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The Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, their descendants, and many ethnic groups who identify with those historical peoples. They are now situated within the Canadianmarker Province of British Columbiamarker and the U.S.marker states of Alaskamarker, Washingtonmarker and Oregonmarker.

Pacific Northwest Coast Nations

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast were at one time the highest populated for indigenous people. The land provided rich natural resources through cedar and salmon for highly structured cultures. Within the Pacific Northwest many different nations developed, each with their own distinct history, culture, and society. Although some cultures in this region were very similar and certain elements, such as the importance of salmon to their cultures, while others differed. Prior to contact, and for brief time after colonization, some of these groups were still at war with each other through raids and attacks, through which they gathered their slaves.


The Tlingit (IPA: /'klɪŋkɪt/, also /-gɪt/ or /'tlɪŋkɪt/ which is often considered inaccurate) are one of the furthest north indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their name for themselves is Lingít (/ɬɪŋkɪt/) , meaning "people". The Russian name Koloshi (from an Aleut term for the labret) or the related German name Koulischen may be encountered in older historical literature.

The Tlingit are a matrilineal society who developed a complex hunter-gatherer culture in the temperate rainforest of the Alaska Panhandlemarker and adjoining inland areas of British Columbia and Yukon.


The Nisga'a (pronounced Nis-gah) are a matrilineal society with a complex culture. They live in the Nass River valley of northwestern British Columbia. Nisga'a society is organized into four clans: Ganada (Raven), Gisk'aast (Killer Whale), Lax̱gibuu (Wolf), and Lax̱sgiik (Eagle). The Nisg̱a'a people number about 6,000. In British Columbia the Nisg̱a'a Nation is represented by four Villages and 3 urban societies. The Nisga'a are one of the few indigenous in the Pacific Northwest in Canada to sign a treaty with Canadamarker and British Columbiamarker, having pressed for one since the 1890s.


The Tsetsaut were a now-extinct Athapaskan people whose territory was at the head of the Portland Canalmarker. Little is known about them. Decimated by raiding and disease, their survivors were absorbed into the Nisga'a, who now hold their territory.


The Haida people are well known as skilled artisans of wood, metal and design. They have also shown much perseverance and resolve in the area of forest conservation. These vast forests of cedar and spruce where the Haida make their home are on pre-glacial land which is believed to be almost 14,000 years old. Haida communities located in Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, and the Queen Charlotte Islands also share a common border with other indigenous peoples such as the Tlingit and the Tsimshian. The Haida were also famous for their long distance raiding and slaving, reaching as far as Mexico.


The Tsimshian, usually pronounced in English as /'sɪm.ʃi.æn/ (SIM-shee-an), translated as "People Inside the Skeena River," are indigenous people who live around Terrace and Prince Rupert on the North Coast of British Columbia, and the southernmost corner of Alaska on Annette Island. Currently there are about 10,000 Tsimshians, of which about 1,300 live in Alaska. Along with many other indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, they have a deeply hierarchical society. Succession was matrilineal, and one's place in society was determined by one's clan or phratry (defined as four equal parts). The four main Tsimshian clans that form the basic phratry are the Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan), Ganhada (Raven Clan) which form one half of the phratry. Gispwudwada (Killer Whale Clan) and Laxgibuu (Wolf Clan) form the other half. Prior to European contact, marriage in Tsimshian society could not take place within a group, for example between a Wolf and a Killer Whale. It was thought to be incest even if there was no blood relationship. Marriages were only arranged between a Killer Whale and a Raven or Eagle.


The Gitxsan or Gitksan, meaning "people of the Skeena River", were also known, with the Nisga'a, as Interior Tsimshian and speak a closely-related language to Nisga'a, though both are related to Coast Tsimshian, which is the English-language name for Tsimshian spoken on the coast. Although inland, their culture is part of the Northwest Coast culture area and they share many common characteristics, including the clan system, an advanced art style, and war canoes. They share an historic alliance with the neighbouring Wet'suwet'en, a subgroup of the Dakelh (or Carrier people) and with them waged a court battle with British Columbia known as Delgamuukw v. the Queen.


