Photograph by Michael Wheatley, Getty Images
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Oceangoing canoes are carved from cedar or spruce trees and hollowed out to fit as many as 30 people.

Photograph by Michael Wheatley, Getty Images

Native People of the American Northwest Coast

Get facts and photos about the history and culture

HOW THEY GOT HERE

About 10,000 years ago, people began living on North America’s Northwest Coast, a narrow area along the Pacific Ocean that stretches across parts of modern-day Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Yukon and British Columbia in Canada. By 3,000 B.C., people had set up permanent villages along the rivers, peninsulas, and islands of this region.

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The thunderbird, a spirit being, was a common crest for totem poles like this one.

COOL CULTURE

The ocean and the lush coastal forests provided the Northwest Coast people with everything that they needed to survive. Tribes carved huge canoes made from cedar or spruce trees. The boats could fit up to 30 people, who paddled into the sea to hunt otters, seals, and whales. Salmon was such an important food source that these fish featured in many of their stories, and many tribes held a First Salmon Ceremony to celebrate the salmon’s return to freshwater rivers from the ocean.

Many tribes, such as the Tlingit (KLIN-kit) and Haida (HY-dah), showed off their status with totem poles. These carved and painted poles represented a family’s history or honored a chief or other important person. The totem poles featured carvings of animals or supernatural creatures associated with family clans. Thunderbirds (a mythical animal that caused thunder when it opened its wings), ravens, and bears stared down from many totem poles.

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A Quinault (pronounced kwih-NAWLT) boy wears a traditional carved cedar mask.

In the spring and summer, many tribes lived in temporary shelters that could be moved around while they hunted, fished, and gathered berries and roots. During winter, people moved into cedar houses that were large enough for many families to share. Often these homes had totem poles outside. Sometimes the totem poles were used as posts to support the house’s roof.

LIFE TODAY

Today the native people of the Northwest Coast have lives like many Americans: They live in modern homes and send their kids to school. But many also remember their heritage by doing things like carving totem poles, hosting traditional feasts, and sharing their culture with others. For instance, the Puyallup (pyoo-AH-lup) tribe has a YouTube channel with videos of events such as the Puyallup powwow. Fish have become part of many of modern tribal businesses: The S’klallam (SKLAH-lum) and the Stillaguamish (stil-AG-wa-mish) operate fish hatcheries.

Many tribes participate in Canoe Journeys, an event hosted by the Lummi (LOO-mee) people. Each year, participants sail oceangoing canoes to a different destination, sometimes taking a month to complete the journey.