Explorers and Pirates Of The Pacific Northwest: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: The First Nations Of The Pacific Northwest

Interestingly, none of the major European powers exploring, and building trading settlements along the coast of the Pacific Northwest from the Columbia River to Alaska considered the land as already occupied. Instead, it was considered wide open territory, up for grabs to whoever could first make a claim. The reality was that the land was already densely populated by indiginous nations.

Every river, bay, inlet, and island was already occupied by one native nation or another, and had been for several thousand years. One of the earliest known settlements is at Xa:ytem (Hatzic Rock) near Mission, B.C. and dates back to beween 6.000-9,000 BC.

The Chinook Nation

The Lower Columbian was occupied by the Chinook nation (referred to in early accounts as the Cheenooks or chinnook). The Chinook Nation consists of the western most Chinookan people. Their history and constitution define them as being Lower Chinook, Clatsop, Willapa, Wahkiakum and Kathlamet tribes. At it's peak there was an estimated population of over 16,000 members. The Chinook were a peaceful people, and did not engage much in warfare - instead they were great diplomats at bartering and trading. Before their decline in population the Chinookian tribes became the greatest traders on the Columbia River, a great water highway stretching from the area of the coastal tribes into the immense interior. Their geographical position at the mouth of that river up to The Dalles gave them the opportunity to become middlemen in the development of trade relationships between the coast and the interior.  The river was a rich source of salmon, the basis of the regional economy, and many groups traded with the Chinook for dried fish. Other important trade items were slaves from California, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) canoes, and dentalium shells, which were highly valued as hair and clothing ornaments.

The development of the Chinook Jargon, an Indian trade language based originally on Chinook words but later incorporating an increasing vocabulary of European origin, bears witness to the importance of the Chinook tribes in pre-1840 trade relations. Contacts and trade took place largely on the Columbia River at Celilo or The Dalles, when material culture from the northern edge of the Plains mingled with and was exchanged for material from as far as Alaska.  

The Chinook were a bay or river people living near the coast of the Pacific Ocean, they were skilled elk hunters and fishermen. The most popular fish was Salmon. Owing partly to their non-migratory living patterns, the Chinook and other coastal tribes had relatively little conflict over land with one another. They also lived in long houses with more than fifty people in one long house. Cedar was important in the construction of these houses. 

The Chinook people, like other coastal nations,  were widely known for their "flatheads", a process where some children's heads were flatten at birth by applying pressure with a board. Washington Irving describes the process in his work, Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1849), a comments, "it must be noted, however, that this flattening of the head has something in it of aristocratical significancy, like the crippling of the feet amoung Chinese ladies of quality. At any rate, it is a sign of freedom. No slave is permitted to bestow this enviable deformity upon his child; all slaves, therefore, are roundheads."

Chief Comcomly or Concomly (1765 – 1830) was a Native American chief of the Chinookan people. He was the principal chief of the Chinook Confederacy, which extended along the Columbia River from the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean. Washington Irving described him in his book Astoria as "a shrewd old savage with but one eye". He was friendly to the White explorers whom he encountered, and received medals from Lewis and Clark. He also assisted the Astor Expedition and offered to help the Americans fight the British during the War of 1812, but Astoria was sold to the British instead. Comcomly was friendly with the British as well. He was entertained at Fort Vancouver by John McLoughlin and he piloted Hudson's Bay Company ships up the Columbia. When Astor Expedition arrived to take possession of the region for the United States, Com’comly cultivated a close friendship with the pioneers, even giving his daughter [Ilchee] as wife to Duncan McDougal, a Canadian fur trader who was at their head and who took part in the founding of Ft. Astoria in 1811. 