The Haisla (also Xa’islak’ala, X̄a’islak̕ala, X̌àʔislak̕ala, X̄a’islak’ala, X̣aʔislak’ala, Xa'islak'ala) are an indigenous nation living at Kitamaat in the North Coast region of the Canadian province of British Columbia. The name Haisla is derived from the Haisla word x̣àʔisla or x̣àʔisəla '(those) living at the rivermouth, living downriver'


The Heiltsuk (pronounced: /ˈheil.ʦʊk/) are an indigenous nation of the Central Coast region of the Canadian province of British Columbia, centred on the island communities of Bella Bella and Klemtu. The Heiltsuk are the descendants of a number of tribal groups who came together in Bella Bella in the 19th Century and came to be called the Bella Bella Indians. They generally refer to themselves as Heiltsuk.


The Wuikinuxv, also known as the Owekeeno or Rivers Inlet people, after their locationmarker, speak a parallel language to Heiltsuk, Wuikyala or Oowekyala (they are dialects of a language which has no independent name; linguists refer to it as Heiltsuk-Oweekyala). Together with the Heiltsuk and Haisla, they were once incorrectly known as the Northern Kwakiutl because of their language's close relationship with Kwak'wala. Greatly reduced in numbers today, like other coastal peoples they were master carvers and painters and had an elaborate ritual and clan system. The focus of their territory was Owikeno Lakemarker, a freshwater fjord above a short stretch of rivermarker at the head of Rivers Inlet.


The Kwakwaka'wakw are an indigenous people, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland. The term they prefer to describe themselves is Kwakwaka'wakw. Their indigenous language, part of the Wakashan family, is Kwak'wala. The name Kwakwaka'wakw renders into "speakers of Kwak'wala". The language is now spoken by less than 5% of the population—about 250 people. Today there are 17 separate tribes that make up the Kwakwaka'wakw, who all historically spoke the common language of kwak'wala, though some Kwakwaka'wakw groups are now extinct. Kwak'wala is a Northern Wakashan language, a grouping shared with Haisla, Heiltsuk and Oowekyala.


The Nuu-chah-nulth (pronounced [nuːʧanˀuɬ], or approximately "new-cha-nulth") are indigenous peoples in Canada. Their traditional home is in the Pacific Northwest on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In pre-contact and early post-contact times, the number of nations was much greater, but like the rest of the region, smallpox and other consequences of contact resulted in the disappearance of some groups, and the absorption of others into neighbouring groups. They were among the first Pacific peoples north of California to come into contact with Europeans. Competition between Spain and the United Kingdom over control of Nootka Sound led to a bitter international dispute around 1790, which was settled when Spain agreed to abandon its claim of exclusivity to the North Pacific coast, and to pay damages for British ships seized during the dispute. The Nuu-chah-nulth speak a Southern Wakashan language and are closely related to the Makah and Ditidaht.


The Makah are a Southern Wakashan people and are closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulth, and like them were noted as whalers. Their territory is around the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsulamarker.

Coast Salish

The Coast Salish are the largest of the southern groups, and are not one group, but a grouping of many groups with many distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples spans from the northern limit of the Gulf of Georgiamarker on the inside of Vancouver Island and covering most of southern Vancouver Island, all of the Lower Mainland, all of Puget Soundmarker except (formerly) for the Chemakum territory near Port Townsendmarker, and all of the Olympic Peninsulamarker except the Quileute, who are related to the now-extinct Chemakum. The Tillamook or Nehalem around Tillamook, Oregonmarker are the southermost of the Coast Salish peoples The Coast Salish cultures differs considerably from those of their northern neighbours. It is one of the few indigenous cultures along the coast with a patrilineal, not matrilineal, culture. They are also one of the few peoples on the coast whose traditional territories coincide with major metropolitan areas, namely Victoriamarker, Vancouvermarker, and Seattlemarker.


The Nuxálk (pronounced /nuxalk/), also known as the Bella Coola, are an indigenous people of the Central Coast and the furthest north of the Coast Salish cultures, although linguists theory now assigns them as independent of both Interior and Coast Salish language groups. Their language is a Salishan language, and very different from that of their coastal neighbours, and is now believed to have been more related to Interior Salish before the Athapaskan groups now inland from them spread southwards.


Pre-History:Lithic period in Canada
On the northwest coast of North America, the mild climate and abundant natural resources made possible the rise of a complex Aboriginal culture. The people who lived in what are today British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon were able to obtain a good living without much effort. They had time and energy to devote to the development of fine arts and crafts and to religious and social ceremonies. Among the most prosperous of the Northwest Coast peoples were the Haida and the Tlingit.

European colonization

Current times

Since colonization, the political and current context of life for these indigenous peoples varies, especially considering their relationship to Canada and the United States.



