Northwest Region

The Northwest Culture

The region defined as the Northwest Coast Culture Area is elongated, extending from north to south about 2,000 miles, but from east to west only about 150 miles at its widest. At its northern limits, it touches on territory that is now southern Alaska. At its southern limits, it touches on northern California. In between, it includes the western parts of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. A large part of the Northwest Coast Culture Area consists of islands, including Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlotte Islands, and the Alexander Archipelago, plus numerous smaller chains.

The many islands are actually the tips of submerged mountains, part of the Coast Range. These rugged mountains form a spine running north-south along the culture area. Many of the mountains extend right down to the ocean, forming rocky cliffs. There are numerous inlets and sounds along the shoreline, as well as numerous straits between the islands. Farther inland, in Washington and Oregon, another mountain range, the Cascade Range, also runs north-south.

The climate of the Northwest Coast is surprisingly warm for the northern latitudes because an ocean current, known as the Japan (Kuroshio) Current, warms the ocean as well as winds blowing inland. But the westerly winds also carry abundant moisture. The mountains block the moisture, which turns to rainfall, as much as 100 inches or more a year, more than in any other part of North America. Abundant springs and streams run from the mountains to the ocean.

These climatic conditions led to the growth of vast forests. Giant evergreen trees, among the tallest in the world, cover most of the land, except mountaintops and rock faces too steep to have soil. The branches of tall trees form a dense canopy, blocking out sunlight. The forest floor is therefore dark and wet, with little undergrowth other than ferns and mosses.

Northwest Coast peoples usually lived right at the ocean’s edge on narrow sand and gravel beaches. Mountains rise up to the east. The island chains to the west offered protection from stormy seas.


The Indians situated their houses facing the sea. They built them entirely of wood taken from the giant forests. Cedar was the wood of choice. The master architects of the Northwest Coast used giant timbers for framing their rectangular houses. For their walls, they lashed hand-split planks to the framework, which ran either vertically or horizontally. They hung mats on the inside for additional insulation. The roofs were also plank-covered. Planks were used for flooring, sometimes on two different levels. There was usually a central firepit. Platforms ran along the walls for sleeping and storage. In size, the houses varied from about 20 by 30 feet, to 50 by 60 feet, to even 60 by 100 feet, and provided shelter for several families.

Northwest Coast Indians often erected giant totem poles outside their houses. Powerful shamans and members of secret societies dictated the significance of the faces on the totem poles. Woodwork in the region included large, seaworthy dugouts and carved chests, boxes, masks, and other objects. Northwest Coast peoples were among the premier Native American woodworkers. They also made exquisite baskets, textiles, and other goods. Villagers demonstrated their wealth and social status by the number of possessions they gave away in a custom unique to this culture area—the potlatch.

Since travel over the mountainous land was so difficult, Northwest Coast Indians moved about by sea. They traveled up and down the coast for purposes of trade, slave-raiding, and hunting. The sea provided their primary game, sea mammals, including whales, seals, and sea lions. The sea also offered up plentiful fish, including salmon, halibut, herring, cod, and flounder. Northwest Coast Indians also fished the rivers when salmon left the ocean waters to lay their eggs. Their land game included deer, elk, bear, and mountain goat. The Indians in this part of North America had plenty of food and could support large populations in their seaside villages without farming. Some Northwest Coast peoples did grow tobacco, however.




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"It was supposed that lost spirits were roving about everywhere in the invisible air, waiting for children to find them if they searched long and patiently enough...[The spirit] sang its spiritual song for the child to memorize and use when calling upon the spirit guardian as an adult."
- Mourning Dove [Christine Quintasket], Salish



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