The Cultural Religious Traditions & Heritage of Northwest Indians

Totem poles are very common among Northwest natives.
... Hemera Technologies/ Images

Running from southern Alaska down to the northern tip of California, the Pacific Northwest is home to a diverse array of native cultures. Before the arrival of the Europeans, this area hosted one of the highest population densities and standards of living in North America. The mountainous landscape, rugged coastline and abundance of ancient forests in the Northwest area nurtured a variety of Native societies, but many share similar cultural and religious practices.

1 Totem Poles

One of the most common religious and artistic traditions among Northwest people is the totem pole. Standing outside of the large communal houses that most Northwest natives lived in, totem poles can reach up to 80 feet high. Featuring animals, humans and other spirit guardians, totem poles usually tell the story of the family, and its myth enshrouded ancestors. Totem poles are usually brightly painted and often include a bird perched on the top.

2 The Potlatch

The Potlatch was a huge party in which a family house would invite friends and family from all around, including other tribes. Instead of the guests bringing gifts for the family however, the hosts would shower gifts on their guests in a display of wealth and generosity. Elaborate dances and live music was also usually a feature of the potlatch and the party sometimes last for 10 days straight. Preparation for a particular potlatch may take years, with the family accumulating tons of wealth, all of it meant to be given away at the party.

3 Salmon Season

Although many foods, including berries, elk and seal, are important to the Northwest tribes, none is a sacred as the salmon. The "salmon run", takes place every fall and is a major time of celebration throughout the Northwest region, with festivals full of music and games taking place in many tribal lands. In the time before European settlers came, many Northwest native families caught enough salmon in this time to feed their family for the whole year. Salmon is still smoked for preservation in the traditional style throughout the Northwest.

4 Basket Work

The weaving of baskets is a common feature of most Northwest tribes. Intricate patterns characterize most of these works of art, which come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Baskets were used for storage containers, for collecting food and even as pieces of clothing like hats. Traditional basket-weaving is alive and strong today in many Northwest Indian communities and high-quality works often fetch expensive prices on the collector's market.

Based in San Francisco, Ocean Malandra is a travel writer, author and documentary filmmaker. He runs a major San Francisco travel website, is widely published in both online and print publications and has contributed to several travel guidebooks to South America.