transportation: Northwestern tribes used dugout canoes from redwoods for fishing. Southern tribes had gracefully planked canoes with double paddle oars called “tomols” and made by a secretive craftsmen guild. These could carry hundreds of pounds in trade goods and up to a dozen passengers.


The California cultural region had an extensive trail system though trading was limited to friendly visits and religious ceremonies. Yet, some tribes had relatively rigid class systems perpetuated by custom and marriage as well as based on wealth and private property.

Society: Before European contact, this region had the highest Native American density north of present-day Mexico. It’s estimated that approximately 300,000 Indians might’ve lived there. Yet, these people tended to live a rather isolated existence due to the landscape. Lifestyle tends to vary according to climate and topography but it’s best that the vast majority of these Indians were semi-nomadic at best. Most common form of political organization was the tribelet which was a cluster of satellite villages around one or more permanent villages. It’s said that 500 of these groups existed where they shared a language, culture, and history. Each one could contain from 50-500 people on average and most were related through the male line. Now the tribelet was presided by a chief controlling economic resources and activity, settling conflicts, and organizing events. The chief was generally very wealthy and greatly respected. Some of these tribelets also had specialized occupations like craftspeople as well as minor officials like assistant chief, messenger, and dance manager. Some tribes had a relatively rigid closed class system perpetuated by marriage and custom as well as based on wealth and private property. Sometimes they even kept slaves. More nomadic groups tended to have greater social and gender equality. An extensive and continuous trail system in the region made trading in the region possible usually on friendly visits and ceremonies. Organized warfare was rare. Reasons for conflict ranged from physical offenses such as murder and rape to trespassing, sorcery, or a simple insult. Surprise attacks were preferred in regards to fighting while pitched battles were generally avoided and casualty rates were low. Also armed conflicts were relatively brief and quickly resolved as well as both parties being compensated.


Unlike a lot of the native cultural regions, most California native family structures were mostly patrilineal. Nevertheless, polygyny was said to be practiced among chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men who could afford more than one wife, which was less unusual.

Family Structure: Mostly patrilineal descent. Marriages usually took place when the couple was at least in their late teens or early 20s. Northern group chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men could have more than one wife. Men usually hunted and fished while women cooked, gathered, did housework, and looked after children.


Of course, we’re all too familiar with the fact that so many Native American tribes have their own dance rituals and the California region is no exception. Here is a picture of Ohlone Indians from the Mission of San Jose dancing in ceremonial regalia. Perhaps these images tell us that maybe the missionaries weren’t as much bent on cultural genocide as we thought, at least as long as they do such rituals to commemorate saint days or Christian holidays. Then again, the Spanish missions were pretty horrific and did result in cultural genocide in California.

Practices: Controlled burning, sophisticated forest gardening, basketry, animism, shamanism, psychoactive drugs, pottery, bead work, rock art, secret religious societies, tobacco, hoop and pole, hand game, cat’s cradle, music, dance, lacrosse, dice, athletic contests, and storytelling.

Tools and Weapons: Milling stones, bows and arrows, elkhorn wedges, spears, knives, nets, weirs, scrapers, hammers, and fish hooks and line. Normally made of stone, bone, obsidian, wood, grass, shell, and other materials.

Notable Tribes: Shasta, Maidu, Miwok, Mojave, Pomo, Chumash, Serrano, Wappo, Yurok, Karok, Hupa, Wintu, Yana, Kato, Wiyot, Cocopah, Juaneno, Chemehuevi, Yuki, Wailaki, Salinan, Sinkyone, Tolowa, Tataviam, Whilkut, Quechan, Modoc, Nisenan, Nomlaki, Panamint, Patwin, Mattole, Luiseno, Kawaiisu, Kitanemuk, Konkow, Klamath, Chilula, Cahuilla, Ohlone, Cupeno, Diegueno, Esselen, Kashaya, Atsuegewi, Achumawi, Shoshoni, and Nongatl.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 5 – The Great Basin


One of the more famous Native Americans from the Great Basin is none other than the Shoshone Sacagawea herself. Between 1804 to 1806, she served as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition where she traveled thousands of miles to the Pacific Ocean along with her husband Toussaint Charbonneau and their infant son Jean Baptiste. She is said to have died from an illness in 1812.

Between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada is an area known as the Great Basin which is mostly a high and rocky desert land encompassing states like Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, and New Mexico. However, since they lived in a region that was so inhospitable, they were among the last groups to encounter European influence due to nobody wanting to live there. Sure there was Sacagawea, but she wouldn’t have served as a guide for Lewis and Clark if she wasn’t kidnapped by Hidasta Indians first. Nevertheless, the first white people who settled in this area were the Mormons in Utah starting in 1847 since there were no other white people around. Notice how I put emphasis on the word “white.” Since the Great Basin tribes didn’t have to worry much about white people displacing them until Mormon arrival, they have maintained stronger cultural and linguistic ties to their heritage than a lot of Native Americans in the lower 48. During the 19th century, they were leading proponents of cultural and religious renewals such as the Ghost Dance as well as introducing peyote to the world (to the glory of stoners everywhere for that “Rocky Mountain High”). You might see these people in westerns, by the way even though you might not be aware of it.


