Northwest Native American History

3 minutes

Native people have been living in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States for thousands of years. This region was one of the first areas where Paleo-era people settled after migrating across the Bering Strait. There is some disagreement over when the first peoples settled in the Americas but some scientists believe that the first groups to live in the Pacific Northwest arrived about 14,000 years ago.

The land was rich in natural resources, which allowed populations to grow. At one time the Northwest was the most densely populated part of the continent. It is believed that these people subsisted on the abundant salmon that was available in rivers throughout the region. They were hunter-gatherers, which was unusual for non-Nomadic tribes, but the land was so bountiful that it allowed them to settle without planting crops.

The cultures to live in the Northwest were varied. Some stayed close to the ocean while others moved inland. Scholars divide the tribes among linguistic terms, which means they are grouped according to the languages they spoke. The main dialects are Chinookan, Sahaptin, and Interior Salish. Some tribes spoke different languages or a combination of one of these.

The speakers or Chinookan or Chinook were the largest one of these groups. The Chinook lived along the river in parts of what is now Washington State and Oregon. They are notable for being the tribe that American explorers Lewis and Clark, along with Sacagawea, encountered on their expedition across the continental United States. Tribes that spoke dialects of this language included the Kathlamet, The Clackamas, and the Watlata. Interior Salish and Sahaptin were spoken across several dozen other tribes and today you can still find descendents of all of these tribes living in the United States.

The people of the Pacific Northwest are known for their artwork, particularly Totem Poles, which are sculptures carved out of large trees that tell a story or detail the lineage of a clan or a family. The adage of "low man on the totem pole" refers to someone who has little to no status and answers to people in charge of him or her. In reality, the bottom of the totem pole was the most intricately carved and reserved for the individual who was most important. The lower part of the pole was the one that you would see most clearly so the master carvers would work on the bottom while the apprentices or less experienced carvers worked on the top. Usually the bottom of the totem is the best part of the pole. To refer to unimportant people as the "high man on the totem pole" would be more historically accurate.

Historically, the Northwest people lived in longhouses, homes longer than they were wide and constructed from wood. Each longhouse had the symbol of the family hung above the doorway. The longhouse allowed large families to live together. Some large longhouses may have even been home to whole tribes with the chiefs assigning living spaces. The abundant resources allowed people free time to create artwork that served as a means of telling stories from generation to generation.

Today, tribes continue to work with the U.S. government to maintain their legal tribal status. Tribal nations want to maintain a legal status within the U.S. federal system so that they can retain access to land set aside by the U.S. government and establish laws within their own borders. Upholding their own rules and traditions allows native peoples to preserve their rich cultural heritages.

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Ani Kington Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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