Teaching Students About the Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Coast


Northwest Coast Indians, also known as First Nation people, are Indigenous peoples living along the coasts of British Columbia, Canada, and the U.S. states of Washington and Alaska. Understanding their rich culture, advanced technology, and complex social systems is vital for educators to promote cultural awareness among students. This article will offer guidance on teaching students about Northwest Coast Indians and their significant contributions to our broader understanding of Indigenous cultures.

Building Background Knowledge

Geographical Context: Start by discussing the geographic location, the landscape, and the resources available in this area. Explain how living near the coast allowed these Indigenous people to rely on resources like fish, shellfish, and sea mammals for sustenance.

History: Provide an overview of the history of Northwest Coast Indians, from pre-contact times to European contact and subsequent colonization. Discuss historical events such as trade with other tribes, wars, the arrival of explorers, and the impact on their traditional lifestyle.

Cultural Groups: Introduce students to various cultural groups within the Northwest Coast Indian population such as Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw (previously Kwakiutl), Nuu-chah-nulth (previously Nootka), and Coast Salish tribes. Briefly describe each group’s language, customs, and traditions.

Exploring Traditional Culture

Art: Indigenous art from this region is truly unique and world-renowned. Show students examples of totem poles, carved masks, bentwood boxes, blankets, and jewelry created by Northwest Coast Indian artists. Discuss the symbolism within their art forms and their role in preserving cultural stories and traditions.

Potlatch Ceremonies: Explain the social significance and purpose of potlatch ceremonies where tribes would gather together for feasting, dancing, storytelling, singing, and gift-giving. Discuss how these ceremonies helped to maintain social structure, wealth distribution, and uphold cultural values.

Technology: Teach students about the advanced technology used by Northwest Coast Indians, such as canoes, fishing tools, and house-building methods. Emphasize how these tools allowed them to adapt and thrive in their environment.

Housing: Describe the unique design of longhouses used by Northwest Coast Indian tribes. These spacious, wooden structures often housed multiple families and were intricately adorned with traditional artwork.

Clothing and Adornments: Introduce students to clothing materials like cedar bark and animal hides used by Northwestern Coast Indians. Talk about various adornments such as headdresses, jewelry, and facial paintings that were part of their rich cultural expression.

Spiritual Beliefs: Discuss traditional spiritual beliefs of Northwest Coast Indians, emphasizing their deep connection to the natural world. Share stories of Creator beings like Raven or Thunderbird that played a crucial role in shaping the belief systems of these Indigenous peoples.

Concluding Thoughts

Teaching students about Northwest Coast Indians fosters an understanding of diverse cultures and their histories that have shaped North America. Encourage students to explore the artistic achievements, technological advances, and complex social systems exemplified by this extraordinary group of Indigenous peoples. By appreciating their rich cultural heritage, we open doors to deeper connections with one another and promote respect for all cultures worldwide.

Choose your Reaction!