On July 20, 1811, Duncan McDougal, Chief Factor for the Pacific Fur Company at Astoria, Oregon, and Ilchee, daughter of Chief Comcomly of the Chinook Tribe, married, becoming the first couple to be married in Astoria. Washington Irving in his narrative Astoria (published in 1836) tells the tale:

“… M’Dougal, who appears to have been a man of a thousand projects, and of great, though somewhat irregular ambition, suddenly conceived the idea of seeking the hand of one of the native princesses, a daughter of the one-eyed potentate Com’comly, who held sway over the fishing tribe of the Chinooks, and had long supplied the factory with smelts and sturgeons. Some accounts give rather a romantic origin to this affair, tracing it to the stormy night when M’Dougal, in the course of an exploring expedition, was driven by stress of the weather to seek shelter in the royal abode of Com’comly. Then and there he was first struck with the charms of the piscatory (sic) princess, as she exerted herself to entertain her father’s guest.

The “Journal of Astoria,” however, which was kept under his own eye, records this union as a high state alliance, and great stroke of policy. The factory had to depend, in a great measure, on the Chinooks for provisions. They were at present friendly, but it was to be feared they would prove otherwise, should they discover the weakness and the exigencies of the post, and the intention to leave the country. This alliance, therefore, would infallibly rivet Com’comly to the interests of the Astorians, and with him the powerful tribe of the Chinooks. Be this as it may, and it is hard to fathom the real policy of governors and princes, M’Dougal dispatched two of the clerks as ambassadors extraordinary, to wait upon the one-eyed chieftain, and make overtures for the hand of his daughter.

Ilchee on the Columbia

The Chinooks, although not a very refined nation, have notions of matrimonial arrangements that would not disgrace the most refined sticklers for settlements and pin-money. The suitor repairs not to the bower of his mistress, but to her father’s lodge, and throws down a present at his feet. His wishes are then disclosed by some discreet friend employed by him for that purpose. If the suitor and his present find favor in the eyes of the father, he breaks the matter to his daughter, and inquires into the state of her inclinations. Should her answer be favorable, the suit is accepted and the lover has to make further presents to the father of horses, canoes, and other valuables, according to the beauty and merits of the bride; looking forward to a return in kind whenever they shall go to housekeeping.

We have more than once had occasion to speak of the shrewdness of Com’comly;  but never was it exerted more adroitly than on this occasion.  Com’comly was a great friend of M’Dougal, and pleased with the idea of having so distinguished a son-in-law; but so favorable an opportunity of benefiting his own fortune was not likely to occur a second time and he determined to make the most of it. Accordingly, the negotiation was protracted with true diplomatic skill. Conference after conference was held with the two ambassadors. Com’comly was extravagant in his terms; rating the charms of his daughter at the highest price, and indeed she is represented as having one of the flattest and most aristocratical (sic) heads in the tribe.

At length the preliminaries were all happily adjusted. On the 20th of July, early in the afternoon, a squadron of canoes crossed over from the village of the Chinooks, bearing the royal family of Com’comly, and all his court.

That worthy sachem landed in princely state, arrayed in a bright blue blanket and red breech clout, with an extra quantity of paint and feathers, attended by a train of half-naked warriors and nobles. A horse was in waiting to receive the princess, who was mounted behind one of the clerks, and thus conveyed, coy but compliant, to the fortress. Here she was received with devout, though decent joy, by her expecting bridegroom.

Her bridal adornments, it is true, at first caused some little dismay, having painted and anointed herself for the occasion according to the Chinook toilet; by dint, however, of copious ablutions, she was freed from all adventitious tint and fragrance, and entered into the nuptial state, the cleanest princess that had ever been known, of the somewhat unctuous tribe of the Chinooks.

