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[Detail] Chilkat dancers, Alaska, 1895

American Indians of the Pacific Northwest includes primary and secondary text sources, over 2,000 photographs, and a special presentation of ten essays. Together, these materials tell the story of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, from their first contact with European explorers in the 18th century to life on reservations in the 20th century. Primary sources include six treaties and over 3,800 pages from the Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Secondary sources include over 100 scholarly articles that can assist in understanding this complex chapter in United States history.

Native-American Cultures of the Pacific Northwest

Ethnographers are people who study and record cultures. By the time the discipline of ethnography was established in the United States, Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest "had come under white influence," writes Marion Pearsall on the first page of her article, "Contributions of Early Explorers and Traders to the Ethnography of the Northwest".

"They had been decimated by epidemics, converted by missionaries, pushed off their lands by settlers, and finally herded onto reservations by the government. Little of the Indian culture remains today."

There are few historical records of what Native-American cultures were like before "white influence." However, many aspects of these cultures have endured to some extent in the cultures of subsequent generations. The collection's photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries provide rich first-hand evidence of Native-American cultures, while secondary texts by scholars provide context and guidance for understanding this evidence.

Begin a study of Native-American cultures with the Special Presentation (external link). The introductory essay (external link) provides an orientation to the collection and presents the inherent challenges in studying these cultures. The other essays provide an overview of the region and its diverse cultures, focusing on individual tribal groups as well as cross-cultural topics.

Search the collection for photographs of objects and activities that you think would manifest Native-American cultures, such as baskets, blankets, clothing, canoes, longhouses, hunting, games, cooking, and dancing. Browse the Subject Index for images organized by over 100 tribes under headings such as Tahltan Indians--Clothing & dress and Makah Indians--Subsistence activities. There are also countless texts written by explorers, Indian agents, missionaries, and other Euro-American contemporaries, which describe Indian cultures. Search on Pacific Northwest Quarterly and Publications in Anthropology for scholarly articles with in-depth information, such as "The Dog's Hair Blankets of the Coast Salish" and "A Prism of Carved Rock: Dalles Area Rock Art as an Insight into Native American Cultures."

  • Note the date and location of the texts and images and consider to what extent the object or activity portrayed might have been influenced by Euro-American culture or a blending of native cultures.
  • What are the similarities and differences between the crafts, religious practices, and subsistence activities of different tribes?
  • What can you learn from this information about different tribes' values and beliefs?
  • What must be taken into consideration when reading accounts of Native-American cultures written by Euro-American explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and Indian agents? How do you judge the validity of these documents?