Indigenous People: Northwest Coast Fishermen
In studying indigenous people, the American Indians of the Northwest Coast traditionally lived on a narrow belt of Pacific coastland and offshore islands. The Northwest Coast culture area stretches from what is now the southern border of Alaska to northwestern California. The Pacific Ocean is the western boundary. To the east are the mountains of the Coast Range and the Cascades. In many places the coastal hills or mountains fall steeply to a beach or riverbank.
Abundant rains support dense, towering forests that are rich in animal life. This environment provided a wealth of resources for the Indians.
Northwest Coast Indian Languages
The Northwest Coast was densely populated when Europeans first made landfall in the 1700s. It was home to peoples speaking:
- Other languages.
Well-known tribes included the:
- Bella Coola
- Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka)
- Coast Salish
European Contact and Culture Changes of the Northwest Indians
The Tlingit were the first Northwest Coast Indians to encounter Europeans, when Russian traders arrived in Tlingit territory in 1741. The Russians did not establish a post in the region until 1799 and then only after heated resistance. Spain sent parties to the Haida in 1774, Britain to the Nuu-chah-nulth in 1778, and the United States to various groups in about 1800.
The colonizers sought sea otter pelts, which were particularly dense and highly prized in China. Although the Russians forced Aleut men to hunt sea otters for them, they traded with Northwest Coast peoples for furs and food. In exchange they brought manufactured goods, such as steel blades, to the tribes. Some native peoples profited greatly from this trade. The Tlingit sold huge quantities of fish, game, and potatoes to the trading posts. The Tsimshian and others gained control of major trade routes, demanding fees for passage and vessel rental. Still other groups hired out their slaves as prostitutes or laborers.
Beginning in the 1840s the Northwest Coast tribes faced a flood of settlers from the eastern United States and Canada. In the United States this occupation was accompanied by the removal of the tribes to small reservations in what are now Washington and Oregon. Missionaries taught the Indians not only Christianity but also etiquette, punctuality, and other aspects of the dominant culture. Traditional ceremonies, such as the potlatch and spirit dancing, were banned in Canada for decades. In addition, the formal schooling of native children was in the hands of missionaries on much of the coast for many decades.
From the late 1700s through the 1800s the most disruptive events for Northwest Coast peoples were epidemics of diseases such as smallpox and measles. Having no immunity to these illnesses, the Indians suffered very high death rates. It is estimated that between 1780 and 1900 the native population in the region declined by as much as 80 percent.
In the late 1800s, the fur trade collapsed, and Northwest Coast peoples struggled economically. Having lost most of their lands and increasingly dependent upon manufactured goods, they needed to develop new sources of income. Some people began working for wages, something that most other Native American peoples refused to do.
At first jobs were mostly limited to guiding prospectors, backpacking cargo over mountain passes, cutting wood for coastal steamers, and working as farm and domestic labor. Yet when the canned salmon industry developed, wage labor boomed. With their extensive knowledge of the region’s salmon, native men and women had a clear advantage in the fishing industry.
Some Indians, often of high social status, established their own businesses; they typically employed, fed, or otherwise aided the lower-status members of their house group. Fishing continues to be a mainstay of the region’s economy.
Economic and Political Power of Northwest Coast Indians
Having retained a high level of economic independence compared to other Native American groups, Northwest Coast peoples were able to organize relatively effectively against government interference. Beginning in 1912 the Tlingit, Haida, and other tribes in southeastern Alaska created political groups called Native Brotherhoods and, later, Native Sisterhoods to act on behalf of the people in legal and other proceedings. Similar groups were subsequently formed in coastal British Columbia. These organizations pursued a variety of legal strategies to ensure equal treatment under the law. An early success was the 1915 passage of an act granting territorial citizenship to Native Alaskans who met certain requirements.
Later in the 20th century these groups filed a number of successful antidiscrimination lawsuits and land claims. In the United States the land claims led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. This act turned over some 44 million acres (17.8 million hectares) of land and almost 1 billion dollars to Native Alaskans.
The Canadian organizations brought about the repeal, in 1951, of laws prohibiting potlatches and the filing of land claims. After many years of discussion, the provincial government of British Columbia agreed in 1990 to negotiate tribal land claims through a body known as the British Columbia Treaty Commission. However, the negotiation process was painstaking, and progress was slow.
- About the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. (2020, June 3). ANCSA Regional Association. https://ancsaregional.com/about-ancsa/
- Alaska native brotherhood Alaska native sisterhood grand camp – History. (n.d.). Alaska Native Brotherhood/Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp. https://www.anbansgc.org/about-us/history/
- (n.d.). BC Treaty Commission. https://www.bctreaty.ca/
- The economic history of the fur trade: 1670 to 1870. (n.d.). https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-the-fur-trade-1670-to-1870/
- The native brotherhoods: Modern intertribal organizations on the northwest coast. (n.d.). About the Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project. https://www.alaskool.org/projects/native_gov/documents/anb/anb_2.htm
- Northwest coast Indians. (n.d.). Britannica Kids. https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/Northwest-Coast-Indians/480466
- Potlatch ceremonies and the repatriation of potlatch regalia | Theirs or ours? (2015, February 17). Vassar College WordPress | A Digital Publishing Platform for the Vassar Community. https://pages.vassar.edu/theirsorours/2015/02/17/potlatch-ceremonies-and-the-repatriation-of-potlatch-regalia/
- Southeast Alaska. (n.d.). Alaska History and Cultural Studies. https://www.akhistorycourse.org/southeast-alaska/many-nations-challenge-tlingit-claims/