From that time forward, Comcomly was a daily visitor at the fort, and was admitted into the most intimate councils of his son-in-law. He took an interest in everything that was going forward, but was particularly frequent in his visits to the blacksmith’s shop; tasking the labors of the artificer in iron for every state, insomuch that the necessary business of the factory was often postponed to attend to his requisitions. …”

Paul Kane wrote about Ilchee and Duncan McDougal in his Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America, published in 1859:

“… [Ilchee] was the daughter of the great chief generally known as King Com’comly,  so beautifully alluded to in Washington Irving’s “Astoria”.  She was formerly the wife of a Mr. McDougall, who bought her from her father for, as it was supposed, the enormous price of ten articles of each description, guns, blankets, knives, hatchets, &c., then in Fort Astoria. Com’comly, however, acted with unexpected liberality on the occasion by carpeting her path from the canoe to the Fort with sea otter skins, at that time numerous and valuable, but now scarce, and presenting them as a dowry, in reality far exceeding in value the articles at which she had been estimated. On Mr. McDougall’s leaving the Indian country she became the wife of Casanov . . .” In 1813, when Astoria was turned over to the British, McDougal left.  Ilchee eventually traveled up the Columbia to the Vancouver area and married Chief Casino (often seen as “Casanov”), a Chinook chief and successor to Chief Com’comly, before returning to her home at the mouth of the Columbia."


chief comcomly
A sketch of the great chief Comcomly (1765-1830),
he was well known for only having "one eye".

Chief Comcomly

Chinook Chief Comcomly(1865-1830) 
from a water-colour drawing, circa. 1920

Chinook Jargon

Since the Chinook were masterful traders bits and pieces of their language were known not only up and down the coast, but also to inland nations such as the Nez Pierce. When the first Europeans arrived  in the Pacific Northwest, the Chinook made excellent interpreters and pilots, since bits of their language was so widely understood. Inititally, the first settlers were taught to speak the Chinook language, then over time these jargon was mixed with their own dialects and it travelled throughout the pacific, as the ships sailed for China and Hawaii. 

In an efort to find a common language that could be used by Europeans settlers, and all coastal native groups, Chinook Jargon (also known as chinuk wawa) originated as a pidgin trade language of the Pacific Northwest, and spread during the 19th century from the lower Columbia River, first to other areas in modern Oregon and Washington, then British Columbia and as far as Alaska and Yukon Territory, sometimes taking on characteristics of a creole language. It is related to, but not the same as, the aboriginal language of the Chinook people, upon which much of its vocabulary is based. As it was a native language to many children of mixed European and Native ancestry, it can be considered a Métis language. 

Many words from Chinook Jargon remain in common use in the Western United States and British Columbia and the Yukon, in indigenous languages as well as regional English usage,to the point where most people are unaware the word was originally from the Jargon.

There is some controversy about the origin of the Jargon, but all agree that its glory days were during the 19th century. During this era many dictionaries were published in order to help settlers interact with the First Nations people already living there. The old settler families' heirs in the Pacific Northwest sent communiques to each other, stylishly composed entirely in "the Chinook". Many residents of the British Columbia city of Vancouver spoke Chinook Jargon as their first language, even using it at home in preference to English. Among the first Europeans to use Chinook Jargon were traders, trappers, Voyageurs, Coureur des bois and Catholic missionaries. Hawaiians and Chinese in the region made much use of it as well; in some places Kanakas married into the First Nations and non-native families and their particular mode of the Jargon is believed to have contained Hawaiian words, or Hawaiian styles of pronunciation; similarly the Jargon as spoken by a Chinese person or a Norwegian or a Scot will have been influenced by those individuals' native-speaker terms and accents; and in some areas the adoption of further non-aboriginal words has been observed. The Chinook Jargon naturally became the first language in mixed-blood households, and also in multi-ethnic work environments such as canneries and lumberyards and ranches where it remained the language of the workplace well into the middle of the 20th Century. During the Gold Rush, Chinook Jargon was used in British Columbia by gold prospectors and Royal Engineers. As industry developed, Chinook Jargon was often used by cannery workers and hop pickers of diverse ethnic background. Loggers, fishermen and ranchers incorporated it in their jargon.

