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Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest: An Introduction

Essay by David M. Buerge


Near the northwest corner of the continent, the ice of the St. Elias Range leaves its high birthing fields and flows nearly four miles down to the ocean shore. In this cloud-shrouded refuge, ice and sea continue to sculpt the land as they have for untold thousands of years. The mark of their ancient work extends more than a thousand miles to the south: in the tangle of fjords and islands of the Alaskan panhandle, in the wide turbulent ocean entrances, teeming with life, separating the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Haida Gwaii, from the rain-lashed coast, and in the sinuous route of the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the rugged mainland. This is the world of Raven, powerful and immense, resplendent in sunlight, but more often hidden in mist and shadowed by gigantic forests.

To the south, where the Fraser River surges into the Gulf of Georgia, the land assumes a gentler cast. Strong rivers exit their mountain fastnesses and wind through a lowland plain before emptying into the great, rich estuary known as Puget Sound. Here it only seems to be as rainy as it is further north: the Olympic rampart catches most of the precipitation on its western slope, leaving the country in its shadow relatively dry. Before they were cut away, the lowland forests were also immense, but intermingled with them were open areas covered with ferns and grasses and spangled with wildflowers. This is the land of the Changer, the Star Child who descended from the heavens to the fertile earth and, as Moon, married a daughter of the Salmon people, ensuring his human kin happiness and plenty if they would respect the family of his bride.

Guarding the eastern margin of this country are the huge Cascade volcanoes, wrapped in snowy blankets the year around, beautiful but ominous. And bounding it on the south is the great river of many names: Wauna, Nchi'wana, Oregon, the River of Kings, the River of the West, the Columbia. It rises from the ice fields of the distant Rockies, and winds its way through high-shouldered mountains and broad grasslands, accepting tributaries from pine-scented plateaus as it enters a gaunt volcanic waste carpeted with sagebrush. The basalt cliffs hemming its powerful current here are broken by the empty mouths of canyons, dry coulees, gouged into the rock by terrible floods that once scoured the land. Leaving the desert, the broad river cuts west through the Cascades in a spectacular gorge hung with gossamer waterfalls before it reaches the sea with one last mighty show of turbulence. This is the world of Coyote, heroic in scale, bearing the marks of chaos but offering abundant riches.

The people were here when the Pacific Northwest emerged from its icy womb and donned its forest raiment. Raven, Changer and Coyote, the demiurges of the myth-time, tamed its monsters, made it habitable for humankind and taught people how to live well in it. For 500 generations they flourished until newcomers came and transformed it yet again. In this new dispensation much was lost; much was devalued, but much was also hidden away in the hearts of the dispossessed. In time, part of this found its way into print, into the records of those patient and interested enough to write down what the elders remembered. Artists and photographers preserved images of a changing world.

To the surprise of many, the people, the Native Americans, survived the transformation, and in our own day they have reclaimed a place of honor in the civic household, restored vitality to many of their ancient traditions and crafted new ones adapted to novel conditions. Their voices insist upon a hearing and the cumulative wisdom of their long residence in this land offers rich insights to those willing to listen. The challenge now is to find a way to make knowledge of the ancient traditions, the experience of change and the living reality accessible and available.

About the Collection

Makah Whaling Canoe at Neah Bay
Whaling canoe at Neah Bay, 1900

In 1998, the University of Washington Libraries received a grant with the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Grant Competition to create a digital collection of writing and photographs dealing with Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest that would be available to students and researchers using the Internet. In collaboration with the Chaney Cowles Museum/Eastern Washington State Historical Society in Spokane and the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, the UW Libraries created a collection of some 2,300 photographs and 7,700 pages of text as well as metadata (captioning).

It is part of the Library of Congress American Memory site, the goal of which is to create digital collections of primary sources relating to the history and cultural development of the United States. To adapt a technical term, it creates a meta-library that gives users access to information scattered around the country simply by typing in a web site address and clicking an icon. Made available are historical photographs recording aspects of native life along the Northwest Coast and on the Plateau east of the Cascade Mountains, selected pages from the Annual Reports of the Indian Commissioner, selected articles from the University of Washington Publications in Anthropology and the Pacific Northwest Quarterly, copies of several treaties with tribes in Washington and Oregon and a series of essays authored specifically for the collection that describe and interpret selected topics.

