Summary Prehistory and Ethnography of Olympic National Park, Washington
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A number of distinct Native American groups lived in and utilized the resources of the area now encompassed by Olympic National Park. While they have now come to be known by "tribal" names, the evidence suggests that at the time of white contact, which occurred at different times for different groups, they identified themselves primarily with their languages, or the named river drainages or general geographic areas within which they lived and worked. It is evident that the social units of paramount importance were the household and the village. There was no formalized, political tribal structure per se. However, for the sake of convenience, this study will refer to those groups by the names which were formalized throughout the several treaties of 1855.

Culture change subsequent to white contact was rapid, extensive and in some instances, devastating. The aboriginal cultural patterns which had prevailed for so many centuries were faced with a series of challenges of such magnitude that collapse of much of the structure of native culture was unavoidable. For instance, Indian medicinal practices could not cope with Euro-American diseases such as smallpox, measles, whooping cough, or tuberculosis. White technology was seen as superior and desirable, and this in turn promoted very rapid native economic reorientation. Traditional subsistence activities began to be replaced by activities oriented toward the procurement of increasingly available white trade goods, such as blankets, metal cooking vessels, glass beads, metal tools and the like. Settlement patterns shifted, and the earlier white explorers and traders were followed by missionaries and settlers who obviously had no intention of leaving.

None of the groups to be discussed in the following sections were studied by trained observers prior to the onslaughts of European disease epidemics which reduced the native populations so greatly. Therefore, it is not known to what extent disease affected the structure or expression of their cultures. Most of the Olympic Peninsula groups were recorded by twentieth century ethnographers whose principal informants were Indian elders born well after the period of initial white contact. In describing aboriginal lifeways, then, those elders were describing the culture of their parents' or grandparents' time. We are fortunate that strong oral traditions about those cultures persisted in spite of white domination and in the general absence of written documentation.

By necessity, then, this summary of native culture must take the view that the descriptions approximate life as it was known at and shortly after the time of contact. It is beyond the scope of this study to present detailed ethnohistories of each native group. However, events and trends in early ethnohistory will be highlighted when they seem particularly illustrative.

Northwest Coast Culture Area

The Pacific seaboard from Yakutat Bay on the Alaska panhandle to Cape Mendocino in northern California is the area commonly referred to by researchers as the Northwest Coast culture area. Within that general area there was a great deal of regional and local cultural variation, expressed as mutually unintelligible languages and differences in economic orientation, material culture, social structure, and religious or spiritual belief systems. In general, however, it can be said that most Northwest Coast Indians were water oriented people who lived in cedar plank houses and relied for subsistence primarily on the abundant and usually reliable runs of several species of Pacific salmon, which spawned in the many rivers and streams emptying into the ocean.

Within the greater Northwest Coast culture area there also lived people whose subsistence pursuits emphasized the hunting of land animals and gathering of wild root crops, as well as groups with truly diversified hunting/gathering/fishing economies. Economic orientation in large measure was expressed as a functional adaptation to the particular environment within which a given group of people lived.

Because of differences in resource distribution and cultural traits (some of which will be discussed below), that culture area has frequently been subdivided into the "Northern", "North-Central" (or "Central") and "Southern" coastal areas. The native groups of the Olympic Peninsula, southern Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, the lower Columbia River and the southern British Columbia coast have traditionally been included in the "Southern Coast" in the anthropological literature. General aspects of Southern Northwest Coast culture, as they pertain to Olympic Peninsula native groups, will now be discussed before those groups are described individually.

Settlement Patterns

Despite their differences, Olympic Peninsula native people shared many cultural features which are noteworthy. At the time of white contact, all groups lived at least part of the year in villages composed of from one to twenty dwellings, although most villages contained only a few such structures. Houses of all settlements, large and small, were usually lined parallel to the beach or river bank (see Plate 2). Those more-or-less permanent villages were really wintertime aggregations of households. Some of them appear to have supported year-around occupations, depending on what food resources were available in their immediate vicinities. In general, however, food resources utilized by Southern Northwest Coast native people were widely scattered, both in time and space, across their territories, and in wintertime their availability and accessibility was limited (Singh 1956; Abbott 1972). Food surpluses generated during the late spring, summer, and fall supported winter village life. Winter houses were normally large, multi-family residences constructed of posts and beams and sheathed with split and/or adzed cedar planks. The dirt-floored houses were as large as 30 X 60 feet, although some were reportedly over 100 feet in length. Inside, the two to six related nuclear families who shared the house each had their own individual sleeping areas and cooking hearths. Benches of wide cedar planks lined the walls and served as beds or seats. Personal belongings and equipment were stored in cedar boxes and baskets or hung from beams. Food was prepared by stone-boiling in wooden vessels, roasting, or steaming over heated rocks. Generally speaking, the largest winter villages were located at or near the mouths of major salmon-spawning streams, although as we will see, the Makah settlements were an exception.

