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.
The area referred to as the Northwest Coast has a very long history of human occupation, exceptional linguistic diversity, population density and cultural and ceremonial development. Noted by anthropologists for its complexity, there is emerging research that the economies of these people were more complex and intensive than was previously assumed. Many groups have First Generation Stories – family stories that tell of the origin of the group, and often of humans themselves arising in specific locations along the coast.
“the Indian history of British Columbia… began at least a hundred centuries before the Province itself was born….” Wilson Duff
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.
The indigenous populations were devastated by epidemics of infectious diseases, especially smallpox, brought in by European explorers and traders. Prior to European colonization, various reports from European explorers describe the tribes in the area bearing signs of smallpox. Nathaniel Portlock, a British ship’s captain, described as having “expected to have seen a numerous tribe” but instead found “only of three men, three women” as well as the oldest of the men “marked with the small-pox”, when referring to the Tlingit people in the North West Coast. Oral traditions of various tribes in the Pacific Northwest also refer to an epidemic of smallpox on the populations. There are many theories to how smallpox arrived in the Pacific Northwest. One theory is that an outbreak in central Mexico in 1779 spread north and infected the Shoshone in 1781, allowing the disease to spread into the lower Columbia River and Georgia Strait via trade between the Flathead, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, and other various tribes. Spanish expeditions to the Northwest Coast from Mexico in 1774, 1775, and 1779 are also attributed to spreading smallpox to the local tribes in the area, with many documented outbreaks correlating to where the Spanish made landfall. Another theory describes the outbreak originating in the Kamchatka Peninsula in 1769 and spreading via Russian explorers to South Alaska and the Aleutians, thus through the Alaska panhandle and down the Pacific Coast.
Due to the native population having no prior exposure to Old World diseases, local tribes may have lost as much as 90% of their population. This depopulation enabled an easier colonization of the Pacific Northwest by European and American migrants.
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