The key word is selection. Although the number of items in the collection is considerable, they represent only a fraction of what exists. For example, only certain groups: the Tlingit and Tsimshian of the Alaskan Panhandle, the Coast Salish of Puget Sound, the Makah and Nootkan peoples of the outer coast, the Nez Perce and the Coeur d'Alene of the interior plateau, are highlighted. This reflects the limitations of the collection itself as well as of the expertise of the scholars whose works appear in the project or are cited. The photo collection also shows the effects of selective winnowing. It is a fact that early photographers thought certain native groups were more attractive than others. As a result, the dramatic art of the Alaskan and British Columbian coasts is better documented than the less spectacular forms common to the Puget Sound region, and scenes of picturesque encampments sold better than more humble depictions of everyday life. The thoughtful observer will also notice that most of the photographs were taken before the 1930s. It is not because people stopped taking pictures or that native culture stopped developing after that period, but rather because those selecting the photos were bound to respect copyright law whose protections extend back 75 years.

An intellectual selectivity also slants the collection's writings. The theses requirements of social science graduate programs insured that the history, anthropology and languages of native groups would be examined in detail. Economists rarely ventured into the area, nor sociologists. Occasionally researchers took the opportunity to propose theories about how human society operated or where they thought native people originated, and some of these ideas, rendered quaint by passing time and increased knowledge, appear in the collection. Thus, native groups are generally described in the past tense, the object being to preserve or clarify the record of passing cultures, a thoroughly laudable goal, but one that necessarily ignored more contemporary issues which often had political overtones. At the other end of the spectrum, the reports of Indian commissioners are often highly political documents penned by individuals employed to remove groups to reservations and Americanize them, forcibly if necessary. Their perceptions, while more immediate, reflect the demands of federal bureaucracy and the prevailing national ethos.

The images of Native Americans made by outsiders often tell us as much about the people making them as they do their subjects. Even photographs, which presume to capture reality, disclose by choice of subject and its portrayal a photographer's preconceptions which must inevitably influence our perception. Photographs, like the drawings and paintings of native people made by westerners since the first encounter, may more usefully be considered art, and all representations must be examined closely to separate what may be considered real from a pervasive bias.

It must also be understood that the collection with all its limitations seeks to describe the lifeways of a host of groups scattered over the Northwest Coast and the Plateau, a vast area encompassing southeastern Alaska, coastal British Columbia, the State of Washington, northern Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana. The very terms Northwest Coast and Plateau exercise severe limitations on our imaginations by inviting us to lump extraordinarily diverse groups into two broad categories. The similarities that enable ethnographers to identity the Makahs of the outer coast, hunting grey whales out in the Pacific in splendid cedar dugouts, and Nisquallies at the head of Puget Sound, who cultivated root crops and later raised horses on their broad prairie, as belonging to the Northwest Coast culture area tend to obscure the differences between them. It has also led to the very mistaken practice of labeling all Northwest Coast groups as "totem pole Indians'. The same indistinction blurs our view of those groups we identify as Plateau, among whom the Coeur d'Alene, fishing their great blue lake in pine bark canoes, differed markedly from the Nez Perce riding to buffalo country on gaily caparisoned apaloosas. Throughout this vast region each native group possessed a unique and enduring culture whose oral history and mythology reached back to the beginning of time.

At best, 2,300 photographs and 7,700 pages of text can serve only to introduce an extraordinary cultural mosaic of profound complexity and antiquity. Indeed, that is the collection's purpose, but it also provides important primary materials to students and scholars and points them toward other sources of information. To facilitate this, several regional authors have written essays on topics that focus on specific cultural groups and pertinent cross-cultural topics.

About the Essays

Tlingit dancers at potlatch, 1898
Tlingit dancers at potlatch, 1898

Alaskan Tlinigit and Tsimshian - Dr. Jay Miller of the University of Washington examines the Tlingit of the Alaskan panhandle and neighboring Tsimshian of the British Columbia coast. The large number of photographs of these groups owes to the historical circumstance of the Yukon and Alaskan gold rushes at the turn of the century that sent thousands of prospectors into their homelands and whetted an appetite for pictures of exotic scenes encountered along the way. Miller introduces us to the potlatch, probably the most widely known institution of the Northwest coast, and to the conflict of values that led to its being outlawed by disapproving white authorities in the 1880s.

Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest - Of all native art forms from the Northwest Coast, the most distinctive is the totem pole, misnamed but appreciated and duplicated with considerably liberty worldwide. In her essay about them, Dr. Robin K. Wright, curator of Native American art at the University of Washington's Burke Museum, looks to folklore for clues to the origin of their form and examines the impact of western influence upon its development. Because they were raised during potlatches, the ban on the latter seriously curtailed their creation, but the demands of tourists and museums created a market for them and for imitations. The irony highlights the peculiar ambivalence that has marked the relationship between native and non-native.

The Makah Tribe: People of the Sea and Forest - Its effects are a focus of the essay on the Makah by Dr. Ann M. Renker who serves as the bilingual education coordinator for the Cape Flattery School District. "One common misunderstanding about the Makah people," she writes, "is that the culture has stayed exactly the same for thousands of years." As it did throughout the Pacific Northwest and, indeed throughout the New World, western trade goods and diseases profoundly changed traditional Makah life and culture. The change continued as invading newcomers forced their beliefs and ways of life upon them, often in the name of progress, ratified by treaty and law and backed up with the threat of force.

Assimilation through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest - One of the more effective means government officials used in their attempt to eradicate traditional native institutions was to remove children from their families and enroll them in schools run by the government or by religious groups. Carolyn J. Marr , Librarian at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, examines the operation of northwestern Indian schools in her essay and even provides a daily schedule from the Cushman Indian School in Tacoma as an example of the degree to which students' lives were regimented. Although training in manual and domestic skills was often valuable, forbidding the use of native languages and strict limitations on visits home came fearfully close to realizing the goal of Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Pennsylvania's Carlisle School, to "Kill the Indian and save the man."

Tulalip women weaving baskets, 1904

The Lushootseed Peoples of Puget Sound Country - That any native traditions survived this onslaught owed to their resilience, the tenacity of their adherents and the willingness of individuals to impart their knowledge to linguists and ethnographers. The meaning and value of some of these traditions are described in the essay written by Coll-Peter Thrush, an historian at the University of Washington, on the Lushootseed peoples of Puget Sound, the native speakers of the Lushootseed language. By examining their culture, "through the lens of the Huchoosedah," a Lushootseed term meaning cultural and self knowledge, he provides an overview not commonly encountered in the scholarly research on Native Americans - one based upon the peoples' own perceptions of themselves.

Coeur d'Alene (Schitsu ' umsh) - It is a view re-emphasized in the essay on the Coeur d'Alene of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana, written by Dr. Rodney Frey, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Idaho. Where ethnographies typically follow the pattern of describing a group's territory, environment, culture and history, isolating religion and mythology as sub-units within culture, Frey begins with mythology and religious teachings, and reiterates their importance throughout the narrative to modern times. "We survive by our oral traditions," he quotes contemporary elder, Henry SiJohn, "which are our basic truths, our basic facts, handed down from our elders."

The Nez Perce - Revival of traditional culture has marked the recent history of the Nez Perce, described in the essay co-authored by Dr. Deward E. Walker, Jr. and Peter Jones, of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. One would be hard-pressed to find another group in the record of Northwestern history whose relations with the invading western peoples once promised so much, were played out as dramatically, or whose subsequent losses were as wrenching. Treaties, federal dicta and legal maneuvering reduced their holdings from 13,000,000 acres to 80,000 at one point, but they, too, have refused to disappear.

Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph: From Indians to Icons - My own essay on Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph examines the impact of western history on the lives of two prominent native leaders - and their impact upon it. Seattle went out of his way to befriend Americans and recruited entrepreneurs among them in hopes of creating a community where native and newcomer could share its prosperity. Joseph used every skill at his command to preserve his people's freedom and secure their return to their homeland. Neither succeeded, and their ironic, tragic words continue to haunt our public conscience.

Kwakiutl totem pole
Kwakiutl totem pole

Salmon, the Lifegiving Gift - The impact of their words is heightened by the unsettling understanding that, as Seattle suggested, "we may be brothers after all;" that the fate meted out to native people may redound upon their dispossessors. The historic development of the Pacific Northwest that began with the alienation of its aboriginal inhabitants came with a price that must be paid, and Dr. Jay Miller's second essay examines the salmon, once the daily bread of groups throughout the region, but now an endangered resource and an icon of environmental fragility. The miraculous reappearance of the fish in the rivers year after year evoked a sense of awe and reverence from the native people who managed this resource with intelligence and care. Two salmon stories, one from the coast and another from the interior, capture the sense of mystery surrounding the fishes' nature as well as the epic quality of its return and the hope it inspired, a hope now threatened.

