Northwest Indians


Girls were considered to be ready for marriage at the age of fourteen or fifteen, boys at sixteen or seventeen. The young men usually chose their brides, but the parents of both parties needed to approve the character, social standing and wealth of the prospective spouse.

Among the coastal tribes, presige was an important factor in the match. Social classes were measured in terms of wealth, and wealth was determined by the quantity of goods a chief could afford to give away. When the marriage celebrations took place, parents of the couple exchanged many gifts. Immediately after the wedding the gifts were distributed among the wedding guests. The bride and groom received very few gifts, but it mattered little since they moved in with the groom's family.

The inland tribes did not hold formal marriage ceremonies. If a young man could persuade a girl to come to his father's camp and remain there with him, they were regarded as married.

The tribes all believed in the existence of a soul, or spirit, in man. Burial practices varied from tribe to tribe. In one type of burial the corpse was dressed in the best clothes and wrapped in a blanket. They then buried the body in any convenient spot with the head pointed to the west. Since they believed that the soul was in the head and the land of the dead was in the west they felt this would ensure the soul's easy departure.

In some areas the dead were buried in a pit, or "cyst". The floor of the pit was covered with matting. Cedar boards were placed vertically around the sides. The body and the deceased's personal possessions were then placed in the grave and all was covered with matting. After filling the grave and piling stones on top, the mourners burned the projecting pieces of cedar off to the ground. It did not take long for the desert winds to hide the grave completely with sand.

Some coastal tribes wrapped their dead in cedar bark matting and placed them in cedar boxes. They lashed the boxes to branches high in a tree, put them in caves, or buried them in the ground.

Tribes along the lower Columbia built low hutlike structures on islands in the river. Such an island was called a memaloose, or death island. The body was wrapped in a blanket and placed in a shallow pit, often in a sitting position. Over the pit they placed a protective cover of poles, slabs of wood, and bark.

The largest one of these islands, called Memaloose Island, is in the Columbia Gorge below The Dalles. While Bonneville Dam was being constructed, the remains of the Indians buried on Memaloose Island were removed to another burial ground. The only grave remaining on the island is that of a white man, whose burial there caused the tribes to stop using the island for their burials. The white man's grave marker was being used as a navigational signal in the 1960s.

Most tribes had more than one chief, dividing leadership among several men. One chief might assume leadership of the hunt, one might be the war chief, and another might be responsible for the safety of the camp when the warriors were gone on the warparth.

One of the responsibilities of a chief was to make amends for crimes committed by a member of his tribe. If one of his braves killed a member of another tribe, he had to offer a member of his own tribe of equal rank as compensation. If the murdered man had been a chief, the chief might offer himself as a sacrifice. In a case like this, he would dress himself in full regalia and walk toward the other tribe's camp, chanting a tribal song. When he drew near, the enemy would kill him.

The shaman, or medicine man, was another important official in the tribe. A shaman could be either a man or a woman who had supernatural power, bestowed through dreams or visions. This position had it's drawbacks. If a shaman's patient died, the shaman had to die too.

Some of the coastal tribes kept slaves. Warlike tribes made raids on villages or camps to capture young women and boys. Peaceful tribes bought their slaves from the warlike tribes.

The purpose of owning slaves was not for their economic value but for their prestige value. Ownership of slaves was a sign of success in war or was proof that you were of sufficient wealth to purchase them. In some cases, slaves were sacrificed to demonstrate that a chief was so wealthy that he could afford to destroy his valuable possessions. In general, although they did the hardest work and ate what was left after the family had dined, they were not beaten or starved.

One of the most commonly observed customs among the tribes was the potlatch. Although there were many variations of this ceremony, the general purpose was to claim membership in a particular tribe. To demonstrate their pride in being members of the tribe, the host tribe would put on a big show, exhibiting its special rituals, songs, and athletic and artistic accomplishments.

For the ritual dances and ceremonies the Indians would don masks and decorate themselves from head to toe with paint, feathers, and trophies. Their masks might represent animals such as bears, lizards, owls, or other animals of special significance to the tribe.

As part of the potlatch ceremony, the tribes, particularly coastal tribes, lavished gifts upon the guests to show how wealthy the tribe was. A custom of some tribes was to collect some of their most precious belongings and deliberately destroy them as an indication of the wealth of the tribe. The more they could afford to destroy, the greater their prestige among other tribes.


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