Most of the Great Basin consists primarily of high arid desert though few rivers and bountiful lakes do exist (but are dependent on mountain snow for water). It’s a very inhospitable environment, which explains why these Native Americans in this region were among the last to deal with white settlers. Ironically, this is where Las Vegas is located.

Location: Between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada covering southern Oregon and Idaho, part of Montana, Nevada, eastern California, western Wyoming and Colorado, and most of Utah.

First Peoples: Original peoples might’ve arrived as early as 12,000 years ago possibly arriving from the south. Great Basin Desert Archaic Period was between 9000 B.C.E. to 400 while the Fremont Culture came around 1-1300 who were hunter gatherers as well as agriculturalists. Numic speakers were said to arrive as early as the 11th century and are the ancestors of the Western Shosone as well as the Northern and Southern Paiute tribes. Aside from the Fremont culture, very little of their lifestyle has changed (from a pre-contact standpoint).

Environment: Mostly high elevation consisting high mountains, deep canyons as well as bountiful lakes along with few rivers and streams dependent on mountain snow (which is a major reason this area is threatened by climate change and has experienced drought). And most of these rivers in the region usually disappear into the sand. Lowest valleys are 3,000-6,000 feet above sea level while the mountain ranges can be about 8,000-12,000 feet. Climate is variable with summers with temperatures rising over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and winters with temperatures falling to 20 below zero. Rainfall can vary dramatically from year to year. But at lower elevations, evaporation is generally high while precipitation is generally low. Can be a barren wasteland of desert, salt flats, and brackish lakes. Definitely not a place hospitable to human habitation and it’s no wonder that it was the last part of the US lower 48 to be explored and settled by whites.


Despite mostly living in the desert with little precipitation, Native Americans in the Great Basin had a more plant based diet. Here we see a group of Great Basin women gathering wild rice from their canoes.

Subsistence: Mostly hunter-gatherer subsistence though some do engage in agriculture yet not to viable level of subsistence. Lived on roots, nuts, seeds, cactus, berries, wild rice, insects, as well as small game and birds. Hunted bison, deer, elk, antelope, and sheep as well as fished. Some groups grew corn, beans, and squash but only in a limited capacity and not without irrigation. Had a mostly plant based diet.


The standard winter dwelling for the Great Basin Native Americans was the wikiup. This was a conical 10 feet high and 10-15 feet in diameter house made from brush, bark, grass and/or tule over pinion and/or juniper pole frames. Sometimes these were covered in skins.

Housing: Season and location often determined type of shelter. Brush windbreaks were commonly built during the warm weather. Winter houses were typically conical wikiups at about 10 feet high and 10-15 feet in diameter as well as built of brush, bark, grass, and/or tule over pinion and/or juniper pole frames. Some northern groups covered these houses with skins. Doorways generally faced east. Caves were also used along with log and earthen hogans and even teepees.

Shoshone Indian Tribes

While the Great Basin Native Americans wore buckskin outfits during the winter, they wore very little or next to nothing during the summer. Mostly because even high desert summers could be unbearably hot.

Clothing: People in this region usually wore very little except in the coldest weather. In winter, men and women wore fur or twined bark breechcloths, moccasins, and leggings. Women often wore twined sagebrush bark or willow hats and long gowns. Clothing also included fur robes and rabbit skin blankets worn as capes.

Transportation: I guess these people usually walked. Though some tribes might’ve made canoes from animal skins and other materials.

Society: Mostly nomadic with mostly decentralized social and economic organization. Largest estimated population is said to be about 50,000-60,000. Basic unit was the camp or extended family that was autonomous and self-governing by consensus with the oldest male being the most influential. Bands tended to be small with the largest desert bands having no more than 30 and other areas with up to 100. And they were usually near water sources as well as have fluid membership. Yet, they’d also have links through blood relationships, marriage relationships, adoptions, and friendships. In regions of greater productivity, some related family clusters would form semipermanent winter villages where they could share information about resources, observe ceremonies, share mythological tales, and trade. Headmen usually presided over these winter villages where they delivered speeches on and coordinated subsistence activities. But such authority was tenuous among the egalitarian Shoshone. Trade was frequently practiced that the first regional trade routes appeared as early as 5000 B.C.E. and the region was part of a major network.