Plate 2. Ozette Village (c. 1890). Older Style houses have horizontal planks and "shed" roofs; in left foreground is hulk of Austria, shipwrecked in 1877. (Historical Photography Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Photographer unknown)

During other times of the year, the winter villages dispersed, and households or individual families moved to small "villages " or camps located at an area of seasonal food resource availability and exploitation. At those smaller camps, which might be sited at a particularly productive salmon fishing spot, hunting or berrying ground, shellfish gathering area or camas prairie, temporary structures were erected for shelter. Several types of temporary shelters were constructed, ranging from brush or driftwood lean-to's to rectangular or square huts framed with rough-hewn poles and covered with mats (see Plate 3). Occasionally, families erected cedar plank houses at those seasonal sites and left them in place. Houses from one location were sometimes disassembled and transported by canoe to another location where they were reassembled.

Plate 3. Skokomish Summer Mat House (c. 1910). (Historical Photography Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Photograph by Edward Curtis)


By and large, because of environmental constraints, the horse did not play a major role in Southern Northwest Coast culture. Most travel was by foot or dugout canoe. Canoes were usually made from Western red cedar logs which were split in two lengthwise with wood or antler wedges. The halves were hollowed out by burning and adzing, the outside was roughly shaped, and the preformed hull was dragged to the nearest appropriate water course where it was usually floated to a habitation site and finished. There were about six different sizes and styles of canoes, ranging from small, inland waterway "shovel-nosed" types to large ocean-going canoes up to 60 feet in length. Often, when transporting large loads, cedar planks were lashed between two canoes.

Paddles and sails were used to propel canoes, although it is unknown whether or not sails were used before being seen on European vessels (Gunther 1962:11). Sails were initially made from wooden slats or cedar bark mats, but canvas or flour sacks sewn together were used as soon as those materials became readily available (Eells 1971:643). It may have been that sails were observed on shipwrecked Japanese vessels, which have also been suggested as a source of iron found at late prehistoric archeological sites (Ellis n.d.).


Native people on the Olympic Peninsula were masters of highly elaborated and sophisticated wood and bone working technologies, and also worked to a somewhat lesser degree with stone and shell.

Wood, primarily cedar, spruce, alder, and maple, was split, adzed, carved, or abraded into an impressive array of structures, tools, weapons, eating and drinking utensils, boxes, religious and ceremonial paraphernalia, and art work. Tree bark and roots were processed into fabric, cordage, or basketry materials. It is impossible to overestimate the role of wood in Northwest Coast culture.

Bone, from birds and land and sea mammals, was crafted into whistles, needles, awls, clubs, digging sticks, woodworking wedges, chisel blades, projectile points, combs, fishhook barbs, jewelry, and barbed harpoons. Antler was used for composite toggling harpoon "valves" and woodworking wedges.

Stone and shell were used less extensively, but were nonetheless important. Stone was pecked and/or ground into net weights, hammers, mauls, fish knives and jewelry. Shell was ground and shaped into harpoon arming elements, knives and jewelry. Iron from prehistoric contexts has been mentioned, and it was also observed in native use by 18th century explorers and fur traders. It was highly prized by native craftsmen and used primarily for woodworking tools and weapons. Copper of unknown origin was also known and crafted mainly as jewelry.


Most Native American economic systems on the Peninsula were based on a surplus of fish, both deep-sea and anadromous species. Fish were taken by a variety of methods, including hook and line angling, netting, lattice-work weirs, traps and spearing. Surplus fish were smoked and sun-dried and stored for use during the winter.

Surplus was also generated by the intensive gathering of a great variety of shellfish, which were dried and stored. Their role as a nearly inexhaustible protein resource is sometimes overlooked. Borden has powerfully argued for the role of intertidal resources in his modeling of the development of Northwest Coast prehistoric cultures (1975, 1979). After white contact, dried clams were sold in large quantities by the Indians to the early Euro-American residents of the Peninsula.

