Northwest Coast Baskets

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.

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Marriage Among Northwest Coast Indians

The family is a social institution that appears to be universal among humans, though the actual form of the family can vary greatly. One of the foundational aspects of family is marriage which involves the commitment of two or more individuals. With regard to a formal definition of marriage, in Culture as Given, Culture as Choice, anthropologist Dirk van der Elst writes:  “It is impossible to make a single, universally applicable definition of marriage. The reason is simple: marriage has many separate functions, so different societies can emphasize different aspects—and hence not mean quite the same thing by the term.”

For thousands of years prior to the European invasion, Native American people lived along the northern Pacific coast between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean. Here they developed complex cultures characterized by permanent villages and social stratification (that is, there were social classes, including ruling families). As with other peoples around the world, their marriage customs reflected the other aspects of their cultures.

To understand marriage among the First Nations of the Northwest Coast, we must start with the concept of the family. While Europeans have been obsessed with the nuclear family—that is, a family composed of a man and a woman and their children—and feel that this is the foundation of human society, this type of family had little importance for the Northwest Coast Indians.  For the Indian people in this region, family was about a type of extended family known as a clan.

Clans are named extended family units—that is, they include relatives which Europeans call aunts, uncles, cousin, grandparents, and so on—which often are corporate in nature (that is, they will have a formal leader and possess property) and are usually exogamous (requiring marriage outside of the clan). Among the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast, clans were traditionally the most important element of their social organization.

In the traditional pre-European villages each of the houses within the village was associated with an extended clan and each clan had certain privileges, which included fishing, hunting, and gathering rights as well as ceremonial rights (such as ownership of songs and dances).

On the northern part of the coast, among the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, descent is matrilineal. This means that people belong to the same clan or lineage as their mother. Thus, a village leader’s position would be inherited by his nephew (his sister’s son) rather than by his own son.

Marriage was often a clan concern rather than an individual concern. Marriage united clans and formed the basis for economic and political alliances. Since marriages created alliances between houses and clans, they tended to be arranged by the families with an eye toward lasting political and social consequences. Spouses were expected to be social equals. The actual wedding was celebrated with a potlatch.

Among the Nisg’a (Tsimshian), royalty were expected to marry cross-cousins. A cross-cousin would be the child of the mother’s brother or the father’s sister. In a matrilineal system, this would mean that the cousin would not be in the same clan. Ideally, a royal man would marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, but marrying his father’s sister’s daughter was also a possibility. A royal man could marry a woman, have four children with her, then separate from her, and marry someone else.

Among the Heiltsuk, marriage was called wíná (war) and was always conducted in the style of a war party. The men from the bridegroom’s house would arrive in canoes, feigning an attack. This was the case even when the couple was from the same village. Among the chiefly classes, marriage was usually arranged by the family as it was a means of obtaining status through the transfer of names and the distribution of property. Among commoners, the couple’s wishes were the primary consideration in marriage and less wealth was transferred.

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw’ (Kwakiutl), the marriage of the eldest children of chiefs was very elaborate and was called “taking-care-of-the-great-bringing-out-of-the-crests-marriage.” Some Kwakwaka’wakw’ noble families sought to retain noble privileges by seeking out marriages within the extended family. Anthropologist Franz Boas, in his book Race, Language, and Culture, explains:  “Marriages are permitted between half-brother and half-sister, i.e., between children of one father, but of two mothers, not vice-versa; or, marriages between a man and his younger brother’s daughter, but not with his elder brother’s daughter, who is, of course, of higher rank, being in the line of primo-geniture or least nearer to it.”

Among some of the Northwest Coast cultures, both polygyny (the marriage of one man to two or more women at the same time) and polyandry  (the marriage of one woman to more than one man at the same time) occurred. Among the Tlingit, for example, a woman of high rank often had more than one husband, but these husbands had to belong to the same clan. Polygyny was also found among the wealthy Tlingit. While a man could marry as many women as he could afford, the first wife always outranked all others in the household.

 

 

Traditional Basketry of Grays Harbor (Photo Diary)

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The Polson Museum in Hoquiam, Washington, has a room dedicated to “Common Land, Uncommon Cultures: Traditional Peoples of Grays Harbor.” The Quinault and Chehalis basketmakers used both wrapped and plain twined techniques. Shown below are some of the baskets which are on display.

