Franz Boas account of NW Coast economy.


The Indian Tribes of the North Pacific Coast, excerpted from The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1895 pp. 317-22

The Pacific Coast of America between Juan de Fuca Strait and Yakutat Bay is inhabited by a great many Indian tribes distinct in physical in characteristics and distinct in languages, but one in culture. Their arts and industries, their customs and beliefs, differ so much from those of all other Indians that they form one of the best defined cultural groups of our continent.

While a hasty glance at these people and a comparison with other tribes emphasize the uniformity of their culture, a closer investigation reveals many peculiarities of individual tribes which prove that their culture has developed slowly and from a number of distinct centers, each people adding something to the culture which we observe at the present day. The region inhabited by these people is a mountainous coast intersected by innumerable sounds and fjords and studded with islands, large and small. Thus intercourse along the coast by means of canoes is very easy, while access to the inland is difficult on account of the rugged hills and the density of the woods.

A few fjords cut deep into the mainland, and the valleys which open into them give access to the heart of the high ranges which separate the coast from the highlands of the interior, forming an effectual barrier between the people of the interior and those of the coast. These fjords and their rivers and valleys offer comparatively easy access to the coast, and along these lines interchange of culture has taken place.

Extending our view a little beyond the territory defined above, the passes along which the streams of culture flowed most easily were the Columbia River in the south and the pass leading along the Salmon and Bella Coola rivers to Dean Inlet and Betinck Arm. Of less importance are the Chilcat Pass, Stikine River, Nass and Skeena rivers, and Fraiser River. Thus it will be seen that there are only two important and four less important passes, over which the people of the coast come into contact with those of the interior. Thus they have occupied a rather isolated position and have been able to develop a peculiar culture without suffering important invasions from other parts of America.

As the precipitation along the coast is very great, its lower parts are covered with dense forests which furnish wood for building houses, canoes, implements, and utensils. Among them the red cedar (Thuya gigantea) is the most prominent, as it furnishes the natives with material for most manufactures. Its wood serves for building and carving; its bark is used for making clothing and ropes. The yellow cedar, pine fir hemlock, spruce yew tree, maple, alder are also of importance to the Indians. The woods abound with numerous kinds of berries, which are eagerly sought for. The kelp and seaweeds which grow abundantly all along the shore are also utilized.

In the woods the deer, the elk, the black and grizzly bear, the wolf and many other animals are found. The mountain goat lives on the higher ranges of the mainland. The beaver, the otter, marten mink, and fur seal furnish valuable skins, which were formerly used for blankets. The Indians keep in their villages dogs which assist the hunters.

The stable food of the Indians is however, furnished by the sea Seals, sea lions, and whales are found in considerable numbers; but people depend almost entirely upon various species of salmon, the halibut, and the oulachon or candlefish (Thaleichthys pacificus, Girard), which are caught in enormous quantities. Various specimens of cod and other sea fish also furnish food. Herrings visit the coast early in spring. In short, there is such an abundance of animal life in the sea that the Indians live almost solely upon it. Besides fish, they gather various kinds of shellfish, sea urchins and cuttlefish.

The people are, therefore essentially fishermen, all other pursuits being of secondary importance. Whales are pursued only by the tribes of the west coast of Vancouver Islands. Other tribes are satisfied with the dead carcasses of whales which drift ashore. Sea lions as seals are harpooned, and the barged harpoon point being either attached to a bladder or tied to the stern of the canoe. The harpoon lines are made of cedar bark and sinews. The meat of these sea animals is eaten, while their intestines are used for the manufacture of bowstrings and bags.

Codfish and halibut are caught by means of hoods. These are attached to fish lines made of kelp. The hood is provided with a sinker, while the upper part is kept afloat by a bladder or a wooden buoy. Cuttlefish are used for bait. The fish are either roasted over or near the fire or boiled in wooden kettles by means of red-hot stones. Those intended for use in winter are split in strips and dried in the sun or over the fire.