Using the Collection

Our fascination with the diverse, complex and unique native cultures of the Pacific Northwest is a measure of how satisfying they were to the people who created them. The progress of these ancient cultures was rudely interrupted by contact with the West and the forcible inclusion of their members into the social systems of expanding nation-states. The fact that the inclusion may at times have been directed by a spirit of sincere idealism cannot obscure the reality that it was often cruel and destructive. At the time of the treaties, most Americans assumed the native peoples would vanish like the frontier itself. In most cases, however, neither the people nor their cultures disappeared entirely, and today many are experiencing a revival. This reassertion of identity has led to a salutary change in attitude of many non-Indians who are less likely to perceive native people to be anachronisms, irrelevant or Hollywood stereotypes.

The authors of the essays divide this ongoing saga into ancient, historic and contemporary periods. The division between ancient and historic is determined by the year during which a given group first appeared in written records. This varies. If Juan de Fuca's voyage is to be credited, then people living along the strait now bearing his name were first described in 1591, whereas the Nez Perce do not appear in the written record until 1805. What separates historic from contemporary is more difficult to define, but the consensus of opinion appears to be that contemporary history commenced when modern native groups succeeded in re-forming meaningful self governments. In the United States, this generally begins with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The importance of this legislation underscores the extraordinary degree to which the lives of Native Americans and even their identities are defined by law and governmental decree. What is the legal definition of a Native American? Which law governs their actions? What rights do they have that are different from those of other Americans? The treaties stand as fundamental, often defining documents for native groups in the United States, as much or more than the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The Makah even get their name, incorrectly, from the treaty they signed in 1855. A common misconception about the treaties is that the rights and reservations defined in them were granted to the native people by the government. In fact, they were reserved by the native people for themselves, while they still had the capacity to do so, out of the enormous cessions of land and resources they yielded, often under the threat of violence. While many citizens regard the treaties as hindering anachronisms, most Native Americans do not. The important 1970 court decision rendered by Judge Boldt, for example, reiterating the right of native fishers to a specific percentage of the annual salmon catch, was based on a careful reading of treaty provisions.

So how are we to deal with the information in this collection? Because it is organized as an online resource, it is much easier to access and cross-reference material and to have more facts at hand than before. The authors of the essays have included glossaries to explain uncommon terms and bibliographies to direct readers to other sources of information, and they have also included study questions that teachers may wish to use as they develop curricula in their schools. We would also strongly encourage you to visit tribal centers and reservations with respect and patience and to talk to Native Americans and others familiar with them.

The vast amount of data available at our fingertips can be misused, however. Dr. Ann M. Renker tells the story about a New York teacher who invited an Iroquois elder into her classroom to observe her students make copies of masks from the Iroquois False Face Society. The students enjoyed the activity and had fun putting the masks on and scaring each other, and the elder sat through it all good-naturedly. When she asked him how he thought it went, he suggested that perhaps he could return the favor by directing an exercise in which the students could pretend they were Episcopalian or Roman Catholic priests consecrating communion wafers that they could distribute to their classmates. The masks, he reminded her gently, were sacred objects, to be used in a sacred manner, and playing at using them was tantamount to sacrilege, just as pretending to consecrate and distribute hosts would be.

This collection deals with people past and present, not abstract subjects. What we learn about them and what we do with it should not come at their expense. Ultimately, we should ask why we want to learn about Native Americans anyway. Is it because they are a handy way to begin a class on Washington State History? Is it because they are cool and all Indians are environmental saints? Why are they in such demand as topics for research papers? Because of a long history of suppression, devaluation and alienation and the manner in which Native Americans have historically been demonized and romanticized, the ways in which their experience has been understood and taught is fraught with misunderstanding and ignorance. As we strive to learn more about them, we can hope for a better understanding of ourselves. The collection has been put together in hopes of clarifying misunderstanding and reducing ignorance, but it is only a tool. We offer it to you with the hope that it will be effective.

About the Author

David M. Buerge was born in Oakland, California, in 1945. He has published several books and numerous articles dealing with the social and religious history of the Northwest in general and of Native Americans in the Seattle area in particular. He is currently writing a biography of Chief Seattle. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Mary Anne, and their children and teaches at a private school.

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