Religious Beliefs of the Northern Pacific Indians

The Haida are native to the Queen Charlotte Islands.
... Hemera Technologies/ Images

The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest -- in British Columbia, Alaska, Washington and Oregon -- each have their own history, culture and religious traditions. Historically, Pacific Northwest Indians shared their spiritual beliefs and customs through stories, songs and dances. Their beliefs were based in animism, where the natural world interacts with a supernatural world. In most native cultures, shamans or medicine men served as spiritual intermediaries.

1 Beliefs of the Tlingit

The Tlingit compose a number of tribes in Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon. Historically, Tlingit religious beliefs and practices centered on a raven deity who combined the characteristics of spirit, human and bird. The raven also appears in Haida and Tsimshian belief systems. In Tlingit culture, shamans played a crucial role. Shamanic responsibilities included curing illnesses, and they were believed to possess healing powers because they could communicate with spirits. Shamans wore decorative masks and went into trances while performing healing rituals. After many Tlingit succumbed to European infectious diseases that shamans could not cure, they began losing faith in shamanism and incorporated Russian Orthodox Christianity into their beliefs.

2 Beliefs of the Haida

The Haida live in Alaska, Prince of Wales Island and British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. Because their ancestral lands are evergreen forests, the Haida became skilled woodcarvers. They carved totem poles, dance rattles and shaman masks. Masks were an important part of Haida culture and religious practice. They performed ceremonies, rituals and dances wearing masks. Along with masked performances, Haida people celebrated with communal feasts called potlatches. The potlatch was a big part of social life in the Pacific Northwest. Since the Haida believed that everything had a spiritual aspect, these gatherings often had a religious atmosphere. They sang songs and told stories, which were passed on through successive generations.

3 Beliefs of the Tsimshian

The Tsimshian are native to Alaska's Annette Island and the northwest coast of British Columbia near Prince Rupert. Their traditional society was hierarchical and composed of clans. The Tsimshian had their own myths, stories and fables about the raven, which was both a benevolent spirit and a trickster. They also believed in the bear spirit and other animal deities. In the 1800s, the Tsimshian were visited by Protestant Christian missionaries who had a profound effect on their religious beliefs. They had contact with Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist evangelists and were greatly influenced by these religions. In 1857, an Anglican missionary named William Duncan settled with the Tsimshian, learned their language and established Christian Tsimshian communities in British Columbia and Alaska.

4 Beliefs of the Chinook

The Chinook are a Pacific Northwest tribe from the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon. They were well-known for their success in trade, canoe-building, navigation, fishing and hunting. In the early 19th century, the Lewis and Clark Expedition made contact with the Chinook and described them as a peaceful, prosperous people. The Chinook had a lifestyle similar to that of other Pacific Northwest natives, but they had their own religious beliefs. The Chinook believed in animal spirits -- the coyote and blue jay, in particular -- and also in guardian spirits. They carved wooden dance rattles, batons, effigies and panels engraved with spiritual imagery, and also painted spirits on canoes and houses. Like other natives in the region, the Chinook had shamans who performed rituals and communicated with the spirit world.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.