Unlike many Native American culture areas, there was no set family or marriage structure among the Great Basin peoples. Post marital residence simply depended on the available food supplies and divorce usually happened with one partner returning to their parents (which happened frequently). Polygamy, cousin marriage, and marrying a dead spouse’s siblings for recently widowed also existed. Not to mention, children were put to work as soon as they were old enough while elderly who couldn’t keep up with the group were simply put to pasture.

Family Structure: Family camps usually consisted of parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. Men mainly hunted while women cooked, gathered plants, made clothes, and looked after children. However, men and women were seen as equals and were free to engage in sexual exploration leading to a trial marriage. There was instruction on abortion and contraception. And divorce was simply a matter of one partner returning to their parental camp (which happened frequently). Northern Paiute and Shoshone tribes practiced fraternal polyandry where a woman would marry set of brothers. Yet, there were some instances of polyandry involving male cousins or men not related to each other at all. Sororal polygyny also existed. Cross cousin marriages weren’t uncommon among these people either as well as the practice of widows and widowers marrying their dead spouse’s sibling. There was no set pattern for postmarital residence with availability of food supplies being the determining factor. Children were put to work as soon as they were old enough to help. As for death rites, this might either consist of the individual being buried with their possessions or the possessions destroyed. Old people who couldn’t keep up with the group or could no longer produce their share of the food supply were occasionally abandoned.

chemheuvi-group-6x4image copy

Great Basin basketry is one of the best known out of the North American indigenous. One Nevada Washoe woman named Dat So La Lee would become celebrated for her craftmanship during the “basket craze” of the early 20th century.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, dance, music, Ghost Dance, Bear Dance, peyote, basketry, pruning, controlled burning, pottery, storytelling, rock art, Sun Dance, and petroglyphs.

Tools and Weapons: Nets, traps, snares, flaked stone knives, bows and arrows, fish hook and line, basket traps, harpoons, weirs, digging sticks, drills, clubs, seed grinding slabs and handstones, and spears.

Notable Tribes: Paiute, Shoshone, Ute, Bannock, Coso, Kawaiisu, Mono, Goshute, Timbisha, and Washo.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 4 – The Northwest Plateau


Known as “Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt” in his native Nez Perce tongue, Chief Joseph led his Wallowa Nez Perce band during their most tumultuous period in their contemporary history. Basically, they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the Wallowa Valley and relocated to the significantly reduced reservation in Lapwai, Idaho by the US federal government. The usual series of events culminated in episodes of violence led by Ned Perce resisting removal, including Joseph’s band and their Palouse tribe allies who attempted to seek political asylum in Canada. The US Army pursued them for over 1170 miles fighting retreat which would become known as the Nez Perce War. Though such resistance won him great fame and admiration, Chief Joseph would later surrender after a devastating 5 day battle in freezing conditions with no food or blankets as well as leaving the major Nez Perce leaders dead. By this time, 150 of his followers were either dead or wounded.

Between the Subarctic and Northwest Coast regions, you’ll find a small interior cultural area known as the Northwest Plateau. This region is situated in the interior of British Columbia as well as the non-coastal ranges of Washington state and Oregon with some of Idaho, Montana, and California. Topographically, you’ll find it between the Cascades and the Rockies. Nevertheless, this is an area with a very cold but semiarid climate which makes it nowhere near suitable for agriculture. However, it’s also home to 5 major volcanoes as well as 27 known to be active, which may good for soil content but not a place you’d want to live. Still, you don’t really hear much about this region except maybe when it comes to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. But it’s not a happy tale to tell. Yet, famed Native American author Sherman Alexie also hails from this region, too, and he’s perhaps the best known native literary figure to date. Not surprisingly these Northwest Plateau tribes tended to move around a lot following various food sources. But they also lived in a prime trading location and often exchanged goods with other tribes. Oh, and they also were prolific basket weavers, relying on many local fibrous plants to make them.


The Northwest Plateau may have its share of plants and waterways. But its generally rough terrain, high elevation, and semiarid but cold climate don’t make it ideal for a sedentary agricultural lifestyle. Is also home to a lot of volcanoes, including Mount Saint Helens.

Location: Area between the Cascade, Sierra Nevada, and Rocky Mountains that covers central and southern British Columbia, northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington state, eastern Oregon, and northeastern California.

First Peoples: Region has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years and save for the grinding stone and the bow and arrow, way of life remained mostly unchanged until the 18th century.

Environment: Consists of rivers, lakes, mountainous evergreen forests, and grassy valleys in the Canadian area with heavy rainfall. The US area is semiarid. Though summers are hot, winters are long and cold. Elevation ranges from 5,000 feet to 14,000 feet and is home to 27 active volcanoes as well as Mount St. Helens.