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Shown above is a Quinault storage basket which uses cedar twining.  The lid is Makah in design.

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Suquamish Art (Photo Diary)

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The Northwest Coast is a region in which an entrenched and highly valued artistic tradition flourished and continues to flourish. The Suquamish are the people of the clear salt water. For more than 10,000 years they have occupied that area known today as the Kitsap Peninsula, Bainbridge Island, Blake Island, and parts of Whidbey Island in what is now the state of Washington.  Suquamish art continues today in a variety of different media. One room of the Suquamish Museum is dedicated to contemporary art forms.  

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Basketry:

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Woodwork:

One of the outstanding characteristics of the tribes of Northwest Coast is the highly developed skill of woodworking. Contemporary Suquamish artists continue to work in wood.

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One of the unique items among Northwest Coast Indians are kerfed boxes in which the sides of the box are made by scoring and then bending a single board to form the sides of the box. The single side seam is then carefully fitted and sewn together with spruce root. The bottom of the box is also carefully fitted and sewn to the sides. Shown above is a contemporary version of this traditional box.

Personal Adornment and Clothing:

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Masks:

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Wall Art:

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The design shown above is needlepoint.

Other art:

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Suquamish Basketry (Photo Diary)

The Northwest Coast is a region in which an entrenched and highly valued artistic tradition flourished and continues to flourish. The Suquamish are the people of the clear salt water. For more than 10,000 years they have occupied that area known today as the Kitsap Peninsula, Bainbridge Island, Blake Island, and parts of Whidbey Island in what is now the state of Washington.  

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Traditionally, the Suqamish made several different kinds of baskets, each with a special use. Writing in 1895, anthropologist Franz Boas reported:

“A great variety of baskets are used-large wicker baskets for carrying fish and clams, cedar bark baskets for purposes of storage.”

Coiled baskets were used for collecting berries, carrying water (yes, they were woven tight enough to be waterproof), cooking (hot stones were dropped in the water filled baskets to cook the food), and for storing dried foods. Open weave baskets were used for gathering clams, small fish, and seaweed.

After the European invasion began, the Suquamish basketmakers began making special baskets for sale as collectables. They also wove other small items for sale including dolls and toys.

Shown below are some of the baskets which are on display in the Suquamish Museum.

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The Suquamish Museum (Photo Diary)

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The area along the Pacific Coast north of California and between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean, is the home to many Indian nations who traditionally based their economy on the use of sea coast and river ecological resources. The Suquamish are the people of the clear salt water. For more than 10,000 years they have occupied that area known today as the Kitsap Peninsula, Bainbridge Island, Blake Island, and parts of Whidbey Island.  

“We are the Suquamish people. We are a tribe, a nation, a culture, and a family.

We share a proud heritage founded on the teachings of our ancestors, and an enduring future forged from our spirit, wisdom, and enterprise.

We are born of these ancient shores, where the water touches the land, and where the gifts of opportunity are revealed with every changing tide.

Wherever those tides may carry us, these shores will always be our home.”

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One wall of the museum (shown above) presents a time-line history of the Suquamish people.

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One of the most important Suquamish villages once stood on the shores of Agate Passage. This is where the Suquamish built Old Man House, the largest longhouse on the Salish Sea. This was a major intertribal gathering place where people from all across the region came together for trade, celebrations, and diplomacy. In 1841, Joseph Perry Sanford, a member of the United States Exploring Expedition, described the Old Man House:

“It measured 200 ft by 100 ft. The floor is of earth and sunken. It had on either side 20 uprights and on which were rudely carved uncouth figures with head, eyes &c.”

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The entrance to the museum is between two carved house poles which are sometimes called the welcoming figures.

The Museum:

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Shown below are some of the items displayed at the museum:

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The Squamish were traditionally a fishing people. Mounted on the museum’s ceiling is a display (see photos above) showing a woven net/basket and a school of fish.

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The rather nondescript rocks shown above, labeled as “cooking rocks”, were heated in a fire, then dropped into a water-filled basket. In this way, the water could be brought to a boil and the food cooked. It should be noted that not just any rocks can be used for this since many rocks simply disintegrate when heated.

