Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are composed of many nations and tribal affiliations, each with distinctive cultural and political identities, but they share certain beliefs, traditions and practices, such as the centrality of salmon as a resource and spiritual symbol. The term Northwest Coast or North West Coast is used in anthropology to refer to the groups of Indigenous people residing along the coast of British Columbia, Washington state, parts of Alaska, Oregon, and northern California. The term Pacific Northwest is largely used in the American context.

At one point the region had the highest population density of a region inhabited by Aboriginal peoples in Canada.[1][2][3]

Chief Anotklosh of the Taku Tribe of the Tlingit people, ca. 1913

List of tribes

The Pacific Northwest Coast at one time had the most densely populated areas of indigenous people ever recorded in Canada.[1][2][3] The land and waters provided rich natural resources through cedar and salmon, and highly structured cultures developed from relatively dense populations. Within the Pacific Northwest, many different nations developed, each with their own distinct history, culture, and society. Some cultures in this region were very similar and share certain elements, such as the importance of salmon to their cultures, while others differed. Prior to contact, and for a brief time after colonization, some of these groups regularly conducted war against each other through raids and attacks. Through warfare they gathered captives for slavery.


The Tlingit (t/ KLINK-it, t/; the latter is considered inaccurate) are one of the furthest north indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their autonym is Lingít [ɬɪŋkɪ́t], meaning "Human being". The Russian name for them, Koloshi, was derived from an Aleut term for the labret; and the related German name, Koulischen, may be encountered in older historical literature.

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


The Tsetsaut were an Athabaskan people whose territory was at the head of the Portland Canal. Little is known about them. Decimated by raiding and disease, their survivors were absorbed into the Nisga'a. The latter people now hold their former territories as they are now extinct.


The Haida people (ə/ HY-də) 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. The 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 Haida Gwaii (previously referred to as 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.


Tsimshian people in 1900

The Tsimshian (n/ SIM-shee-ən), 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. There are about 10,000 Tsimshian, of which about 1,300 live in Alaska.

Succession in Tsimshian society is matrilineal, and one's place in society was determined by one's clan or phratry (defined as four equal parts). Four main Tsimshian clans form the basic phratry. The Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan) and Ganhada (Raven Clan) form one half. 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 half-group, for example between a Wolf and a Killer Whale. It was considered to be incest even if there was no blood relationship. Marriages were only arranged between people from clans in different halves: for example, between a Killer Whale and a Raven or Eagle.


The Gitxsan or Gitksan, meaning "people of the Skeena River", were known with the Nisga'a as Interior Tsimshian. They speak a closely related language to Nisga'a, though both are related to Coast Tsimshian. This is the English term 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). Together they waged a battle in the courts against British Columbia known as Delgamuukw v. the Queen, which had to do with land rights.


The Haisla (also Xa’islak’ala, X̄a’islakʼala, X̌àʼislakʼala, X̣aʼislak’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 x̣àʼisla or x̣àʼisəla, "(those) living at the rivermouth, living downriver".


The Heiltsuk (k/ HYLE-tsuuk)[4] are an indigenous Nation of the Central Coast region of the Canadian province of British Columbia, centred on the island communities of Bella Bella, British Columbia and Klemtu. The Heiltsuk are the descendants of a number of tribal groups who came together in Bella Bella in the 19th century. They generally prefer the autonym Heiltsuk. Anthropology labelled them the Bella Bella, which is how they are more widely known.


The Nuxalk (pronounced [nuχalk]), also known as the Bella Coola, are an indigenous people of the Central Coast, as well as the furthest north of the Coast Salish cultures. Linguists have classified their Salishan language as independent of both Interior and Coast Salish language groups. It is quite different from that of their coastal neighbours, though it contains a large number of Wakashan loan words. They are believed to have been more connected to Interior Salish peoples, before Athabaskan-speaking groups now inland from them spread southwards, cutting the Nuxalk off from their linguistic relatives.


The Wuikinuxv, also known as the Owekeeno or Rivers Inlet people (after their location), speak a parallel language to Heiltsuk, Wuikyala or Oowekyala (they are dialects of a language that 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. They had an elaborate ritual and clan system. The focus of their territory was Owikeno Lake, a freshwater fjord above a short stretch of river at the head of Rivers Inlet.