Some common Chinook Jargon words:

  • Skookum — The most versatile — is skookum, which was used in the Jargon either as a verb auxiliary for to be able or an adjective for able, strong, big, genuine, reliable - which sums up its use in BC English, although there are a wide range of possible usages: a skookum house is a jail or prison (house in the Jargon could mean anything from a building to a room). "He's a skookum guy" means that the person is solid and reliable while "we need somebody who's skookum" means that a strong and large person is needed. A carpenter, after banging a stud into place, might check it or refer to it as "yeah, that's skookum". Asking for affirmation, someone might say "is that skookum" or "is that skookum with you?" Skookum can also be translated simply as "O.K." but it means something a bit more emphatic.
  • Chuck, saltchuck — Other Jargon words in BC English include chuck, originally meaning water or any fluid but adapted into English to refer to bodies of water, particularly "the saltchuck" in reference to salt water. In combination with skookum the compound word skookumchuck, meaning a rapids (lit. "strong water"), is found in three placenames although not used with its true meaning in ordinary speech. Chuck and saltchuck, however, remain common, notably in local broadcast English in weather/marine reports).
  • Iktus — "stuff" in Chinook Jargon, also pronounced "itkus" with 't' and 'k' reversed. Occurs in English usually in a derogatory sense of junk, as in "We haven't got itkus."
  • Cheechako — Newcomer; the word is formed from "chee" (new) + "chako" (come) and was used to refer to non-native people.
  • Muckamuck, high muckamuck. — The most famous of these words, and probably the most popular still There's also "high muckamuck" and even its proper form "hyas muckamuck" (pronounced "high-ass", and in English carrying that connotation), and the variant "high mucketymuck"; "high mucketymuck/muckamuck" has spread far beyond the Pacific Northwest, and meaning a big boss, while literally meaning "big feed" or "important banquet", potentially meaning even a fullblown potlatch, in English it has a sense of "the guys at the head table" since "muckamuck" or "a feed" is in the same vein in non-city BC English as "grub" or "a meal/dinner".
  • Potlatch — in Chinook Jargon is a ceremony among certain tribes involving food and exchange of gifts, nowadays sometimes used to refer to a potluck dinner or sometimes the giving away of personal items to friends.
  • Quiggly, quiggly hole — refers to the remains of an old Indian pit-house, or underground house, from "kickwillie" or "kekuli", which in the Jargon means "down" or "underneath" or "beneath".
  • Siwash — (SAI-wash) properly a First Nations man, but sometimes used for women as well. Nowadays considered extremely derogatory but still in use, typically with the connotation of "drunken no-good Indian". Historically it did not necessarily have this connotation and was the generic term for Natives to the point where some writers thought there was a "Siwash tribe" in the region. The origin of the word is from the French sauvage. When pronounced Sa-WASH, with the rhythm of the original French, it is used by modern speakers of the Chinook Jargon in Grand Ronde, Oregon with the context of meaning a Native American, or as an adjective connoting connection to same (the SAI-wash prononciation is considered offensive in Grand Ronde).