Spirituality:

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As with other Indian tribes, living a successful life depended on the assistance of spiritual helpers. Individuals had songs and dances, set to the rhythms of hand drums, to obtain their help. Much of the carving and painting on both common and ceremonial objects was designed to gain cooperation from one’s spiritual guides.

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Shown above is a raven rattle.

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Northwest Coast Textiles (Photo Diary)

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The Northwest Coast peoples have a wide variety of garments which are worn during ceremonies and for special occasions. Sometimes the clothes are decorated with crest designs that show the wearer’s clan. Shown below are some examples of Northwest Coast textiles and weaving which are on display at the Portland Art Museum.  

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Some neckpieces are shown above.

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One of the best examples of Northwest Coast weaving can be seen in the Chilkat Dancing Blankets or Robes (example shown above). These blankets combine the twining of mountain goat wool and cedar bark with the images of mythological creatures. According to some experts, The pattern of the Chilcat blanket came from the Tsimshian and was adopted by the Tlingit, the Chilcat people specializing in its production, owning to the ease with which mountain goat’s wool could be procured in their district.

Traditionally, it would take a year or more to make a Chilkat Blanket. The blankets are woven by the women, but the designs are painted by male artists on special pattern boards.

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A pattern board for a Chilcat robe is shown above.

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This is another woven robe.

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A woven rain hat or canoe hat is shown above.

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A button blanket is shown above. This is a Tlingit blanket made about 1900 with pearl buttons and wool cloth. Button blankets were developed during the 19th century. Most are made of dark blue wool with a red pattern. The buttons are sewn individually to create the desired pattern.

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A pair of leggings is shown above.  

Northwest Coast Carvings (Photo Diary)

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The Northwest Coast is a region in which an entrenched and highly valued artistic tradition flourished. Northwest Coast art-carving and painting-has a very characteristic style. Most commonly, art is used for portraying the family crest and heraldic figures. Shown below are some examples of Northwest Coast carvings which are on display at the Portland Art Museum.  

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Shown above is a potlatch serving bowl. It is about 12 feet long. The potlatch is an expression of social stratification and so the lower ranking members of the society would be fed from the bowls at the knees and the highest ranking members would be fed from the head. During the several days of the potlatch, the hosts provide the guests with two large meals per day.

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Shown above are some of the decorated wooden boxes. One of the unique items among Northwest Coast Indians are kerfed boxes in which the sides of the box are made by scoring and then bending a single board to form the sides of the box. The single side seam is then carefully fitted and sewn together with spruce root. The bottom of the box is also carefully fitted and sewn to the sides. These boxes are waterproof and some are used for cooking. The watertight boxes can be filled with water and when hot stones are dropped into the box the water can be brought to a boil.

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Shown above are some examples carved serving spoons.

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Shown above are some carved bowls.

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Shown above is a drum with an orca design.

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Shown above is a cedar box drum. This drum was made by Tsimshian artist David Boxley about 1990.

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Shown above is an orca carving.

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One of the media used by Northwest Coast artists is argillite. Argillite is a soft stone which is found in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Shown above are some argillite bowls and carvings.

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Shown above are some large carved panels.

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A carved hat is shown above.  

Northwest Coast Masks and Headdresses (Photo Diary)

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The people of the Northwest Coast, particularly those in the Northern and Central portions of this culture area, are well known for their ceremonial masks. Masks are made from wood, primarily cedar and occasionally maple, which is then painted with three primary colors: black or blue, red, and white.

These masks are both art objects and objects with spiritual significance. Masks represent the animals and creatures of the four dimensions of the cosmos: the Sky World, the Mortal World, the Undersea World, and the Spirit World. One of the common themes in the mythology of the Northwest Coast is one in which ancestors come down from the sky and then remove their animal or bird costumes.

When used in ceremonies, the masks take on the life and spirit of the spirits which they represent. Traditionally, masks were guarded and hidden away, and not shown until they appeared in the ceremonial dance. Kwakwaka’wakw chief Robert Joseph notes:

“It is never known which masks will be shown or which dances will take place until the event happens.”

Shown below are some of the ceremonial masks and headdresses of the Northwest Coast which are currently on display at the Portland Art Museum.

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Shown about are some of the ceremonial masks.

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Shown above are some ceremonial dance headdresses.

