As anyone who has ever been there knows, the western part of North America is a very special place. It was also special to the original inhabitants. This summer we drove through a small part of it. In 2001 we visited the more northerly part of British Columbia. Both are beautiful and interesting.
The shoreline that extends from Alaska in the north to northern California is actually slowly sinking into the ocean and this has created thousands of islands, channels, and fiords. It is warmed by the Japanese current that flows southward from Alaska, making the climate much more temperate than its location would suggest. This also helps to assure plentiful rainfall. And rainfall brings abundance.
One way that this area was special to Indigenous people was the abundance of food that could be obtained and the mild climate that made living relatively easy. This allowed for more permanent sites than were often found on the plains or elsewhere. That was how they coped with abundance.
Through millennia a distinctive Northwest Coast culture has developed and much of that has a direct relationship in which the Indigenous People there grew and flourished.
I was surprised to learn that the archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest people who lived there were very similar to the people in the interior. A hunting tradition developed at least 10,000 years ago. Many Indigenous People say they have been there for longer than that. They enjoyed elk, deer, antelope, beavers, rabbits, and rodents as prey. Gradually they learned to hunt river mussels and most importantly salmon.
Ass David Hurst Thomas explained,
“Northwest Coast people considered salmon to be a race of eternal beings who lived in underwater houses during the winter. In the spring they took on their fish form and swam up the rivers in huge numbers, bestowing themselves upon humans for food. The first salmon caught each year was placed on an altar, facing upstream, and prayers were said. After each villager sampled the roasted flesh, the intact skeleton was returned to the river, and it swam back to the underwater world of the salmon people. One day, this skeleton would return as a whole fish.”
Major villages were often located at the shoreline on beaches that were convenient for landing large canoes. They also had some smaller encampments. In the north the houses were square. In the south, such as near Whistler, the houses were long and narrow and occupied by several families. As Hurst Thomas said, “Large wooden houses like these have been constructed here for more than three thousand years, suggesting the development of an extended family organization.”
The more I learn about Indigenous people, the more I realize they were amazing.