  • Tillicum — means "friend".
  • Klootchman — in the Jargon meaning simply "a woman" or the female of something - klootchman kiuatan (mare), klootchman lecosho (sow), tenas klootchman or klootchman tenas (girl, female child). Still in use in English in some areas and with people of an older background to mean a First Nations woman, or to refer to the wives/women attached to a certain group in a joking way e.g. "we sent all the klootchman to the kitchen while we played cards". Unlike its male equivalent siwash, klootchman does not generally have a derisive tone nowadays (when used).
  • Masi — In northern BC and the Yukon, and used in broadcast English in those areas, the Chinook Jargon adaption of the French merci remains common, i.e. mahsi or masi, with the accent on the first syllable (unlike in French).
  • Moolah -- It is possible that the slang term moolah, meaning money in American slang, comes from the word 'moolah' meaning 'mill' in Chinook.
  • Cultus — means bad, worthless, useless, ordinary, evil or taboo. "Cultus Iktus" means "worthless stuff".
  • Tyee — leader, chief, boss. Also "Big Tyee" in the context of "boss" or well-known person. In Campbell River and in the sport-fishing business, a really big chinook salmon (Campbell River) is a Tyee. In the Jargon Tyee meant chief, and could also be an adjective denoting "big", as with "tyee salmon" or tyee lamel (boss mule). A hyas tyee means "important/big ruler/leader", i.e. — king, big boss, important ruler, and is also sometimes used in English in the same way as Big Tyee. e.g. "He was the undisputed hyas tyee of all the country between the Johnstone Strait and Comox" This was also the common title used for the famous chiefs of the early era, such as Maquinna, for whom it was applied by Captain Vancouver and others in the context of "king". The Hyas Klootchman Tyee — "Great Woman Ruler", roughly "Her Majesty", was the historical term for Queen Victoria. The word tyee was commonly used and still occurs in some local English usages meaning "boss" or someone in charge. Business and local political and community figures of a certain stature from some areas are sometimes referred to in the British Columbia papers and histories by the old chiefly name worn by Maquinna and Concomly and Nicola. A man called hyas tyee would have been a senator, a longtime MP or MLA, or a business magnate with a strong local powerbase, long-time connections, and wealth from and because of the area.
  • Hiyu — less common nowadays, but still heard in some places to mean a party or gathering. From the Chinook for "many" or "several" or "lots of". The Big Hiyu (also known as "The July") was a week-long joint celebration of Dominion Day and the Glorious Fourth in the Fraser Canyon town of Lillooet, featuring horse races, gambling, a rodeo and other festivities. A tenas hiyu(small gathering) was on a much smaller scale. The community of West Seattle has celebrated the month of July for more than 75 years with the HiYu Summer Festival.
  • Tolo — used in Western Washington to mean a Sadie Hawkins Dance. From the Chinook for "to win".