Northwest Coast Canoes

The area along the Pacific Coast north of California and between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean, is the home to many Indian nations who traditionally based their economy on the use of sea coast and river ecological resources. This is an area which stretches from the Tlingit homelands in Alaska to the Tolowa homelands in northern California. The Northwest Coast culture area is oriented toward water: the ocean to the west and the many rivers flowing into it. Before the coming of the Europeans, the villages were built near water: the sea coast or a river.

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Haida houses and canoes are shown above.  

For a people oriented toward the sea and the rivers, canoes made from cedar were an important part of the Northwestern cultures. Nowhere else in the world were canoes developed to such a degree of sophistication and artistry. The canoes were large, elegant, and seagoing.

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Kwakiutl Canoe

Photographs of a Northwest Coast canoes by Edward Curtis is shown above.

The first Europeans into this area were amazed at the carrying capacity and beautiful construction of the Northwest Coast canoes. The canoes were used for fishing, for hunting sea mammals such as whales, and for trade up and down the coast. Haida oral tradition tells of canoe voyages to Hawaii.

Transportation was primarily by water and distances were measured by how far a canoe could travel in a single day. The various Indian nations along the Northwest Coast undertook long trading voyages to exchanges specialized goods and local resources. In addition, distant nations were often connected through marriage alliances among the chiefly elites.

Writing about Northwest Coast canoes in 1868, Gilbert Sproat reported:

“They are moved by a single sail or by paddles, or in ascending shallow rapid streams, by long poles.”

In rough water they would tie bladders of seal-skin to the sides of the canoe to prevent it from upsetting.

With regard to paddling the canoes, Gilbert Sproat reported:

“In taking a seat in a canoe, the paddler drops on his knees at the bottom, then turns his toes in, and sits down as it were on his heels. The paddle is grasped both in the middle and at the handle. To give a stroke and propel the canoe forward, the hand grasping the middle of the paddle draws the blade of the paddle backwards through the water, and the hand grasping the handle pushes the handle-end forward, and thus aids the other hand in making each stroke of the paddle; a sort of double action movement.”

In a moderately sized canoe, two paddlers were able to make about 40 miles in a day.

The reports of sails on Northwest Coast canoes has been controversial. With an ethnocentric assumption that the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast were isolated and “primitive”, and ignoring oral traditions of trade with distant lands (including Hawaii) and trade items showing contact with Asia, most non-Indian scholars have steadfastly reported that the use of sails was introduced by the European explorers. In 1868 Gilbert Sproat explained the sail this way:

“The sail-of which it is supposed, but rather vaguely, that they got the idea from Meares some eighty years ago-is a square mat tied at the top to a small stick or yard crossing a mast placed close to the bow.”

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Photographs of Northwest Coast canoes with sails are shown above.

In some instances, cedar planks were lashed between two or three canoes to make extra space for cargo or to make a stage for groups of dancers. Cedar planks lashed across the gunwales of a single canoe would create a platform for a single ceremonial dancer.  

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For the people of the Northwest Coast the canoe was more than just a utilitarian object: it was, and still is, a spiritual vessel that is an object of great respect. Respect for spirituality of the canoe begins with its life as a tree in the forest, and continues with the ceremonies involved with cutting down and fashioning it into a canoe. The canoe is a metaphor for the importance of community as the large canoes require a community of workers, people working in harmony both socially and spiritually. The canoe is seen as a living entity, a spiritual entity. Each canoe has its own spirit and personality.

The Northwest Coast canoes are dugout canoes which are fashioned from a single log. Carving a canoe begins with spiritual preparation: the carvers must prepare themselves with fasting, prayers, and the sweatlodge. It is not uncommon for the task of carving a large canoe to take two years. Once the log is chosen, a prayer is said for the cedar and an offering is given to thank it for its sacrifice. The carver then rough-shapes the log, removing the bark and sapwood with an ax and an elbow adze. Then the ends are tapered.

At this time, the log is left to season over the winter. This is a crucial step in that it ensures that the canoe will not crack too badly in later stages of carving. Once the log is seasoned, then the exterior lines of the canoe are established. The inside is then hollowed out, initially using wedges to split out large sections, and finally completing this task with controlled burning and adzing. The final stage in carving the canoe involves the use of hot rocks and water to steam-bend the sides outwards. This steaming also draws the bow and stern upwards as well as adding strength to the vessel.