Like their Pacific Northwest neighbors, salmon consisted of a major part of the Northwest Plateau peoples’ diet. In eh summer, Pacific salmon would swim up river, leading the men to trap the fish. Once caught the salmon would be smoked on a fire, stored underground, or boiled in hot water for oil.

Subsistence: Hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence. Fish were a main staple in their diets (particularly salmon) along with roots and berries. Also hunted deer, elk, caribou, antelope, mountain sheep, bear, rabbit, squirrels, marmot, beaver, raccoon, porcupine, and other small game. Another major staple were Camas lily bulbs which were dug up (though the white ones are known to be poisonous).


The primary winter dwelling for the Northwest Plateau people was the pit house. These would consist of hole being dug into the ground with an earthen roof over a wooden frame. Entrance way was through a wooden ladder.

Housing: Pit houses were primary winter residences that were mostly built below ground with an entry via ladder on the roof that could either be flat or domed shaped. Several families lived in these houses while the chief’s could be twice as large. And these pit houses during the winter could sometimes be connected with tunnels. For summer shelter, some would reside in teepees, especially if they lived near the Plains. But unlike their Plains neighbors, they mostly used bulrush reed mat floors. Another shelter was the Tule mat lodge that were essentially large, oblong shaped teepees and constructed with the same materials. Lean-tos would also be constructed from poles and tule brush mats and were very temporary. Sweat lodges were built from grass and earth covering a wooden frame. Those who lived around the Lower Columbia lived in plank longhouses that could be 20-60 feet long and 14-20 feet wide (with each village there consisting about 5-20). These were built over a pit that was 4-5 feet deep and roughly the same size as the dwelling.

Edward S. Curtis - Wishham child

While clothing among the Northwest Plateau Native Americans can consist of the standard buckskin, braids, and beads you’d associate with native culture, the women were also known to wear the distinguishing basket hats. Also, both sexes had braided pigtails (or at least the women).

Clothing: Generally made from bark, grass, animal skins, and fur. Men and women wore breechcloth aprons, ponchos, and moccasins. Men wore shirts while women donned dresses or skirts. Men donned fur leggings in winter while women’s were of hemp. Ornaments were made from shell and bone while beads were derived from soapstone. Clothes were also painted. Headdresses were used to represent a person’s status within the community with the most elaborate being made from feathers and beads. Women were also well known for wearing basket hats. Sometimes the leaders wore feather headdresses. Both sexes left their hair long, sometimes in two braids.


Pre-contact Northwest Plateau transportation was mainly by canoe if not on foot. These would be made from bark, dugout wood, or animal skins. Once horses were introduce, people in this region would use them, too.

Transportation: Water transport consisted of dugout, animal skin, and bark canoes.

Society: Largest estimated pre-contact population is said to be around 50,000. Primarily nomadic with most groups following regular migratory routes to obtain foods at their greatest productivity to both meet immediate need, build surplus for winter, and trade (the largest being at the Dalles and Celilo Falls, at the head of the Columbian Gorge). Villages were politically autonomous and village chief authority lay more in their ability to persuade and adjudicate than in their power to make rules and enforce decisions. Both men and women can be chiefs of many bands though family chiefdoms were usually inherited. Specialized leaders like salmon and war chiefs only exercised leadership on special occasions. Only the far western groups practiced hereditary slavery and a caste system like the Chinook with the upper castes practicing social isolation. However, there was always a reluctance to engage in warfare.


Plateau area Chinook tribes were known to head bind their own children’s heads to create a pointed appearance. However, contrary to popular belief, the Flatheads were called such by their neighbors because they didn’t practice this.

Family Structure: Most people married outside their own village and many of these marriage networks survived after a spouse’s death as widows and widowers often married their spouse’s sibling afterwards. Men hunted, fished, as well as had a greater voice in politics, diplomacy, and military affairs. Women, meanwhile cooked, gathered plants, and tended to young children. However, both men and women were considered socially and economically equal in every way. Some Chinook Indians in the area were known for subjecting their kids to cranial deformation. Lower Columbia tribes buried their dead in raised canoes with all their worldly possessions and never spoke of the deceased again by name for fear of summoning a ghost. Boys from 5-10 were subject to a whipping ceremony in order to prevent sickness during the winter months.


The Northwest Plateau is well known of their art in fine beadwork, carvings, quillwork, and basketry. Like Native Americans from other cultural areas, such art was part of their every day lives.

Practices: Grass baskets, animism, shamanism, bone carving, controlled burning, vision quests, music, dance, rock painting, weaving, quillwork, and beadwork.

Tools and Weapons: Cordage, nets, bow and arrow, spears, clubs, rawhide and wooden slat armor, weirs, deadfall traps, slings, fish hooks and lines, pestles, snowshoes, a variety of knives, and mauls. Tule bulrush was used by these people for almost everything from mats, bedding, nets, rope, house coverings, flooring, and corpse shrouds. Coiled baskets of spruce and cedar root were used for household utensils, water and burden containers, cooking vessels, drinking cups, cradles, and numerous other purposes.

