In providing a broad overview of the hundreds of distinct American Indian cultures found in North America, it is common for museums, historians, archaeologists, and ethnologists to use a culture area model. This model is based on the observation that different groups of people living in the same geographic area often share many cultural features.
The Northwest Coast culture area stretches along the Pacific coast between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean. It extends north of California to Alaska. This is an area which is the home to many Indian nations who traditionally based their economy on the use of sea coast and river ecological resources. The Northwest Coast culture area stretches from the Tlingit homelands in Alaska to the Tolowa homelands in northern California.
In his book Northwest Coast Indian Painting: House Fronts and Interior Screens, Edward Malin writes:
“This narrow littoral was a region of immense physical complexity, an oceanic environment clothed in limitless forest covering the rugged and precipitous mountain ranges.”
Edward Malin also describes it this way:
“The region is an immense symphony of churning ocean, occasionally becalmed, but never tranquil, seemingly countless inlets and impregnable fjords, and mountain chains, one following another mantled in a dense forest of red cedar, spruce, and hemlock.”
The Northwest Coast can be divided into three distinct cultural provinces:
- Northern: This includes the Tlingit, Tsimshian (Nisg’a), Haida, Haihai, and Haisla. The social structure of these tribes was rigidly organized and hierarchical.
- Central: This includes the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw’), Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), Bella Coola (Nuxälk), Bella Bella (Heiltsuk), and Oowekeeno. The ownership of inherited privileges among these tribes was often dramatized in theatrical rituals and personified in carved masks.
- Southern: This includes the Coast Salish, southern Athapaskans, and Chinook. This is the least homogeneous area in the Northwest Coast and shows ties with California to the south and the Plateau to the east.
According to the display on the Northwest Coast in the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington:
“Throughout the region, art was associated with social prestige and an elaborate ceremonial cycle. Members of the noble class held potlatches, in part to affirm their right to own and display certain artistic forms. In general, Northwest Coast art was characterized by a highly stylized design system of abstracted human and animal images.”
Shown below are the Maryhill Museum of Art displays of Northwest Coast artifacts.
According to the Museum display:
“Although the Tsimshian made utilitarian baskets, this style was made for sale. The butterfly pattern and wavy rim are features drawn from Euro-American sources. These baskets are twined of cedar bark, with designs of false embroidered grass.”
According to the Museum display:
“The Tlingit used split spruce root to make finely woven twined baskets. They were decorated with false embroidered designs, often arranged in horizontal bands. Cylindrical shapes were common, both with lids and without. Some lids were made with a built-in rattle, a small space in the lid which held pebbles. Small baskets were often woven in an openwork style that the Tlingit called ‘eyehole.’ This was made by crossing the warps with each row of twining. The ‘eyehole’ stitch was usually alternated with bands of false embroidery.”