An Affluent Anomaly: The Cultures and Economies of the Pre-Columbian Northwest

Originally written as a blog post during the spring of 2014, I later submitted it for publication in the 2015 edition of the North Alabama Historical Review. This is the edited version that appeared in the NAHR.

Jacob Grandstaff
The Indians that lived in what is today the northwestern United States represent three distinct cultures based on their geography. The arid, mountainous region of present-day Utah, Nevada, and southern Wyoming make up what archeologists refer to as the Great Basin. The tribes to the north in western Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington are recognized as the Plateau culture. And those who lived along the Pacific coast from northern California to southeastern Alaska are referred to as the Northwest Coast culture. These regions were marked by drastic contrasts in lifestyle and wealth. Most of these differences were primarily the result of culture, but physical geography played a role in shaping each culture. According to Gallup, Sachs, and Mellinger, location and climate have large effects on income growth, through their effects on transportation costs, disease, and agricultural productivity, among other reasons.[1] It is the purpose of this paper to focus on the Northwest Pacific Coast and the material prosperity the tribes in that region achieved in contrast to other Native Americans and how their cultures facilitated that prosperity.
The Great Basin
The Great Basin was never densely populated by Native Americans. When the Spanish first explored the area known as the Great Basin, they found the area sparsely populated except for small tribes who hunted and gathered for a living whose location often depended on the season and food source availability.[2] At that time, the area was populated by five main groups known as the Shoshone, Paiute, Ute, Bannock, and Washoe. The Paiute and Shoshone were further scattered into several different tribes that were later identified by Europeans by their location. Linguistic uniformity was a unique feature of the Great Basin Indians. With the exception of the Washoe in the Lake Tahoe area who like the Chumash in California spoke a Hokan language, all of the Great Basin tribes spoke one of six languages in the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family.[3]
Because of the arid territory, the tribes of the Great Basin lived mostly a life of subsistence from seeds, nuts, berries, and roots which were dug up with a digging stick.[4] As in most Native American cultures, hunting also played a major role in the Great Basin diet. The Southern Paiute located in present-day, southern Utah and Nevada did grow beans, maize, and squash, but this was mostly limited to the stream banks which were few and far between.[5] Hides and furs were used and sometimes combined with plants to provide clothing.[6] Communal hunts for rabbits were common, similar to communal antelope hunts to the north. But, compared with neighboring regions, the Indian tribes of the Great Basin lived primitive lives which included widespread hunger throughout much of the year.[7]
Organization on a scale larger than the village was only temporary.[8] The Great Basin Indians lived in tipis much smaller and less advanced than those popularized by the Great Plains Indians. The walls were usually covered by thatch or brush, although hide and bark were sometimes used as well. The high level of mobility of the tribes in this area caused many of these tipis to be built and taken down hastily.[9]
An example of the culture of poverty that dominated the tribes of The Great Plains is how they reacted to the horse. When the horse spread north in the wake of the Spanish invasion to the south, the animal transformed the lifestyle of the Plains Indians and improved their standard of living by making hunting and defense easier. However, the Shoshone and Paiutes to the west ate any horses they found because the horses competed for the herbs and plants that those tribes themselves ate.[10] Much of their poverty however, can be attributed to the fact that they were landlocked and while geography is not the determining factor of prosperity or poverty, it can and does play a role in providing advantages and disadvantages.[11] The Indians of the Great Basin were among the poorest in North America and the infertile land, sparse hunting, and lack of access to major waterways no doubt contributed to this by putting them at a disadvantage that their neighbors to the northwest did not have.
The Plateau
The Plateau is bordered by the Rockies to the east and Cascade Mountains to the West. It stretches about midway through Idaho and Oregon to the south and into Canada to the north. The people of the Plateau were divided into two linguistic families, the Saphatin of the Penutian family to the south and the Salish to the north.[12] The governments of these tribes were loose and tied to the local village with hunting and fishing territory being shared among villages and even among tribes with little or no objection. This was in stark contrast to Eastern tribes who often banned speakers of foreign languages from their territory.[13] When the Blackfeet moved into the region from the East, the Nez Perce and the Salishian Coeur d‘Alenes took up a much more structured form of government in which private property was taken more seriously and territorial boundaries were guarded more closely.
The people of the Plateau typically lived in pit houses that tended to be a little more elaborate than those of the primitive Southwest. In some ways, they were a cross between the wigwam, pit house, and tipi. They consisted of a pit four to five feet deep, with thatched roofs covered with earth from the pit for insulation, with numerous poles supporting the structure. A ladder led up through the smoke hole which was how they entered and exited the dwelling. Sometimes several families could live in one of these dwellings. During warm weather, the Plateau Indians slept outdoors.[14]
The Plateau Indians were mostly peaceful, lacking both the war culture of the nomadic Plains Indians and the fierce territorialism of the Northwest Coast natives.[15] Although, their artwork was not as sophisticated as the Northwest Coast cultures, coiled baskets and soft woven bags produced by the people of the Plateau region show that they were capable of expert craftsmanship, but were likely prevented from fully developing their talents by the harsh environment in which they lived.[16] Fishing was the mainstay of those living in the western Plateau; while those living to the east and north hunted big game such as moose, elk, and deer like their sub-Arctic and Plains neighbors, with wild plants also making up an important part of their diet.[17]
Trade flourished in the Plateau because of the Columbia River and its tributaries that connected the Plateau Indians with the tribes on the Northwest Coast, which also put them in a strategic position to be middlemen for the slave and horse trade between the Plains and Northwest Coast tribes once the horse was introduced. The horse was introduced into this region in the eighteenth century and some tribes such as the Yakimas and Nez Perces became expert breeders. The buckskin, skin-covered tepees, and feathered headdresses spread to the Plateau Indians beginning in the eighteenth century, but especially in the nineteenth century as the horse made cross-country travel and trade more accessible. The isolation that many of the Indian peoples had experienced for millennia faded with the introduction of the horse culture.[18]
Northwest Coast
If a European had traveled from the Atlantic Coast of Western Europe eastward, the further he travelled, the less sophisticated the societies he encountered would have become. He would see pockets of cultural gems here and there, but once he entered Eastern Europe, he would encounter societies little changed for thousands of years. As he crossed the Asian steppes, he would find splintered, nomadic tribes. But, upon reaching China, Korea, and Japan, he would be as shocked as Marco Polo at the level of civilization - a level in some aspects superior to that of Europe. The same would have held true in North America. Had he traversed the entire breadth of the North American continent at the time of Columbus‘ landing at San Salvador in 1492, he would have seen a scaled-down version of Eurasia in North America‘s pattern of cultural advancement. The Indian tribes east of the Mississippi enjoyed plentiful agriculture and for their continent, fairly advanced societies. But, upon reaching the Prairie and Plains, the tribes became smaller, simpler, and more spread out. Upon arriving in the Plateau and Great Basin, the traveler would probably have been so depressed at the level of underdevelopment he would doubtless have assumed that only natives suffering from cold and hunger could be found on the West Coast. However, this was very far from the reality of the coastal tribes.[19]
In comparison to the Eastern, Plains, and Southwest Indians, little is known among the modern, general population of the Indians of the Northwest Coast in what is now northern California, Oregon, ... Continue reading

