The First Nations of the Northwest Coast of North America began their permanent settlements about 5,000 years ago where the mild climate, along with the ocean and forests’ abundance of resources, provided an excellent home. They are expert fishermen, artists, wood carvers, and maintain a close-knit society that lives in harmony with the earth. Their rich history and culture continues today.
About 10,000 years ago, the first Americans migrated to North America’s Pacific Northwest Coast and by 3,000 BCE, people had set up permanent villages along the rivers, peninsulas, and islands of this region. The Northwest Coast Region stretches along the Pacific from southern Alaska through Canada’s southwest Yukon, western British Columbia, and along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.
Many First Nations call this region home. This includes the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola (Nuxalk), Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Coast Salish, Quileute-Chimakum, Kwalhioqua, Chinook, Tillamook, and Yurak people.
The region is rich in natural resources and the mild temperatures, abundance of seafood, and thick forests make the Northwest Coast a very hospitable place to live. The ocean and rivers provide plentiful seafood like salmon, whales, sea otters, seals, and shellfish. The dense forests are filled with deer, elk, mountain goats, wolves, beavers, and bears. Nuts, fruits, and vegetables grew wild, so the they had no need to farm.
The abundance of food allowed for the Native Americans to build permanent homes and villages. Cedar wood was used for building large homes called plank houses. These large wooden homes had ornate carvings and paintings and could accommodate many extended families. Plank houses still exist in communities today and continue to be used for ceremonies and community purposes. As expert carvers, the wood is also used to build canoes, make useful tools, and make spiritual carvings such as ceremonial masks and totem poles. The soft inner core of cedar bark is also used for making waterproof clothing like skirts and capes that provided protection from the heavy rains. Basket hats were woven to protect from the sun. Bear and other animal skins provided warm clothing. Fish traps shaped like cones were made from willow branches and used for catching salmon.
Large, elaborate totem poles were placed in front of the home with carved figures of animals, humans and spirits. Totem means “guardian” as it would guard the home. Totem poles are artistic monuments that commemorate family history, events, and ancestry. A totem can be anywhere between 2 and 20 feet tall, and larger totem poles can be seen from miles away. Totem poles often include animal symbols: the raven representing the Creator, the eagle representing peace and friendship, the orca representing strength, and also the thunderbird, beaver, bear, wolf, and frog. Totem poles are also erected for protection, as memorials, to celebrate special occasions like a wedding, and even as a form of punishment to shame a person who did something wrong. The “shame poles” are taken down when amends have been made. Totem poles can also be created to tell a story. The order in which the animals are stacked depict the order of events in the story.
A special ceremony held by Northwest Coast First Nations is called the potlatch. The word potlatch means “to give”. During the ceremony, there are often gifts given to guests and plenty of food. The host of a potlatch is given great respect. These ceremonies could be held to honor special events like weddings, funerals, births, or the raising of a totem pole.
Beginning in 1774, European explorers made contact with the First Nations of the Northwest Coast. By 1812, European fur traders were developing trading relationships. Sadly, this also brought diseases, like smallpox, that decimated many Native American villages. First Nations of the Northwest Coast are some of the longest continuing cultures in the Americas. After European expansion brought foreign disease, oppression and theft of their lands, the many First Nations endured with a deep connection to the environment, their rich, artistic traditions and their history.
Using the activities in this lesson plan, students will be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned about the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast and describe their environment, resources, traditions, and culture.