Ranald Macdonald - First English Teacher in Japan

In 1823, in the ‘custom of the country,’ Archibald McDonald took a Native wife, Princess Raven – Koale’Koa – daughter of the influential Chinook chief Com’comly. Early in 1824 a son, Ranald, was born to them.  Raven did not long survive the baby’s arrival, and Ranald was sent to live with his mother’s sister, Ilchee, in Comcomly’s lodge on the north sid of the Columbia where he was raised until his father re-married, a woman named Jane Klyne.

Jane was a remarkableyoung lady nurtured on the fur trade frontier. She provided Ranald with a loving family that eventually expanded to include 12 half brothers and 1 half sister. Educated by his father, Ranald lived with his family at Forts Okanogan, Kamloops, Langley, and Vancouver. For a year he attended the Ball Academy (the first school in the Oregon territory located at Fort Vancouver) beforehe was sent to the Red River Academy in Canada to further his education after which, he was apprenticed into the banking profession under the direction of Edward Ermatinger a long time family friend residing in St. Thomas, Ontario. Ranald's education was in preparation for his future service as an officer in the fur trade on the western frontier. 

Ranald, however, nurtured his own dreams and "ran off" to sea where he became a highly valued whaleboat navigator and harpoonist. Ranald longed to enter the closed society of Japan. He evidently was curious as to whether there was a relationship between the people of Japan and the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. He conceived of a plan to help prepare the Japanese by teaching them English for the inevitability of international trade. He remained a proponent of trade with the Japanese throughout his lifetime. Ranald enlisted the support of Captain Edwards of the whaling ship Plymouth to set him adrift in a small boat off the coast of Hokaido where he feigned his own "shipwreck". 
Rescued by Ainu fishermen from Rishiri Island, he was imprisoned and subsequently sent to Nagasake where he was tried and imprisoned for illegal entry in violation of the laws of Japan. Classified as a navigator as opposed to a common sailor, he was placed under house arrest and well treated. After careful observation as to his integrity, Ranald was entrusted with the responsibility of teaching fourteen Japanese interpreters English. One of his students was the brilliant Moriyama who wisely guided him through his trial and captivity.
Approximately ten years later, his students and in particular Moriyama became involved in the difficult interactions with Commodore Perry and the complicated trade treaties negotiated by Townsend Harris for the U.S. and Japan. It could realistically be argued that Ranald set the stage for the successful conclusion of both events. Unlike other shipwrecked sailors who were often deserters, Ranald created a positive relationship with the Japanese by his own attempt to learn Japanese and his willingness to share his knowledge of Western culture. 
Nine months after landing on the Japanese coast, Ranald was released to Captain Glenn of the USS Preble and taken to Macoa where he resumed his global wanderings. Once again in Canada, Ranald visited his family home near St. Andrews only to find that his father had died a short time earlier. Between visits to his family, Ranald once more took to the high seas which included a trip to the Ballarat gold fields in Australia where he apparently became a successful miner. Leaving Ballarat, he once more traveled to Europe and returned to his
family. After an extended visit on the family farm, he and his half brother Allan returned to the northwest to participate in the gold excitement stimulated by the Cariboo gold rush. This time Ranald preferred to become a seller of mining supplies as opposed to searching for the illusive sparkle of gold. The brothers opened a store, ran pack trains, and ferried the miners across the Fraser River. Ranald and his brother preempted land near Cache Creek, British Columbia, and Ranald pursued schemes to develop a badly needed route from the coast to Quesnel and Barkerville. His plans although enthusiastically supported by Victoria businessmen failed to receive financial backing from the B.C. government. When in the Cariboo Ranald and both half-brothers, Allan and Ben, were prospecting for gold along with their other adventures. Allan and Ben who both invested in the Cameron claim sold out before it
later proved to be extremely successful. According to Christina, a distant cousin, Ranald made a large amount of money in either the Cariboo or Horsefly Country, but lost it all. 
In 1864 Ranald joined the Brown expedition in the successful mineral exploration of Vancouver Island and later led a mineral exploration into the
Horsefly Country north of his ranch at Cache Creek. In his later years Ranald joined cousin, Christina, Angus MacDonald's daughter, at her fur trading post in Kamloops and
later her brother Donald at the old Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile. Along with Donald, Ranald preempted land that was formerly part of the old fort where his father had been Chief Factor for so many years. Ranald continued his search for gold on the creeks that nourished the Columbia and Kettle Rivers. With his years of adventure over, Ranald renewed his interest in writing and his attempt to have his adventures published. Finally, worn out by this travels and years of exposure in the harsh reality of placer mining, Ranald sold his property on the east side of the Columbia to his cousin Donald and moved onto the Colville Indian Reservation in 1892. Ranald built a cabin on the west side of the Columbia River directly across from old Fort Colvile. This is an area that is presently under water. 
In midsummer of 1894 hearing that her beloved uncle was ill, his niece, Jenny Nelson (later Lynch) the daughter of his half brother Benjamin, drove her horse and buggy from Curlew over Sherman Pass and back in order to nurse her uncle to health. Ranald died in her arms at her cabin on a bench above the confluence of Toroda Creek and the Kettle River. Reportedly, his last words were "sayonara my dear, sayonara".

The Coastal Salish People

One of the largest cultural groups in the Pacific Northest, the Coast Salish people inhabit the Northwest Coast of North America, from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, north to Bute Inlet in British Columbia. Coast Salish territories include much of the ecologically diverse Georgia Basin and Puget Sound known as the Salish Sea. This huge drainage basin comprises the coastal mainland and Vancouver Island from Campbell River and Georgia Strait south through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Lower Fraser Valley and the lowlands of Puget Sound.