Notable Tribes: Chinook, Interior Salish, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Yakama, Cayuse, Spokane, Kalapuya, Flathead, Kalispel, Nicola, Nlaka’pamux, Methow, Molala, Palus, Upper Cowlitz, Umatilla, Okanagan, Sanpoli, Wenatchi, Kutenai, Tenino, Fort Klamath, Chelan, Entiat, and Coeur d’Alene.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 3 – The Pacific Northwest Coast


The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest Coast could just as well be called the “totem pole people” due to their best known art form. However, these monumental structures were said to symbolize or commemorate cultural beliefs recounting familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. They may have also served as welcome signs for village visitors, mortuary vessels for deceased ancestors, or as a means to ridicule someone. The complexity and symbolic meanings of totem poles, their placement and importance lies in the observer’s knowledge and connection to these figures’ meanings.

Though the Pacific Northwest Coast is only a narrow stretch from southern Alaska all the way to the northern reaches of California, it’s a region with and abundance of natural resources that these hunter-gatherer tribes usually stayed in one place. It’s no wonder that it was the most densely populated cultural area in Canada before European contact. Nevertheless, the Pacific Northwest Coast is best known for their totem poles and their distinctive art that you might instantly recognize. Their art is also seen on almost everything, including their large cedar plank houses. Because since these people lived in a temperate coastal rainforest, they didn’t need to spend a lot of time like other native peoples did, searching for food so they won’t starve to death. And since they lived in one place all the time, they had plenty of leisure time to kill. These Native Americans also had rather sophisticated societies based on clans and class systems as well as a special centrality on salmon. But it’s not the only food they eat, yet it received a special ceremony when it’s in season that continues today. Then there’s the tradition of potlatch which was a highly complex event of social, ceremonial, and economic importance. There a chief would bestow highly elaborate gifts to visiting peoples in order to establish his power and prestige and by accepting these gifts, visitors conveyed their approval of the chief. There were also great displays of conspicuous consumption such as burning articles or throwing things into the sea, purely as displays of the chief’s great wealth. You’d even have dancers put on elaborate dances and ceremonies which was considered an honor to watch. Still, these events were held on special occasions like the confirmation of a new chief, coming of age, tattooing or piercing ceremonies, initiation of a secret society, marriages, a chief’s funeral, or battle victories.


Because of the dense resource rich waters and rainforests along with a pleasant climate, the people of the Pacific Northwest Coast had an easier time than Native Americans in other regions. After all, most of them were hunter-gatherer tribes who usually stayed put.

Location: Along the coast starting from southern Alaska through British Columbia, Washington state, Oregon, and northern California.

First Peoples: First humans are said to enter the region at least 10,000 years ago via the Columbia River in the US Pacific Northwest. Evidence in southern Alaska and British Columbia suggests the early inhabitants existed at a basic subsistence level for 5,000 years until 3000 B.C.E. Earliest sedentary villages appeared in 700 B.C.E. with social ranking, woodworking, and regional art shortly thereafter. However, some areas in the US Pacific Coast along Washington state and Oregon continued in basic subsistence mode until possibly as late as 500.

Environment: Consists of dense temperate zone rainforests, rivers, islands, and oceans with abundant natural resources all year long. Climate is mild and rainfall is heavy that includes fierce winter storms and heavy fog. Trees are unusually tall and thick. Springs and glaciers usually flow into rivers that run to the coast.


While Pacific Northwest Coast Native Americans had a varied diet, there was no food source more central to them than salmon. When salmon travel up rivers to spawn, they would literally catch thousands of them that could feed their families for a year.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter, gatherer, or fisher subsistence. Salmon was the most important food for the Indians in this region. However, they also consumed halibut, eulachon (candlefish), smelt, herring, and sturgeon as well as shellfish, seals, and whales. They also hunted elk, bear, deer, mountain goat, turtles, and some land mammals as well as gathered berries and roots. Food was generally eaten fresh, grilled, or boiled in a basket with hot rocks or steamed or baked over a pit oven.


Your standard Pacific Northwest Coast dwelling was the cedar plank house w which could be up to 50-150 feet long and 20-60 feet wide. Each plank house could be home to as many as 30 people.

