National Geographic : 1945 Jan
Indians of Our North Pacific Coast BY MATTHEW W. STIRLING Chief, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution .OST aristocratic of all the Indians north of Mexico were the tribes which dwelt on our wild and beauti ful North Pacific coast.* Unlike the vast majority of their North American kinsmen, they did not develop de mocracy. Instead, they set much store by wealth and family connections. Above the Rio Grande, only the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico rivaled their civilization. With their famous totem poles, the Indians of the Northwest developed wood carving into exquisite artistry (pages 28, 50). They excelled in dramatic performances. Their realism in the dance and in impersona tion was matched by the skill of the carvers and painters who designed the masks and costumes (pages 26, 29). Their leaders originated the celebrated "pot latch" ceremonials, in which the giver often impoverished himself in his lavish bestowal of presents on the guests (page 31). Many were expert whalers. Others knew how to manufacture fish oil, an important element in their diet. Warriors Wore Body Armor A warlike group, their warriors were among the few in North America who wore body armor. Usually we consider the development of agriculture and the knowledge of pottery mak ing as signs of an advanced culture. Yet the Northwest Coast tribes achieved their exalted status without either. This aristocratic group of tribes inhabited an area stretching from Yakutat Bay, in south ern Alaska, to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Vancouver Island and the State of Washington. Their influence extended as far north and west as the Aleutians and as far south as California (Plate XI). Their homeland constituted one of the most distinct cultural areas in North America, yet they were independent of one another and spoke many different and unrelated languages. * This is the fourth in a series of authoritative articles by Matthew W. Stirling on the American Indian, illustrated with W. Langdon Kihn's paintings which are the result of careful study and extensive research. See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, "America's First Settlers, the Indians," Novem ber, 1937; "Indian Tribes of Pueblo Land," Novem ber, 1940, and "Indians of Our Western Plains," July, 1944. Each separate unit thus contributed its share to the unique customs common to this inter esting region. Along the northwest coast a rugged series of heavily forested mountains rises abruptly from the sea and extends inland in an almost unbroken succession of ranges to the Rocky Mountains. A mountainous chain of islands, large and small, skirts the entire coast. These islands are separated, one from another, by an intri cate maze of sea channels. Sunken mountain valleys have produced a series of deep narrow inlets, or fjords, some of which penetrate far into the mountains. Four principal rivers, of medium size, have cut their way to the sea: the Stikine in the northern, the Nass and Skeena in the central, and the Fraser in the southern part of the region. Forests of Giant Trees Except for the river valleys, the entire coast is rather effectively isolated from the interior, a factor which has contributed considerably to its individual development. Rainfall is heavy and, combined with the mild coastal climate created by the temperate Japan Cur rent, has produced heavy forests. Trees often reach gigantic size (Plate X), especially in the southern section. Of most importance to the Indians are the red and yellow cedars, fir, hemlock, spruce, and pine. Native villages hug the seacoast or main waterways. Fish and sea mammals are the inhabitants' principal food. Salmon and candlefish, which ascend the fresh-water streams to spawn, are abundant. The Indians catch them with weirs, fish traps, nets, and rakes. They also harpoon salmon (Plate XIII). In the sea, Pacific codfish and halibut are caught with hook and line, the latter made of long strings of kelp. Herring are taken in nets. Whaling was an important industry of the Nootka and Quileute. It was not practiced by most of the tribes north of them, the Kodiak islanders and Aleuts excepted. The Nootka pursued the whale in seagoing dugout canoes (Plate XVI), frequently far from land. Harpoons with broad points, made formerly of shell or stone but now of metal, fastened to detachable heads, were attached to long lines of whale sinew.