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Arctic, Northwest Coast,
and California Tribes

Arctic Tribes


The Aleuts, native inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands and coastal areas of southwestern Alaska, built villages on bays in areas where sea mammals flourished and where they had access to freshwater salmon streams and stones for making tools. Villages had high lookout points for spotting enemies and whales, which they typically hunted for food, along with sea lions, seals, fox, caribou, and a variety of fish. The Aleuts lived in longhouses and traveled in skin-covered boats.

They encountered Russian fur traders, who came to the area in search of sea otters, fur seals, and foxes in about 1750, and were quickly devastated by this contact. Disease killed many, and the Russians exploited Aleut hunting skills, depleting the food supply and forcing many Aleuts into slavery. Over the next 100 years, the population rapidly decreased due to disease and harsh treatment.

  Arctic Tribes map  


Living in the harsh, frigid climate along the arctic coast of Alaska, the Inuit survived by hunting and fishing whales, walruses, caribou, and seals in single-passenger, covered seal-skin boats called qajait. From hunting these animals, the Inuit were able to fashion the items they needed for survival, including tools, clothing, shelter, transportation, and trade goods.

The Inuit were nomadic, living in igloos built of snow in the winter and tents made of bone and skins in the summer. They bred huskies and used dog sleds to transport them over the icy terrain.

In 1576, the Inuits encountered British explorer Martin Frobisher as he searched for the Northwest Passage. By 1763, the British had established whaling stations in Inuit territory. The Inuits discovered that Europeans had trade goods that could improve their lifestyle and often raided foreign trading posts in search of metals. The Inuit population suffered greatly from new diseases introduced by Europeans as well as from the social disruptions caused by encroachment on their whaling grounds.

  Totem poles
Totem poles


Living on islands and in the coastal region of southern Alaska, the Tlingit are well known for their totem poles, many of which remain standing today. Hunting game and sea mammals and fishing provided the tribe with food as well as trade goods. The Tlingit traded furs and slaves among their tribes and had a complex social system.

In the 1740s Russian fur trappers and traders encountered the Tlingit. By the early 1800s, the Tlingit were fighting the Russians. The fighting didn't end even after 1867, when the U.S. purchased the Alaska territory from the Russians. By the 1880s most of the land used by the tribe was controlled by the U.S. government, and the Tlingit began being absorbed into the population through religious conversion.

  Tlingit totem poles
Tlingit totem poles in Ketchikan Alaska.

Northwest Coast Tribe


River dwellers living in northwest Oregon along the Columbia River, the Chinook were known for their fishing skills and as traders. They were expert whale hunters and relied heavily on salmon fishing for both survival and trade. Using a trading language understood by many different tribes and groups, the Chinook traded furs, fish, canoes, shells, and slaves for other items they needed.

American explorers Lewis and Clark encountered the Chinook as they explored the Columbia River region in 1805. Although the tribe welcomed European traders, the Chinook population was devastated by diseases brought by these foreigners. The tribe was nearly extinct by 1900 when it decided to merge with other tribes in the area.

  Northwest Coast Tribe map  

California Tribes


Making their home along the Channel Islands and Santa Monica Mountain region of California, the Chumash were hunter-gatherers. They lived in domed houses made of willow branches and used long, wooden canoes, called tomols, to fish and travel between the tribe's 150 villages.

Cave paintings found throughout their lands document the Chumash's rich spiritual heritage. A matriarchal society, they elected both men and women as chiefs. Their monetary system was based on beads and seashells, and they traded herbs, fine baskets, and tools, among other things.

Numbering roughly 18,000 people, the Chumash encountered the Spanish in the 1760s. By 1769, the Spanish had established five missions in Chumash territory. The many diseases brought by Europeans caused illnesses that decimated the tribe. By 1831, only about 10% of the tribe's population remained. They became part of Spanish society, working primarily as laborers on farms and ranches.

  California Tribes map  


This peaceful tribe lived in coastal and inland areas of California, often traveling between the regions in search of food and supplies. They were known for their basketry skills and the use of money made from carefully formed pieces of clam shells. The Pomo lived in circular homes made of wooden poles, mud, and reeds called wickiups. Their villages coexisted peacefully, with families and bands owning specific areas of land that were well marked. Only when property rights were violated did the Pomo take up arms against each other.

When Russian fur traders established a colony in Pomo territory in 1811, a good relationship was formed between the two. As more settlers entered Pomo lands, they were raided by Mexicans seeking slaves and endured epidemics of smallpox and cholera. With the Gold Rush, the Pomo territory became even more sought after by settlers, and the U.S. government forced the tribe onto a reservation in 1857.

  Pomo baskets, mortar, and pestle
Pomo baskets, mortar, and pestle.

Image credits: American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the University of Washington Libraries; Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT) at USF; and Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian: The Photographic Images, 2001.

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