Sea and land mammal hunting was pursued in varying degrees by all the native groups in the area. Sea mammal hunting was especially important to the various groups living on the Pacific Ocean, and will be discussed in more specific detail in the following sections. Land mammals, particularly deer and elk, were taken not only for their meat, but also for their hides, antler, and dense bone, which have been shown to be important tool and weapon media. Virtually all large birds except crows and ravens were hunted and eaten.

In terms of non-arboreal plant resources, the many, many species of berries available in the dense forests and upland areas were gathered in season. Sprouts, bracken fern roots and camas were available on the Peninsula, and were critical nutritional components. Bear grass, fireweed, and cattails were harvested intensively and employed in the manufacture of basketry and matting. Nettles and kelp were critical to exploitation of fisheries and hunting of sea mammals, being important sources of native cordage.

In terms of the exploitation and optimal use of natural resources, the native inhabitants of the Peninsula, and for that matter all Northwest Coast Indians, were highly imaginative and skillful people. The society of Northwest Coast Indians exhibited a complexity and elaboration equal to those of the resources and technology which sustained it. In the following sections, the "non-material" aspects of their culture will be highlighted.

Social Organization

Native cultures on the Peninsula were ranked societies characterized by wealth/status gradations. One's social standing tended to be hereditary, although birth was not the sole determining factor. There were essentially three classes of people:

1. "Upper class" people inherited their parents' status and were expected to maintain it. While they did not always inherit specific legal property rights, because of their status they seem to have had privileged access to particularly productive resource procurement locales. The wealthiest upper class male in a village was usually an authority figure, although that authority was not absolute. The marriage partners of high status individuals were almost always from different villages, and sometimes from different ethnic groups. Not surprisingly, upper class people always married other upper class people and their offspring continued to have privileged access to differentially distributed resources.

2. "Commoners" is a term which seems to have been synonymous with "poor" or "low class." It is not clear what proportion this group constituted in Northwest Coast societies. Commoners had no privileged access to resources, although among the Southern coastal people there were several routes to prestige which could enhance their social standing.

3. "Slaves" were those truly unfortunate individuals who were either born to slave parents or captured in war. The ownership of slaves was highly prestigious, and they performed all manner of menial tasks for their owners. The stigma of slavery was such that:

To become a slave is the most regrettable thing that can happen to a person. The unfortunate individual may be ransomed...but even then the stigma remains and may be referred to in quarrels (Barnett 1968:19).

It occasionally happened that a slave married a commoner, but their descendents would often be ridiculed or mocked as slaves (Collins 1949:306). Slavery existed in isolated areas of the Northwest Coast until the late nineteenth century, and to this day on the Olympic Peninsula, a person's slave ancestry might be mentioned in derision or as cruel humor. It has been estimated that the slave population of the Peninsula did not exceed four or five percent of the total population (Singh 1956:102).

As has been mentioned previously, Northwest Coast Indians identified themselves primarily with the household and winter village in which they lived. They didn't use family names per se, but reckoned their descent and family relationships equally through both the maternal and paternal lines. The preferred form of marriage was to someone from another village, and women usually married out of their village, while men tended to reside in their fathers' houses after marriage. Thus, people could claim relationships to numbers of people both within their village of birth and their village of residence. Marriage not only established nuclear families but created systems of economic and social obligations and reciprocity between formerly unrelated families.

For instance, a proposal to a woman usually took the form of a number of gifts presented to her family by the prospective groom's family (the quantity and quality of gifts being roughly proportional to her status). If accepted, the marriage proceeded and the woman's family was then obligated to return to the new husband's family an equal or greater amount of gifts (Elmendorf 1960; Singh 1956). Similarly, a family might make an unsolicited gift of surplus food to its in-laws in another village, which required reciprocation "in kind" at a later date. In matters of serious conflict, a family or household could call upon its blood or in-law relations for assistance. These sorts of obligations resulted in what has been termed "an interaction pattern of shifting family-based political alliances" (Powell 1981 :5).