Finally, the prow and stern pieces are added, the thwarts and seats are installed, and the exterior is finished. Then the canoe is given a name and is ready to begin its life on the water.

The Tlingit in southern Alaska would make canoes during the winter using red cedar logs for the larger canoes. In making the canoe, the outside of the log was first shaped and then the log was hollowed out. To make sure that the canoe walls were of a uniform thickness, small holes were bored from the outside and wooden plugs stuck in them. When the plug was reached in hollowing out the inside, the workers knew that they had reached the proper thickness. Once the canoe was hollowed out, it was then spread to give it greater stability. This was done by filling the canoe with water and then dropping hot stones into the water. Crosspieces would then spread the softening walls of the canoe and these would gradually be replaced by longer ones in order to obtain the correct shape.

With regard to the overall size of the Tlingit canoes, the long-distance voyaging canoes (sometimes called “war” canoes) ranged from 35 to 65 feet long and six to eight feet wide. They could carry 50 to 60 people and had about a five-ton capacity.

The long projecting prows and the high, spur-shaped sterns of Tlingit canoes were used to display clan and tribal crests. The figures on the canoes were generally outlined in black and then filled in with red, yellow, and green.

Tlingit canoes are named and the concept or idea of the name is carried out with figures carved on the bow and stern. Common Tlingit canoes names are Sun, Moon, Earth, Island, Shaman, Whale, Otter, Eagle, and Raven.

The Makah, in what is now Washington State, were highly skilled mariners. Using sophisticated navigational and maritime skills, they were able to travel the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean and the swift waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca with relative ease. They used various types of canoes. Carved from western red cedar, there were canoes used for a myriad of purposes, each one specifically created for that task. There were war, whaling, halibut, salmon fishing, sealing canoes and large cargo canoes. There were even smaller canoes which children used for practice. The canoes had sails so that paddlers could use the wind to their advantage. When they landed, it was done stern first so that, if necessary, the paddlers could make a quick exit. The canoes and their contents were never disturbed as the Makah were taught from an early age to respect the belongings of others. The Makah were tireless paddlers and traveled great distances to obtain food or trade their wealth.

The Makah whaling canoe was about 40 feet in length with the prow of the boat carved separately and attached to the bow. The canoe’s interior was painted a deep red. The exterior of the canoe was painted black with a solution of burnt alder and fish oil or sometimes with a special mud from a swamp. The Makah used woven mats as canoe sails.

The Coast Salish also constructed canoes for sheltered water use in the bays, inlets, and rivers of the Puget Sound area. Salish canoes were made to master the open ocean as well as the waters of Puget Sound and the straits. The Salish people traveled up and down the coast fishing, trading, and hunting. The Salish inland water canoe had a more gently sloping bow and a rounded a bottom. These canoes were very stable.

Among the Coast Salish, when a family needed a canoe, they would commission a canoe-making specialist to make it for them. A good canoe carver could make two large canoes or four small ones out of a single log. The large ocean-going canoes could carry as many as one hundred people.

Over the past decade there has been a revitalization of traditional canoe building among the Northwest Coast Nations.

Northwest Coast Indian Names

( – promoted by navajo)

The Indian nations along the Northwest Coast area of Washington, British Columbia, and Washington were very different than other Indian nations. Life in these Indian nations centered on the sea and its abundant resources. Unlike the Indian nations in other areas, the social life among the Northwest Coast Indians was based on rank and power. Names often reflect this hierarchical organization.

Names are extremely important to the people of the Northwest Coast and a set of names brings with it a social and cultural reality. When one inherits a certain name, one inherits the status that accompanies the name. The set of names within a village was constant, with a flow of living human beings running continually through it, with people occupying the names during their lifetimes. Names are important family property and they are used only on special occasions.  

Names were also associated with social stratification and wealth. The right to use a particular name was a form of wealth: ancestral tribal names were inherited. The right to use any name was determined by descent.

Among the Tlingit, a male child was traditionally given a name at birth by his maternal uncle. He would keep this personal name throughout his life. However, when a nephew replaced his uncle, he was then given an honorific clan name. This is a name which was considered sacred and which was used only on ceremonial occasions. These names are associated with the totem animals and their symbols.

