Anthropology The Northwest Coast
Leslie H. Tepper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0256


The distinctive culture of the Indigenous populations on the Northwest Coast (NWC) and their colonial history—from European contact in the 17th century to contemporary issues of land claims and reconciliation—have helped to frame many of the themes and models of ethnographic theory and practice, particularly in American anthropology. The NWC is often defined as the geographic area stretching from Alaska to California. For the purposes of this bibliography, the study area is limited to what is sometimes called the “North Pacific Coast,” which begins at the southern border of Alaska, continues down the coastline of British Columbia (BC), and ends in northern Washington State. Its rocky coastline is broken up by deep fjords and offshore islands, including Vancouver Island in the south and Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in the north. Several major river systems provide access to the BC interior through the mountainous Cascade Range. Though local resources vary along the coast, almost all the Indigenous groups followed a similar seasonal cycle of fishing, hunting, and gathering from spring to fall. The winter months were dedicated to the manufacture of material culture, social feasting, and ceremonial gatherings. Large oceangoing canoes and smaller river crafts linked well-established villages into an extensive series of trade routes. Walking trails over the mountains allowed the exchange of seafood and other coastal products for animal skins and goods from interior forests. Warfare brought additional wealth to the victor by means of raiding stored foods and manufactured items. European contact began in the late 18th century with the arrival of Spanish and British explorers. They were followed by English, American, and Russian fur traders. The discovery of gold along the Fraser River in 1858, and later finds in the Cariboo Mountains, brought tens of thousands of American, British, and other immigrants to the area. British sovereignty over the area north of the 49th parallel was quickly reinforced by the Royal Navy and an expanded colonial administration. In 1871 the province of British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation and NWC Indigenous communities came under the control of the federal Indian Act. This act is still in force.

General Overviews

Despite a widespread interest in the NWC as an area of study, and the century-long presence of archaeologists and anthropologists in local Indigenous communities, there are few introductory texts that offer both a broad overview of the area and detailed information on the individual NWC First Nations. Suttles 1990 continues to be an important reference work. Its introductory chapters summarizing NWC history, language families, and ethnology are followed by in-depth articles on the major tribal groups. Drucker 1963 is intended, perhaps, as a popular reader or introductory college text. Drucker has organized the information into traditional ethnology topics, including economy, material culture, religion, and ceremonies. He also highlights the iconic NWC potlatches and totem poles. As an introductory text, Muckle 2014 provides a summary of archaeological, ethnological, and ethnohistorical findings of the Indigenous populations of BC. Several authors have prepared broad overviews of specific themes in NWC anthropology. For example, archaeological excavations place the date of human occupation in the area of at least 10,000 years. Ames and Maschner 1999 uses the gradual changes in sea level and climate to explain the emergence of NWC technology and social organization. A publication of conference proceedings, Mauzé, et al. 2004 brings together a collection of studies in NWC anthropological history—particularly regarding the influence of Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss—and related case studies of First Nations in different regions of the NWC. Current academic interest in NWC art is reflected in Townsend-Gault, et al. 2013. This compilation of historiography and ethnographic analysis includes chapters on early collectors, the uses of art as a nationalistic statement, Indigenous perspectives, the effects of the art market, and the current situation regarding NWC art in relation to land claims and repatriation.

  • Ames, Kenneth M., and Herbert D. G. Maschner. 1999. Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their archaeology and prehistory. New York: Thames and Hudson.

    The authors provide an in-depth survey of NWC prehistory, the emergence of a society dependent on the annual arrival of salmon, and technologies utilizing the cedar tree.

  • Drucker, Philip. 1963. Indians of the Northwest Coast. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press.

    Originally published in 1955, this volume is somewhat dated regarding its topics and approach, but otherwise offers a good overview. It has been digitized and is available through Hathi Trust Digital Library.

  • Mauzé, Marie, Michael Eugene Harkin, and Sergei Kan, eds. 2004. Coming to shore: Northwest Coast ethnology, traditions, and visions. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Papers from a conference in 2000 that looked at the influences of Boas and Lévi-Strauss on the study of the NWC and the impact of NWC culture on anthropological theory.

  • Muckle, Robert James. 2014. The First Nations of British Columbia: An anthropological overview. 3d ed. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

    A text designed for first-year college or senior high school courses. It includes definitions and a glossary of terminology currently used in anthropology, land claims, and treaty negotiations. All Indigenous BC groups are included, along with those on the NWC. First edition published in 1998.

  • Suttles, Wayne, ed. 1990. Northwest Coast. Handbook of North American Indians 7. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    Contributors to this volume include major researchers in the field at the time, many of whom established the core concepts that continue to frame the discourse of NWC study.

  • Townsend-Gault, Charlotte, Jennifer Kramer, and Ḳi-ḳe-in, eds. 2013. Native art of the Northwest Coast: A history of changing ideas. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

    Contents focus on general themes of contemporary NWC art history rather than the artistic traditions of individual First Nations.

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