[1] John Luke Gallup, Jeffrey Sachs, with Andrew Mellinger, ―Geography and Economic Development,‖ Center for International Development at Harvard Universtiy Working Paper No. 1, 1999, 2, 5.
[2] The Native People of North America: Great Basin Culture,‖ Cabrillo College, March 9, 2000, accessed February 22, 2014,
[3] Ibid.
[4] James A. Maxwell, America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage, (New York: Reader‘s Digest, 1990), 251-255.
[5] Alice Beck Kehoe, North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1981), 341-346.
[6] Harold E. Driver, Indians of North America, (1961: The University of Chicago Press, Chicago), 148.
[7] Ibid, 30.
[8] Driver, 328.
[9] Ibid., 118.
[10] Kehoe, 355.
[11] Gallup, Sachs, and Mellinger, 2, 5.
[12] Alice Beck Kehoe, North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1981). 359.
[13] Harold E. Driver, Indians of North America, (1961: The University of Chicago Press, Chicago), 335.
[14] Kehoe, 357-360.
[15] Driver, 15.
[16] Phillip Drucker, Cultures of the North Pacific Coast, (1965: Chandler Publishing Company, San Francisco, CA), 109.
[17] Driver, 27.
[18] Kehoe, 357-360.
[19] Kehoe, 402.


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