Nature Notes

Vol. X May, 1932 No. 5

Arts and Crafts of the northwest coast indians

sketch of longhouse, totem pole, tree

The tepee has, in the mind of the average American, been firmly linked with the Indian. This has been largely due to stories woven about the redmen of the plains type but which were much different in many ways from the native people of the Pacific Coast. And one of the foremost of these differences lies in their homes. For our northwest coast tribes built lodges of wood - slabs split from the Western Red Cedar (Thuya plicata) - and so a village of these native people would appear much different from the common conception of an indian encampment as portrayed by novelists in the past.

Lodges of these indians were constructed of various sizes from single family dwellings to great, cooperatively built affairs which might, by comparison, be termed "mansions". Details of construction varied, of course, with different tribes but in general the first thing to be done was erection of a framework. Logs or split timbers were raised upright and lashed together to form the skeleton of the lodge. Then the cedar planks were lashed upon the side walls in a horizontal, and sometimes vertical, position. Roofing material was constructed in a special manner by adzing - with stone or bone tools - concave depression on one side of the plank. These were then overlapped with the concave surfaces alternating so that, in general the effect was that of a tile roof as far as the construction was concerned. Doors were provided but windows were absent and smoke from fires which were built upon the ground within escaped merely by sifting through cracks in the dwelling.

It is interesting to note that the framework and the slabs used for the exterior were independent of one another. That is, several framework constructions were the rule -- the number being dependent upon the number of localities generally visited throughout the year. In other words a family might live in one locality for a period to take advantage of some particularly good fishing, another locality so that a different type of food might be secured and a third place for another reason. In each place a framework was erected and, as the people moved about from one place to another, the slabs were removed from one framework and placed upon another.

Ornamentation of dwellings and articles of use was a common trait among these people and a very closely knit clan of family spirit was developed. Hence the familiar totem pole which is by far the most conspicuous "trade mark" of the northwest coast indians in the minds of present Americans.

The erection of a framework for the larger clan houses was not an easy matter. Here the ingenuity of the Indian is evident again. With an almost total lack of tools or equipment he nevertheless lifted these large poles or timbers to their proper places. In the case of an upright timber one end was placed in a hole in the ground -- one side of which was dug on a slant. A round log was laid on the lower side of the timber to be upraised and as the men pushed the timber up the log rolled into the hole, against the raising timber and prevented it from falling back. Top beams were laid in depressions prepared for them beforehand.

The Pacific Northwest is a timber country and its original people, their arts, their crafts and their livelihood, were dependent upon the natural resources of the forest found here.

sketch of Thunderbird

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