At puberty, Tshimshian children were given the first of a series of adult names which were selected from names belonging to the mother’s house. The names often had a reference to the father’s crest.

Among the Nuu-chah-nulth, a newborn was traditionally given a baby name. If the child was a boy, then the name would come from the father’s side, and if it was a girl, then it would come from the mother’s side. In some instances, the newborn might also be given a song as well.  

Among the Bella Coola, each name must have originated in connection with an important event. Soon after birth, a name would be bestowed on the child. The name selected for the child must: (1) come from the origin stories of one of the parents’ families, and (2) must not be in use by another family member. While it is possible for two people to have the same name, the names must come from different origins.

Bella Coola names can be transferred from one person to another. A person may have more than one name and each name is associated with certain rights and traditions. If a person transfers a name while still alive, the person gives up all claims to that name. Names can be transferred from a man to a woman and vice versa. At death, a person’s name, or names, could be transmitted to a relative. It was considered important that the owner of a name should know when, by whom, and for what reason the name was first created.

It is not only the human members of the Bella Coola family who are given ancestral names, but also dogs. The first ancestral group had dogs, and these animals had names. Ever since that time their descendants would apply these designations to their own dogs.  As with humans, no two dogs can be given the same name at the same time.

Among the Coast Salish, the child’s first name, usually given when the child began to walk, was of little significance. Names, which were considered to be family property, were given at a potlatch or feast. While a new name could be acquired at any time, many would take a new name after marriage.

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw, when children were born they were given the name of the place where they were born.  They received their first tribal name at ten months of age. At this time, the baby’s hair was symbolically cut and ceremonies were held to ensure that babies would be safe. When the child was 10 to 12 years old, a third name was obtained. In obtaining this third name, a number of small presents, such as shirts or blankets, would be distributed among the clan or village.

Among the Heiltsuk, a child traditionally received its first name at a potlatch given in its honor. At this time, the chief would dance with the child, holding it aloft to introduce the child and create a place for it within the community. The people who witnessed this ceremony were asked to support the child as it grew up. When the child was older, a second name would be given and the baby name might be passed on to a new child. When a person assumed adult responsibilities and began to contribute to the society, a third name might be given.  

The Potlatch

( – promoted by navajo)

One of the cultural features of the Northwest Coast First Nations’ cultures is the potlatch. The Europeans, and particularly the Christian missionaries, opposed the potlatch and it was banned in both Canada and the United States. However, Indian people continued the potlatch away from the government and the missionaries.

The word “potlatch” is the English version of the Nootkan word “p’alshit'” which means “to give.” Material wealth is important among the Indian nations of this area, but by giving things away at the potlatch, families and individuals gain status. The potlatch functioned as a means for passing around among the members the surplus wealth of the society; the only thing that changed was the status of the individuals. Some people feel that the potlatch was the functional equivalent of taxation in modern society.  Vast amounts of goods and wealth were distributed through the potlatch.  

The traditional potlatch was basically a ceremony: a series of songs, dances, and rituals. At the same time, it was an expression of social stratification. The Christian missionaries opposed it only in part because it was an expression of non-Christian aboriginal religion: the primary opposition to it came from the fact that it involved giving away wealth. This was a concept which seemed detrimental to many Europeans whose cultures equated the acquisition of personal wealth with success.

In the potlatch, a high ranking person and his family gives away wealth and in this way they reassert their high rank. Traditionally, the lavish giving of presents was held in winter when all the food had been gathered in. The gift-giving was accompanied by songs, dances, and drama dealing with the grandeur of the host’s family and ancestry.

Traditionally, only a chief could hold a potlatch.  During the potlatch, the chief’s privileges-names, songs, stories, and dances “owned” by him-would be recited. The guests would tacitly confirm the social relationships and history which was told.

Potlatches were traditionally held to mark births, naming, puberty, weddings, and deaths. For a potlatch, the family would amass wealth and then give it away to all who came to witness the rite of passage. Without the validation of a potlatch the privileges of a change in social status were considered to be unearned and therefore could not be exercised. All of the names, ranks, privileges, and honors of the family inheritance were meaningless without the formal ritual of hospitality and the acceptance of gifts by the guests.

