The Northwest Coast area extended along the Pacific coast from S Alaska to N California. The main language families in this area were the Nadene in the north and the Wakashan (a subdivision of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock) and the Tsimshian (a subdivision of the Penutian linguistic stock) in the central area. Typical tribes were the Kwakiutl, the Haida, the Tsimshian, and the Nootka. Thickly wooded, with a temperate climate and heavy rainfall, the area had long supported a large Native American population. Salmon was the staple food, supplemented by sea mammals (seals and sea lions) and land mammals (deer, elk, and bears) as well as berries and other wild fruit. The Native Americans of this area used wood to build their houses and had cedar-planked canoes and carved dugouts. In their permanent winter villages some of the groups had totem poles (see totem), which were elaborately carved and covered with symbolic animal decoration. Their art work, for which they are famed, also included the making of ceremonial items, such as rattles and masks; weaving; and basketry. They had a highly stratified society with chiefs, nobles, commoners, and slaves. Public display and disposal of wealth were basic features of the society (see potlatch). They had woven robes, furs, and basket hats as well as wooden armor and helmets for battle. This distinctive culture, which included cannibalistic rituals, was not greatly affected by European influences until after the late 18th cent., when the white fur traders and hunters came to the area.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.