Before The Explorers

June 2017

The story of human activity in the Pacific Northwest does not, of course, begin with the arrival of the white man. The Indians of the region had a peculiarly rich culture of their own, dating far back into the mists of prehistory, and in a good many ways their society was unlike the modern conception of how the noble red man lived and behaved when he was on his own. A detailed, scholarly examination of this culture is provided by Philip Drucker of the Bureau of American Ethnology, the Smithsonian Institution, in Indians of the Northwest Coast .

Primarily this is a handbook intended to present the cultural background for the fine collection of Indian specimens and artifacts on display by the American Museum of Natural History; its approach is scientific, and it is not in all ways ideally adapted to the purposes of the general reader. But it does help to round out the picture for anyone interested in the great Northwest, and it gives an interesting account of a group of Indian tribes who differed radically from the more familiar eastern and Plains Indians.

Indians of the Northwest Coast, by Philip Drucker. McGraw-Hill. 208 pp. $5.75.

The northwest tribes, as Dr. Drucker points out, failed to follow the nearly universal pattern for primitive peoples. They had a high level of cultural activity, marked by elaborate ceremonials and implements, and these commonly go with an advanced stage of agricultural development which gives a tribe the wealth and the leisure to develop an intricate social organization. Yet they had no agriculture at all; technically, they belonged in the “hunting and gathering” group, which usually lives at the bare subsistence level, at the bottom of the cultural scale.

They got their wealth and leisure from the streams and from the sea. The fabulous salmon runs in the Columbia and other coastal rivers, the incredible abundance of other fish, the vast numbers of seals, sea lions, sea otters, porpoises, and whales along the shore —all of these provided a constant surplus of food so that life could be something better than a mere struggle for existence. As a result these Indians evolved a unique culture of a surprisingly high level.

They were the best woodworkers on the North American continent, even though they worked for the most part with tools of stone, bone, shell, and wood itself. (They did have a few iron implements before the coming of the white traders. Dr. Drucker suggests that these may have come, in prehistoric times, from some source in Siberia, for these coastal Indians were prodigious traders and had a rather extensive commercial system.) They could build fifty-foot canoes in which they frequently made ocean cruises of several hundred miles, although they were no navigators and refused to get out of sight of land. They had an elaborate caste system, and they were in their own way devout capitalists, and rather purse-proud about it at that; the “potlatch,” in which a chief could gain prestige and shame all his rivals by giving away wealth like a coal-oil Johnny on a spree, indicates an intense preoccupation with material riches. They were expert fishermen—with nets, with harpoons, and with ordinary hook and line—and from their intricate rituals they evolved a dramatic art.

All in all, they were an interesting people, a striking and distinctive subdivision of native American culture. It must be confessed that to modern eyes they do not appear to have been an especially “likeable” group; bemused urban youngsters who can daydream about the joys of being Iroquois warriors or Sioux buffalo hunters are not likely to fancy themselves as Chinook salmon fishers or Haida whalers. But their story is a fascinating part of the great story of the Northwest, and one’s understanding of the fabled Oregon Country is broadened by a knowledge of that land’s original inhabitants.