The notable lack of a more formalized political structure may have been advantageous to the native people of the Southern Northwest Coast, where resources tended to be dispersed and unevenly distributed. For instance, the normally abundant salmon runs weren't totally predictable or reliable, and shortages or even famine were reported to have occurred (Singh 1956; Suttles 1968). A certain amount of political and social flexibility helped to insure that the unevenness could be compensated for by resource redistribution, which occurred as several forms of gift-giving, payments of services, and the like (see the section on "potlatching" below).

Similarly, the systems of land ownership or stewardship practiced by the Indians helped "even-out" the distribution of resources. In theory, all of a given tribe's territory was equally available for exploitation to all members, given that permission to use a specific area was sought from the local village, individual household or family who customarily utilized it. Permission was rarely denied (Singh 1956; Haeberlin and Gunther 1930; Olson 1936). This apparently held true for everything from clam beds to individual fishing platforms on communally-owned village fishweirs. As we will see in the following ethnographic sketches, some Olympic Peninsula groups held virtually all their territory "in common," while others more clearly specified the rights of certain families to use certain locales. Whatever the case, access to a number of small sites where various food and economic resources occurred was necessary, there being "no advantage in ownership of large, contiguous blocks of land" (Abbott 1972:270).

Spirituality and Ceremonialism

Among the southern Northwest Coast cultures, there were no systematized beliefs about the cosmos, or structured hierarchies of dieties. However, the various native groups possessed highly elaborated mythologies which described their own origins and the activities of supernatural beings, such as "K'wati" (the "Changer") and the "Thunderbird," and their role in the creation of the world. There was, however, a nearly universal belief in the immortality of certain animals, especially salmon. Most native groups on the Peninsula conducted "First Salmon" ceremonies wherein the first such fish caught during the salmon run was treated ritually (Drucker 1955:140). Correct ritual treatment would ensure a good run of fish, it was believed. There were "first berry" and "first elk" ceremonies as well. Numerous taboos were connected with almost all economically significant animals. Rituals and taboos served to instill in each individual a sense of personal responsibility about such important creatures. Women's menses, in particular, were also associated with a number of taboos.

Guardian spirit power, the quest for that power, and its assistance and expression in an individual's lifetime were in total perhaps the most important aspects of native belief systems. Spirit power and the vision quest, wherein the power was usually attained, were particularly important on the Southern Coast. The concept of guardian power and its perceived effect on human life was pervasive throughout native culture. Art, dance, music, song, healing, and individual economic orientation were all seen as expressions of spirit power.

The individual spirit quest was a very private affair. Among native people of the Southern Coast, the quest often took place near isolated freshwater pools, sometimes associated with old growth cedar. Activities there in part involved bathing, submerging, and fasting.

Spirit power came to the individual in a vision or dream, and usually taught the person a song. The song was subsequently sung by the person "to bring on a state of consciousness during which communion with one's spirit power was complete" (Powell 1981:7). The song also served as a symbol to others of the successful attainment of spirit power (Joseph Waterhouse, Jr., personal communication, 1982).

Personal spirit power took any one of a number of directions. For example, it could be "hunting power," which conferred talent or skill or luck in hunting. Wealthy people had "wealth spirit power." Spirit power could assist a person in gambling. There were varying degrees of power, and very potent meaningful expressions of it, ranging from the ability to divine the location of lost items to the ability to heal the sick. As such, it was also a way for commoners to attain prestige in lieu of inherited position or wealth (Drucker 1955:143).

Winter ceremonial activity, when dispersed kin and village groups aggregated, was another hallmark of Northwest Coast culture. There existed numbers of secret societies which performed initiation rituals and acted out supernatural legends and belief systems through dance, pantomime, and song (Kroeber 1939). Secret societies were more prominent on the Northern and Central Coast than on the Southern Coast.

Very important at winter ceremonials on the Southern Coast, and especially so among the Salish-speaking people, were spirit dances. Then, individuals acted out their spirit power by dancing and singing, and were accompanied by others in supporting roles. Such winter ceremonials were powerful integrative mechanisms.


Northwest Coast societies were notable for an inordinate preoccupation with prestige and wealth display, especially the Northern Coast people. Southern Coastal societies were somewhat less rigid in terms of accessibility to prestige than the more northerly groups were. It could be got by birth, spirit power or through success in warfare or economic pursuits. Prestige was essentially gauged by others in terms of 1) the strength of the spirit power one could demonstrate, 2) the amount of wealth (either real or symbolic) which one could accumulate and then give away, or 3) one's social class. To a certain degree, the three were interrelated.

