The Northwest Coastal Indians could catch enough fish during the summer salmon run to feed themselves for the whole winter. The Indians also caught a variety of food from the sea including halibut and cod. They ate clams, crabs, seals, sea otters, sea lions, fish, herring eggs, and mussels, sea urchins, and seaweed. The men hunted land animals including bear, caribou, deer, elk, and moose. The Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka)/Makah and to a lesser extent the Haida also caught whales. In some areas mountain goats could be found. The women gathered roots, berries, seaweed for salt, nuts, fungus, acorns, and camas bulbs. Blueberries and huckleberries were some of the favorite berries. While most tribes lived on the coast during the summer months, when winter came many moved their camps to a more protected area like up a river or inlet.
The Northwest Coastal tribes occasionally gathered together for a potlatch. The person hosting the potlatch gave away as many gifts to his guests as he could. This showed he was wealthy. These ceremonies could last for days. Singing, dancing, and story-telling were part of the celebration.
The Northwest Coastal Indians took slaves. Slaves were a sign of wealth. Children were kept close to their camp for fear that they would be stolen by another tribe and become a slave.
Only two tribes of Northwest Coastal Indians, The Makah and Nootka, hunted for food in the sea. They built great seagoing canoes. Some were more than 60 feet long. They built the canoes from the trunks of huge cedar and redwood trees. The canoes could hold as many as 60 men. The Makah and Nootka often carved elaborate pictures and painted designs on their canoes.
The Inuit built large boats called an umiak. The umiak was about 30 feet in length. When a whale was spotted the chief was the first to strike it with his harpoon. Then the others joined in. After the whale died, the Indians tied its mouths shut so the whale’s lungs couldn’t fill with water. The whale would become heavy and sink if this were to happen. The whale was then towed back to shore.
Once the whale was pulled to shore, it was cut up. The meat was divided. The whale also was a source of oil and the bones were used for various tools. An entire tribe could live for a whole year on two to four whales.
The Northwest Indians believed that each of their clans were closely related to a particular animal. Common animals were the raven, thunderbird, eagle, wolf, killer whale, and bear. These animals were used as designs for many objects. The designs were sometimes flattened or bent to the shape of the object it was being placed on. Parts of the animals were drawn in squared ovals and solid, curved u-shaped sections.
The Northwest Coastal Indians carved and painted wooden masks. These were used in dances during ceremonies. The dances acted out legends of ancestors and family origins. Sometimes the masked dancers appeared through trap doors or swung through the air on rope to look like they were flying. The ceremonies were held in elaborate settings. When the dancers put on masks they took on the personality of the spirit the mask represented.