Archaeological evidence of human occupation in this coastal marine area is extensive and ancient, dating back some 8000 years. The Coastal Salish people are comprised of more than forty different tribal groups (nations), representing specific geographic areas along the coast, at the time of the Cook expeditions, their population is estimated to be somewhere between 10,000-20,000 people.

coastal nations map
Coastal Salish Territory is demarked in light-green (above)



The Makah Nation

The Makah tribe still live in and around the town of Neah Bay, Washington, a small fishing village along the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Their reservation on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula includes Tatoosh Island. The Makah people refer to themselves as "Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx" which translates as "the people who live by the rocks and seagulls". Linguistically and ethnographically, they are closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulth and Ditidaht peoples of the West Coast of Vancouver Island across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in British Columbia. 

Before, the Europeans, Makahs lived in five villages that were occupied all year long (Neah Bay, Ozette, Biheda, Tsoo-yess, and Why-atch). Temporary residences were at locations that attracted people seasonally. These places allowed Makahs to harvest and process special food resources, like spring halibut or summer salmon. Makahs had a type of lifestyle that made use of the abundant resources of the ocean, the tidelands, the forests, and the rivers. Many descriptions of this lifestyle are available in the anthropological literature.

Archaeological research suggests that the Makah people have inhabited the area now known as Neah Bay for more than 3,800 years. The ancient Makah lived in villages, inhabiting large longhouses made from western red cedar. These longhouses had cedar-plank walls. The planks could be tilted or removed to provide ventilation or light.

The cedar tree was of great value to the Makah, who utilized its bark to make clothing and hats. Cedar roots were used in basket making, while canoes were carved from whole trees to hunt seals, gray whales and humpback whales. The Makah acquired much of their food from the ocean. Their diet consisted of whale, seal, fish, and a wide variety of shellfish. They would also hunt deer, elk, and bear from the surrounding forests. 

Whales provided ancient Makah people with food, raw materials, a source of spiritual and ceremonial strength, and valuable trade goods. Whale oil was rendered from the blubber, and was an important food product, like butter and olive oil today. Meat could be used, but only if it hadn't spoiled. Whale meat often spoiled before the animal could be towed from the ocean to one of the villages. Once the whale reached the shore, it was ceremonially thanked and blessed, then processed for food and raw materials, like bone. Whales that died at sea and drifted to shore were also used by the Tribe, but this practice did not carry the same ceremonial, spiritual, or subsistence value as whale hunting. In the case of drift whales, one could almost guarantee that the meat would be useless; only the oil and raw materials could be used.

Other sea mammals were important to Makahs in ancient times. In addition to hunting whales, Makahs pursued a variety of seals, as well as sea otters. The former could be used for food, oil, and skins, while the latter were used for skin and teeth.


The abundance of natural resources allowed ancient Makah people to develop a complex society which had many rigid rules that affected each individual. Each individual belonged to a family, which had specific rules that governed the behavior of each member. In addition, each person had a ranking in his family, just like in the English royal family today. There was one individual, most likely a man, who governed each family, and all other members were ranked relative to him. Only one person could occupy each numbered place of status, and places would shift if someone died, did something terrible, or decided to shift his alliance to another family. (5) Unlike other northwest coast tribes, the Makah people could choose to associate themselves with either the mother's or the father's family, whichever would provide the highest status.

The abundance of food allowed the Makah people to develop a few traits that are similar to other Northwest Coast Tribes. Because there was so much available food, some people did not have to gather their own food in order to eat. These people could perform specialized tasks and trade their products and services for food and the other things they needed. This situation allowed the Makah people to develop a highly distinctive art style, the concept of personal wealth, and a system of owning songs, dances, and resource areas long before European economies influenced the culture.

Food, personal wealth, and family status all came together at potlatches, large feasts with huge attendance. These events provided the means for the ancient Makah culture to standardize important information about marriages, deaths, and the ownership of names, songs, dances, and other ceremonial and economic privileges. Business that affected the ownership or use of these items was conducted publicly; witnesses were paid to remember a transaction and provide reports in the future. The potlatch provided ancient Makahs with a means to publicly document and recount important events to succeeding generations in absence of a writing system.