Housing: Mostly lived in plank long houses of red cedar that was said to be 50-150 feet long and 20-60 feet wide. Each plank house was held together by wooden peg nails, had a large hole in a low roof for smoke ventilation, as well as consisted of a front door to keep heat in. Plank houses were furnished with simple furniture including bunk beds against the wall, storage areas, fire pits, and open shelves as well as dug holes for storing and cooling food. Your typical plank house would be home to several families, perhaps as many as 30 people. They were also commonly painted, often with a family crest. Individuals who built the longhouse usually resided there with their families and their kids would be assigned as space inside upon reaching maturity. But if the village built the plank house together, then it was the chief’s responsibility to assign living spaces to each family. And when the plank house owner died, it was either given away or burned to the ground. Because it was believed if the family stayed, then the dead person’s ghost would haunt the place. Also built temporary shelters made from mats, planks from the main house, or bark.


While people of the Pacific Northwest Coast usually wore very little under temperate conditions, they tend to be known for wearing their chillkat blankets and decorative woven hats. And yes, these can be highly decorated as well.

Clothing: Usually wore very little clothing except when it was cold or special occasions. In the warmer months, men would go naked while women only wore bark skirts. Clothing was mostly made from softened cedar wood or bark, animal leather, and wool. Bark capes and spruce hats were used as protection against the rain. High ranking class members would usually don chillkat blankets, dance aprons, leggings, and moccasins on special occasions. Adorned themselves with piercings and tattoos.


The Pacific Northwest Coast had several different types of canoes, mainly made from red cedar. They can be 50 feet long and 8 feet wide while holding up 2-50 people and up to 10,000 pounds of cargo. Of course, passengers have to bring their own oars.

Transportation: Built canoes of red cedar of several different types. They were usually 50 feet long and 8 feet wide as well as can hold up to 2-50 people and 10,000 pounds of cargo. Also had smaller boats for families and short outings. Also had dog pulled sleds for overland transport.


Potlatch was a major event for Native Americans residing in the Pacific Northwest Coast as a means to reflect wealth and perpetuate social inequality within a village. These were held during a major event as well as hosted by aristocrats. At each potlatch, the host would display their wealth through distributing goods to visitors and others whether they be chillkat blankets, animal skins, or even slaves.

Society: Year round access to food allowed people to live sedentary lives in permanent settlements. Estimates state that as many as 250,000 could have lived in this region at one time. Houses were always grouped together side by side and facing towards the water in small villages, each marked by totem poles. Some even had as many as 1,000 living in only 30 homes. However, some groups had one or more small permanent, semipermanent, or seasonal villages or camping sites as well. Nevertheless, people in this region lived in a society based on hereditary status and the ceremonial winter potlatch was both as a means to reflect and perpetuate this social inequality. These consisted of the nobility, upper class free, lower class free, and slaves (actually not members of society at all). Each individual would also be ranked within their respective groups as well. Since this system was based on inheritance, the classes were fairly immutable though some transfer was possible through acquiring (by trade, purchase, marriage, and war) some inherited rights. Such rights and privileges were owned by the identified group which included songs, dances, performances, and control of subsistence areas identified by crests or design patterns. These patterns could reflect real and mythical family lines and associated incidents, animals, or spirits. The village chief always was always the head of the wealthiest and most powerful family and was a nominal war commanders, often undertaking political and ritual preparations before fighting. Though intragroup conflict was minimal, clan incest and witchcraft were considered capital offenses. Intergroup conflict took place within the framework of feuds and wars. Feuds entailed conflict for legalistic purposes while wars were waged solely for material gain (as in land, booty, and slaves). Northern tribes saw more regular conflict than their southern counterparts. Night raids were preferred strategy and victims’ heads were often displayed on poles as proof of fighting prowess. Also practiced intergroup trade where prices were negotiated.


In a Pacific Northwest Coast extended family, one’s social rank and wealth intake were usually determined by their relationship to the family chief. Of course, since this was a matrilineal clan that practiced exogamous marriage, this only applied to the people on his mother’s side. Family chiefs were usually the wealthiest and oldest member of the clan.

Family Structure: Primarily matrilineal descent. In extended families, family chiefs were usually the oldest and highest ranking individuals while everyone else’s rank was determined by their relationship with the chief.  Family chiefs were primarily responsible for distributing wealth according to social status. Men practiced hunting, building, carving, and fishing while women did housework, raised kids, cooked, wove, made clothes, and dug for shellfish. Marriages were always conducted between people of different clans. When a man decided to marry a woman, he paid her dad an agreed amount before the wedding took place. This amount would be paid back when after the birth of the couple’s first child. After the payment, the wife was no longer obligated to be with her husband (so she could stay or leave him after that point).


Aside from totem poles, the Pacific Northwest Coastal peoples are also well known for their elaborate ceremonies and their distinctive stylized art. Works of art could range from practical objects such as clothes, tools, transportation, houses, weapons, and what not to the purely ceremonial and aesthetic.

Practices: Totem poles, potlatch, music, dancing, shamanism, animism, storytelling, intricate crafts and sculpture, weaving, basketry, woodworking, masks, bentwood boxes, chillkat blankets, spirit quests, and heraldic art.