Salmon are caught in weirs and fish traps when ascending the rivers, or by means of nets dragged between two canoes. Later in the season salmon are harpooned. For fishing in deeper water, a very long double pointed harpoon is used.

Herring and oulachon are caught by means of a long rake. The oulachon are tried in canoes or kettles filled with water, which is heated by means of red hot stones. The oil is kept in bottles made of dried kelp. In winter, dried halibut and salmon dipped in oil is one of the principle dishes of the tribes living on the outer coast.

Clams and mussels are collected by the women; they are eaten fresh or strung on sticks or strips of cedar bark and dried for winter use. Cuttlefish are caught by means of longs sticks; sea eggs are obtained by means of round bag nets. Fish roe, particularly that of herring, is collected in great quantities, dried, and eaten with oil.

Sea grass, berries, and roots are gathered by the women. The sea grass is cut, formed into square cakes, and dried for winter use. The same is done with several kinds of berries, which when used are dissolved in water and eaten mixed with fish oil. The food is kept in large boxes which are bent of cedar wood, the bottom being sewed to the sides.

In winter, deer are hunted. Formerly bows and arrows were used, but these have now been replaced by guns. The bow was made of yew wood or of maple. The arrows had stone, bone and copper points. Bows and arrows were carried in wooden quivers. Deer are also captured by being driven into large nets made of cedar bark, deer sinews or nettles. Elks are hunted in the same way. For smaller animals traps with arrows provided with a think blunt point. Deerskins are worked into leather and used for various purposes, principally for ropes and formerly for clothing.

The natives of this region go bare legged. The principal part of their clothing is the blanket, and this was made of tanned skins or woven mountain-goat wool, dog's hair, feathers, or a mixture of both. The thread is spun on the bare leg and by means of a spindle. Another kind of blanket is made of soft cedar bark, the warp being tied across the weft. These blankets are trimmed with fur. At the present time woolen blankets are more extensively used.

At festive occasions "button blankets" are worn. Most of these are light blue blankets with a red border set with mother of pearl buttons. many are also adorned with the crest of the owner, which is cut of red cloth and sewed on to the blanket. Men wear shirt under the blanket, while women wear a petticoat in addition.

Before the introduction of woolen blankets, women used to wear an apron made of cedar bark and a belt made of the same material. When canoeing or working on the beach, the women wear large water-tight hats made of basketry. In rainy weather water-tight cape or poncho made of cedar bark, is used. The women dress their hat in two plaits, while the men wear it cooperatively short. The latter keep it back from the face by means of a strap of fur or cloth tied around the head. Ear and nose ornaments are used extensively. They are made of bone and abalone shell. The women of the most northern tribes (from Skeena River northward) wear labrets.

A great variety of baskets are used - large wicker baskets favor carrying fish and clams, cedar-bark baskets for purposes of storage. Mats made of cedar bark, and in the south such bake of rushes, are used for bedding, packing seats, dishes, covers of boxes, and similar purposes.

In olden times work in the wood was done by means of stone and bone implements. Trees were felled with stone axes and split by means of wooden or bone wedges. Boards were split out of cedar trees by means of these sedges. After the rough cutting was finished, the surface of the wood was planed with adzes, a considerable number of which were made of jade and serpentine boulders, which materials are found in several rivers. Carvings were executed with stone and shell knives.

Stone mortars and pestles were used for mashing berries. Paint pots of stone, brushes, and stencils made of cedar bark formed the outfit of the Indian painter. Pipes were made of slate, of bone or of wood.

Canoes are made of cedar wood. The types of canoes vary somewhat among the different tribes of the coast, depending also largely upon whether the canoe is to be used for hunting, traveling, or fishing. The canoe is propelled and steered by means of paddles.

The houses are made of wood and attain considerable dimensions. The details of construction vary considerably among the various tribes, but the general appearance is much alike from Comox to Alaska, while farther south a square northern house gives way to the long house of the Coast Salish. A detailed description of the house will be given later on. The tribes comprising the North Pacific group speak a great many different languages.



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