Hosting a "potlatch" was an important route to prestige. The term was derived from the Wakashan word "patshatl," meaning "to give away" (Densmore 1939:89). Potlatching was a complex ensemble of events carefully staged by hosts (normally from the upper class) who invited guests to their village and then ritually gave away unusually large quantities of gifts to the assembled visitors. As a cultural trait, it was not as developed or elaborate among the Southern coastal people as it was in the north.

Invitations to a potlatch were made weeks and sometimes months in advance of the event. The arrival of each contingent of guests, who sometimes traveled great distances, was greeted with much fanfare. After several days of feasting by the host village, guests of high rank were given gifts of wealth items proportional to their individual statuses. Guests of low status (commoners) were given standardized gifts, such as a uniform number of blankets or baskets each. Gifts were distributed near the conclusion of the potlatch, along with whatever food remained.

A commoner who was particularly resourceful or successful economically could diligently accumulate wealth and give a potlatch, whereby the recipients would be obligated to reciprocate at a later date. The person's demonstrated ability to stage such a giveaway enhanced his prestige.

To claim a privilege, such as specific property rights, the use of a particular ceremony, or the granting of an ancestral name to a child of high rank, required that the claimant give a potlatch. Lower class individuals could claim privileges appropriate to their rank by participating in a potlatch given by another.

Whatever the case, to attempt to claim any meaningful privilege without giving a potlach of some sort was considered ludicrous (Barnett 1968:35). Thus, potlatches were both prestige enhancement ceremonies and also served to "legalize" privileges. In effect, they functioned as wealth redistribution mechanisms and, to some degree, as arenas for personal competition. Since one person alone could seldom afford to give a really good potlatch, it was usually done with the help of relatives and friends, and thus enhanced group solidarity (Barnett 1968).

War was another avenue to prestige, although that was not its only function. At the time of white contact, fighting between Northwest coast villages was a frequent occurrence. Several situations could precipitate warfare, including: (1) the willful decision of a person with a "warrior spirit guide" to organize and lead an expedition; (2) the refusal of a guilty party to pay a "murder indemnity" to the kin of a slain person; (3) the unauthorized use of fishing, hunting or berry picking grounds (Haeberlin and Gunther 1930:12).

Drucker makes a distinction between war in the Northern and southern geographical subareas of Northwest Coast culture. Among the Northern people, wars could involve the expulsion or extermination of a rival lineage in order to acquire its territory, slaves or property. In contrast, wars in the Southern Coastal area were more properly termed "feuds," and were generally in revenge for the killing or injury of a kinsman. (1955:136).

Success conferred prestige, as it did in warring societies throughout the New World. There were preparatory rituals before the departure of the warriors in their canoes. Targeted villages were usually approached in the dark, often with the responsibility for attacking individual households planned in advance. Enemy women and children were either taken captive or driven off. Males not taken as slaves were killed and sometimes decapitated, their heads being taken back to the home village and placed on poles as war trophies. Warfare served primarily as a mechanism for revenge and as a means to enhance prestige.


One final important aspect of Southern Northwest Coast culture has to do with art. Northern coastal art is world-renowned and has been the subject of art history research as well as anthropological studies (see for example Holm 1965). Southern coast artistic expression at the time of white contact did not emphasize the carving, painting or weaving of totemic images, as it did in the north, where clans and lineages used totemic art to publicize their descent from mythical or supernatural ancestors. Clan and lineage totemism and descent were also the primary foci of winter ceremonial activity on the Northern coast.

Southern Coast wood carving and other art forms were well-rendered but were less elaborate and less complex than the more northerly styles. Gunther analyzes the relative simplicity of Southern art in terms of winter ceremonialism and prestige. In the North, ceremonialism and prestige were expressed in symbolic carving, while in the South, ceremonialism was more concerned with spirit power, dance and song. Choreography was intricate, and "a person's esteem was measured by the number of people who followed him when he danced" (1962:33). Consonant with that individualism in the South, "art is perhaps a reflection of a closer spiritual relation between an individual and his guardian spirit, compared to the social domination of the arts of the North." (Gunther 1962:14).

Against the preceeding backdrop of social organization, basic economic orientation and spiritual and artistic elaboration, the several native groups of the Olympic Peninsula will now be briefly highlighted.

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Last Updated: 03-Nov-2009