Kwakwaka'wakw people at a wedding ceremony in 1914

The Kwakwaka'wakw are an indigenous people, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland. The autonym they prefer is Kwakwaka'wakw. Their indigenous language, part of the Wakashan languages family, is Kwak'wala. The name Kwakwaka'wakw means "speakers of Kwak'wala". The language is now spoken by less than 5% of the population—about 250 people. Today 17 separate tribes make up the Kwakwaka'wakw, who historically spoke the common language of kwak'wala. 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 (θ/ CHAH-nuulth; Salish: [nuːt͡ʃaːnˀuɬ]) 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 as in 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. They are also noted as whalers. Their territory is around the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

Coast Salish

A Squamish elder woman spinning wool on spindle-whorl, circa 1893

The Coast Salish are the largest of the southern groups. They are a loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples spans from the northern end of the Strait of Georgia, along the east side of Vancouver Island, covering most of southern Vancouver Island, all of the Lower Mainland and Sunshine Coast, all of Puget Sound except (formerly) for the Chemakum territory near Port Townsend, and all of the Olympic Peninsula except that of the Quileute, related to the now-extinct Chemakum. The Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound were officially united as the Salish Sea in 2010.

The Coast Salish cultures differ 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 contemporary major metropolitan areas, namely the North Straits Salish-speaking peoples in and around Victoria, the Halkomelem-speaking peoples in and around Vancouver, and the Lushootseed-speaking peoples in and around Seattle. Pre-European contact, the Coast Salish numbered in the tens of thousands, and as such were one of the most populous groups on the northwest coast


The Chimakum people were a Chimakuan-speaking people whose traditional territory lay in the area of Port Townsend, Washington. Beset by warfare from surrounding Salish peoples, their last major presence in the region was eradicated by the Suquamish under Chief Seattle in the mid-19th century. Some survivors were absorbed by neighbouring Salish peoples, while some moved to join the Quileute on the southeast side of the Olympic Peninsula.


The Quileute (t/) are a Chimakuan-speaking people. Their traditional territory is in the western Olympic Peninsula, around the Quillayute and Hoh Rivers.


The Willapa are a traditionally Athabaskan-speaking people of southwestern Washington. Their territory was between Willapa Bay (named after them) and the prairie lands around the head of the Chehalis and Cowlitz Rivers. A related people, known as the Clatskanie (/) or Tlatskani, lived on the south side of the Columbia River in northwestern Oregon.


The Chinookan peoples were once one of the most powerful and populous groups of tribes on the southern part of the Northwest Coast. Their territories flank the mouth of the Columbia River and stretch up that river in a narrow band adjacent to that river, as far as Celilo Falls. Their group of dialects are known as Chinookan. It is distinguished from the Chinook Jargon, which was partly based upon it, and is often called "Chinook." Close allies of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, they are also a canoe people, and pre-European contact, Chinook Jargon arose as a trading language incorporating both Chinookan and Wakashan vocabulary. The Chinookan peoples practiced slavery, likely learned from the Nuu-chah-nulth as it was more common to the north, and cranial deformation. Those without flattened heads were considered to be beneath or servile to those who had undergone the procedure as infants.

One likely reason for the cultural prominence of the Chinookan peoples was their strategic position along the Columbia River, which acted as a massive trade corridor, as well as near Celilo Falls, the longest continuously-inhabited site in the Americas, used as a fishing site and trading hub for 15,000 years by a wide range of indigenous peoples.


The Tillamook or Nehalem peoples were a Coast Salishan-speaking group of tribes living roughly between Tillamook Head and Cape Meares on the northern Oregon Coast. The term 'Tillamook' itself is in fact an exonym, from the neighboring Chinook-speaking Kathlamet people. Although the Tillamook language was a Coast Salish language, it was somewhat divergent from its more northerly cousins; likewise, the Tillamook culture was substantially different from that of other Coast Salish cultures, apparently influenced by its southern neighbors. They, and their southern neighbors, were less reliant on salmon runs and more reliant on fish trapping in estuaries, hunting, and shellfish gathering.