A potlatch is a highly complex event where people gather in order to commemorate a specific event (such as the raising of a Totem pole or the appointment/election of a new chief). These potlatches would usually be held in competition with one another, providing a forum to display wealth within a tribe.

In the Potlatch ceremony the chief would give highly elaborate gifts to visiting peoples in order to establish his power and prestige, and by accepting these gifts the visitors conveyed their approval of the chief. There were also great feasts and displays of conspicuous consumption, such as the burning of articles, or throwing things into the sea, purely as a display of the great wealth of the chief. Groups of dancers put on elaborate dances and drammas. These dancers where many times members of secret "dancing societies". Watching these performances was considered an honor. Potlatches were held for several reasons: the confirmation of a new chief; coming of age; tattooing or piercing ceremonies; initiation into a secret society; divorce; the funeral of a chief; battle victory.


Among the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the music varied in function and expression. As some groups have more cultural differences then the rest (like the Coast Salish and the more northern nations), there remains a lot of similarities.

Some instruments used by the indigenous were hand drums made of animal hides, plank drums, log drums, box drums, along with whistlers, wood clappers, and rattles. A great deal of the instruments were used mostly in the potlatch, but also carried over in to other festivities through out the year.

The songs employed are used with dancing, although it is also for celebration chants or games, which would not usually be accompanied by dancing. Most singing is community based, there are some solo parts, usually the first line of each round of a song, but not long solos. Although for some ceremonies solo songs would be used by men and women without the accompaniment of any person or instrument.

Usually slow in tempo and accompanied by a drum. Principle function of music in this area is spiritual; music honors the Earth, Creator, Ancestors, all aspects of the supernatural world. Sacred songs are not often shared with the wider world. Women and men, families own their own songs as property which can be inherited, sold or given as a gift to a prestigious guest at a Feast. Professionals existed for some communities, but music is taught and then rehearsed. For some nations, the tradition was those who made musical errors were punished, usually through shaming. Employing octave singing, but rather than running up and down the scale, it is not uncommon to jump notes and go from bottom to top or top to bottom in a couple of notes. Vocal Rhythmic patterns are often complex and run counter to rigid percussion beats.


The creation of beautiful and practical objects (for all tribal communities) served as a means of transmitting stories, history, wisdom and property from generation to generation. Art provided Indigenous people with a tie to the land by depicting their histories on cave walls; totem poles; the Big (Plank) Houses of the Pacific Northwest coast; buffalo hides; long houses; tipis – the symbols depicted were a constant reminder of their birth places, lineages and nations.

It is important to note, however, that generally is speaking art was not produced for aesthetic reasons. Time was always an issue, as there was much to do to keep tribal communities healthy and safe for another day. Therefore, the emphasis was placed on practical uses of items, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, and shelter.

Pacific Northwest Coast: Spiritualism, the supernatural and the importance of the environment played integral roles in day-to-day life. Therefore, it was not unusual for their worldly goods to be adorned with symbols, crests and totems that represented some important figure(s) from both the seen and unseen worlds.

Often different northern tribes would adorn their possessions with symbols that represented a tribe as a collective (i.e., clan); this would often be a signal of differentiation among tribal groups. Such symbols could be compared to a coat of arms, or running up the flag of a country on a sailing ship, as it approached a harbour.

After the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous artifacts suddenly became a hot commodity to be collected and placed in museums and other institutions, and many tribal groups were looted of their precious items by over-zealous collectors.

It is only in recent years that many Native organizations have been calling for a return of some of their sacred items, such as medicine bundles, that symbolize their cultural heritage.

Genetic classification

Haplogroup Q1a3a is a Y Chromosome haplogroup generally associated with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Q1a3a-M3 mutation is on the Q lineage roughly 10 to 15 thousand years ago, as the migration throwout the Americas was underway by the early Paleo-Indians.


  1. Aboriginal Identity (8), Sex (3) and Age Groups (12) for the Population of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2006 Census-20% Sample Data Click to view table notes, BCRetrieved 2009-10-05.
  2. Number and percentage of population reporting Aboriginal identity, Canada, provinces and territories, 2006Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  3. Percentage of Aboriginal people in the population, Canada, provinces and territories, 2006 Retrieved 2009-10-05.

See also

External links

  • Anash Interactive - An online destination where users create comics, write stories, watch webisodes, download podcasts, play games, read stories and comics by other members, and find out about the Tlingit people of Canada.

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