Tools and Weapons: Stone axes, adzes, spears, nets, traps, chisels, hammers, drills, knives, wedges, harpoons, traps, seal clubs, sledgehammers, deadfalls, fish line and hooks, and wooden crockery. Coast Salish practiced weaving on a full loom. Blades were made from rock, shell, horn, bone, and a small amount of iron.

Notable Tribes: Tlingit, Nisga’a, Haida, Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Wuikinuxv, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish, Chinook, Chimakum, Quileute, Willapa, Nootka, and Tillamook.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 2 – The Subarctic


Here’s a Subarctic Cree family from early Canada. While the mother and kids are dressed in drab, the father has quite a colorful costume and a gun. He also traps animals and trades their skins and feathers.

Our second stop in my Native American series is the Subarctic region. Now this isn’t as snowy and icy as the Arctic, it’s a pretty forbidding region despite it being a mostly boreal forest region. But it’s a very vast region starting from central interior of Alaska, covering the Canadian Shield, surrounding much of Hudson Bay and the northern Rockies, and ending in eastern Canada and as south as Lake Superior. In fact, it covers most of Canada. Nevertheless, despite that the Subarctic is a huge area, you really don’t see it in movies or on TV much (at least in the US, though in Canada, that may not be the case). Or if you did, you might know have known that they were from the Subarctic region. That, or the movie or show was Canadian made. Yet, many of these people tend to speak Athabaskan languages (though some also speak Algonquin in the east). Whatever the case, the Subarctic region is home to a population known to speak over 30 languages. And this area didn’t have a large population of hunter-gathers either. But what a lot of these peoples have in common is their teepee and wigwam shelters and their dependence on the caribou. Also, many of them wore parkas, too. At any rate, it’s kind of what you get if you put cultural aspects of the Plains, the Arctic, and the Northeastern Woodlands together. But it’s in a way that it makes perfect sense because while it may not get as much snow as the Arctic, it’s nowhere near pleasant enough to support agriculture at all. Not only that, but many of these hunter-gatherer groups dealt with regular periods of starvation as food availability can vary from place to place. So while the Subarctic might have great scenery to put on a postcard (since it’s home to Denali), it’s not a pleasant place to live. Still, since European contact in 1500 with Basques, Bretons, and other Europeans fishing at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, non-native diseases, STDs, malnutrition and alcoholism would reduce native Subarctic population by 90-100% in some regional locations while some didn’t see a white person until the mid 19th century.


While the Subarctic environment isn’t nearly as harsh as the frigid Arctic, it’s quite a forbidding place. Its rugged terrain, long cold winters, short summers, and generally low precipitation in rain, it’s a very hard place to live.

Location: Most of Canada as well as most of interior, western, and south central Alaska. Stretches from Alaska to east of the Rocky Mountains, and the northern Great Lakes.

First Peoples: The first people of the region possibly entered the region at least 12,000 years ago or even as long as 25,000 years ago. Athabaskan speakers descend from a Northern Archaic culture that existed at least 9,000 years ago. The Shield culture was predominant in Labrador before diverging. The Taltheilei tradition existed 6,000 years ago from Great Bear Lake to Lake Athabaska and the Churchill River. The Laurel culture of Manitoba and northern Ontario lasted from 1000 B.C.E. to 800 and known for their ceramic pottery along with the Selkirk and the Blackduck Cree.

Environment: Mountainous and boreal forest with thousands of streams and waterlogged tundra. East has low hills and rock outcroppings. West has high mountains, glaciers, and plains. Climate is characterized by short, mild to hot summers and long, bitterly cold winters. Precipitation is generally low save in some mountainous areas and coastal Alaska and falls mainly as snow. Short springs experience plagues of mosquitoes, black flies, and other insects as well as ice break up and snow melt. Travel can also be limited at that time as well as the fall freeze up. Soil was often poor and often swampy, making agricultural development impossible.


Central to the Subarctic tribal existence was the caribou for which they depended on for food, clothing, shelter, and tools. Here is a painting of a caribou hunt.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence. Moose and caribou were a major part of diets for many tribes, with some groups regularly suffering from hunger or even starvation during shortages. Yet, smaller animals like hare, marmot, beaver, porcupine, and muskrat were also consumed along with fish, roots, and berries. Coastal groups relied on sea mammals and shellfish while western groups even hunted buffalo. Musk ox, bear, lynx, wolf, coyote, fox, mink, weasel, otter, wolverine, wapiti and elk were also hunted where available.


Teepees and wigwams may not have been the only housing in the Subarctic region. But they were among the most common. Most of these would be covered in caribou or moose hides along with bark.