The guests at a potlatch saw and experienced the social business of the event, such as the inheritance of a name. They mentally recorded and validated that which had happened. In addition, the food dserved at the potlatch came from all of the territories of the house and by consuming this food the guests acknowledged the house’s right to these lands and resources.   The potlatch was a public statement of a person’s rank and importance; by accepting the gifts, the guests acknowledged the rights of the host.

The preparation for a chief’s potlatch would take several years. Each person in the tribe would make contributions based on their rank and each contribution was publicly announced. The chief, having the highest rank, would contribute the most, followed by his nephews who were in line to inherit his title. In non-chiefly potlatches, the chief would not contribute.

The potlatch itself often lasted for days with special songs for greeting the arriving guests and the serving of large quantities of food. During the several days of the potlatch, the hosts provided the guests with two large meals per day.

The goods given away at a potlatch include money, canoes, flour, kettles, dishes, Hudson’s Bay blankets, sewing machines, tables, slaves, and coppers. Gifts were distributed according to rank. Everyone who attended the potlatch was given something, but commoners received only tokens. The chiefs and nobles would receive the most, and traditionally, the chiefs upon returning home would distribute what they had received to the members of their house, town, and tribe.

The potlatch was attacked by Canadian authorities as being wasteful and destructive of moral and economic initiative. The Canadian government felt that it stood in the way of development and modernization. In 1883, the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs John A. Macdonald defined the potlatch as

“the useless and degrading custom in vogue among the Indians … at which an immense amount of personal property is squandered in gifts by one Band to another, and at which much valuable time is lost.”

In 1884, the Canadian government formally outlawed the potlatch. From a Native perspective, this meant that they could not celebrate the birth or naming of their children as required by traditional law, nor could they end their mourning after death.

The following year, the Canadian government amended the law against the potlatch to outlaw Native participation in the ceremony. The law stated:

“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or in the Indian dance known as the “tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemenour, and shall be liable to imprisonment.”

The missionaries stressed that the potlatch was a “degrading practice” which was a barrier to the “civilizing” of the Indians.

In spite of the potlatch ban, in 1886 Tsimshian chief Ligeex hosted a potlatch in British Columbia. The goods to be given away were hidden behind a partition in the house. The pile of goods was so high that the roof boards were removed to accommodate it.

In 1918, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, sent a circular to all Indian agents in British Columbia telling them that the war in Europe had put extreme pressures on the economy and therefore no wasteful practices could be allowed. Gift-giving at potlatches is wasteful, in Scott’s view, and therefore the agents were to use their powers to convict all who participated in a potlatch.

In 1919, four potlatchers were arrested at the Kwawkewlth Agency in British Columbia. When the four and seventy-three additional community members signed an agreement to obey the law and stopped the practice of the potlatch, the Crown dropped its charges. The following year, eight Indians from Alert Bay pled guilty to participating in a potlatch. Seven were sentenced to two months in jail. The eighth, an elderly man, received a suspended sentence.  

In 1921, Nimpkish (Kwakwaka’wakw) chief Daniel Cranmer sponsored a potlatch-reported to be the largest ever given up to that time-in order to repay his wife’s family as part of the marriage settlement. The local Indian agent decided to prosecute those who participated in the ceremony and was able to obtain 45 convictions. Twenty-three people, including ranking chiefs and women, were sent to prison. Twenty-two received suspended sentences in return for agreeing to hand over their potlatch regalia. As a result, 750 ceremonial objects were turned over to the government. To be charged with crimes as speaking, dancing, and giving or receiving gifts appeared to the Kwakwaka’waka to be an utter contravention of natural law.

With regard to the confiscated potlatch ceremonial items, the local Indian agent put them on display in the parish hall at Alert Bay and charged an admission. The items were then sold to collectors and museums. Some of the items were shipped to the National Museum in Ottawa and some were sold to a collector for the Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Potlatching declined as a result of this persecution. The potlatch was pushed underground after the Cranmer convictions. People continued to potlatch, but they either held them in remote villages away from government eyes or they disguised the potlatch as a Christmas or wedding exchange.

In 1951, the Canadian Indian Act was modified and the laws against the potlatch were dropped. While the potlatch had continued in spite of the law, it now took on a new vigor.