Housing: Most tribal groups resided in domed and conical lodges consisting of poles covered with skins, boughs, or birch bark. Or in other words, wigwams and teepees but not what you’d see on the Plains or the Northeast. Groups closest to the Northwest Coast tribes built plank houses while some built frame houses partially below the earth as well as bark covered rectangular houses at fishing camps. Some groups built shelters with a double A-ridgepole framework and containing multiple fires as well as sod pit houses. Structures like drying racks, sweat houses, caches, menstrual houses, and others were also commonly built.


This Athabaskan family portrait shows a variety of what native peoples in the Subarctic would’ve worn. In winter, they would’ve worn parkas, snowsuits, and other winter items. In the spring and summer, they’d go with tanned leather clothing of caribou and moose.

Clothing: Most clothing usually came from moose and caribou as well as hare and other skins with trim from beaver or other fur. Hides were often tanned and dehaired so they wouldn’t weigh down except winter items like parkas, hats, and mittens. Many people wore leggings with moccasins. Clothing can be decorated with fringe, paint, quills, claws, or down. Women wore dresses while men wore shirts, jackets, and snowsuits. Mothers often carried their babies on their backs with cradle boards. Adornments consisted of noseplugs, earrings, and tattooing.

Transportation: Overland travel was usually preferred and many used sleds, sledges, and toboggans (sometimes pulled by dogs though not always). Though people did build lightweight birch bark canoes and moose hide boats.


Like most nomadic tribes, Subarctic Indian society wasn’t very authoritarian, formal, or centralized. Extended families usually lived in groups though once in awhile bands would get together to socialize, hunt, and trade.

Society: This was a sparsely populated area with no more than 100,000 living in the region at any one time. So most cultures were nomadic. The basic unit was a local group consisting of 10-20 related people but could be up to 75. Membership was fluid and nonbinding, in deference to autonomy values and need for flexibility in a difficult environment. Leadership was extremely informal and nonauthoritarian, except for the groups most influenced by the Northwest Coast. When conditions permitted (possibly not quite every summer), local groups might come together as loosely constructed regional bands of several hundred people to socialize and renew family ties. Kinship names were used in most tribes as a general term. For instance, elders were addressed “Grandmother” or “Grandfather” whether they were blood related or not. Some groups might conduct memorial potlach with chiefs being recognized as among the clan leaders in the Cordillera. Warfare was mostly a local matter though while some groups seeking women, most people fought over revenge for trespass or prior blood transgression. Yet, warfare was more developed in the far west than in other areas. However, there were no regional groups conducting full scale wars. Trade was widely practiced with goods and services being exchanged as a peaceful reason for travel and human interaction while bands frequently shared resources with each other.


Though Subarctic tribes mostly practiced matrilineal descent, the treatment of women varied from tribe. Some women were treated as no more than mere pack animals while others maintained relative autonomy and even assumed positions of authority and power.

Family Structure: Primarily matrilineal descent, though not always. Women mostly made clothes, prepared food, and looked after children while men hunted the big game. However, it wasn’t uncommon for women to snare hare or fish. Women’s status varied according to local custom with some being treated as essentially pack animals with little to eat and others existing in relative autonomy as well as attaining both authority and power. Female infanticide wasn’t unknown through much of the region while menstrual taboos could be quite rigorous. Yet, both men and women were usually married by 13 or 14 and had some decision power in the bands. Newly married men were required to live with their in-laws for at least a year before establishing their own households (yet, sometimes they could have more than one wife). Exogamy and cross cousin marriage were usually encouraged. Since infant mortality was common, babies were usually not named until it was certain they would survive. Cremation was standard funerary practice.


The Subarctic tribes were well known for their intricate beadwork and embroidery. After they made contact with the Europeans, these Indians took to using glass beads and sewn floral designs.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, reincarnation, ceramics, storytelling, controlled burning, music, lacrosse, wooden dolls, basket weaving, dance, embroidery, beadwork, and scapulimancy.

Tools and Weapons: Antler clubs soaked in grease, armor, spears, hide containers for holding water, tumplines for carrying, snowshoes, bow and arrow, net traps, gaffs, fish hooks, snares, and weirs. Raw materials usually consisted of bark, wood, root, stone, and sometimes copper. Yet, many groups also liberally borrowed from their neighbors.

Notable Tribes: Cree, Ojibwa, Gwich’in, Dena’ina, Beothuk, Beaver, Mountain, Hare, Han, Tanacross, Yelloknife, Innu, Chipewyan, Eyak, Kuskokwim, Holikachunk, Sekani, Tagish, Ingalik, Ahtna, Babine-Wet’suwet’en, Dogrib, Tutchone, Carrier, Chilcotin, Attikamek, Tanana, Bearlake, Koyukon, Naskapi, Slavey, Tlicho, and Kaska.