Neighboring Cultures, Worlds Apart: Distinctions Between Native Americans in the Northwest
The Plateau and Coastal Natives of North America had lifestyles that compared and contrasted in numerous ways, and yet they are still stereotyped as ‘Indians’. This essay is intended to nullify that belief, and offer some distinction that divides these two very different peoples, as well as show similarities shared by the two groups. Both the Plateau and Coastal Natives practiced a brutal form of slavery, and shared some similar beliefs. Both groups sometimes ate the same food. However, they differed in several ways too, such as the unique construction of buildings and social structures, and their food gathering styles. Differences and similarities were abundant between these two peoples, differences being numerous and the similarities not much.
The Plateau and Coastal peoples of North America prior to white man’s appearance shared many similarities, such as their resourcefulness with animals, some of their religious beliefs, foods they both ate, and their use of slavery. Similarities between the Coastal and Plateau people were everywhere, appearing in both obvious and subtle places.
The Plateau and Coastal Indians had a certain foods they both relied on. The camas bulb, a tuber that bears the star-shaped camas lily, was often dug up by both Indian tribes and steamed. This steamed plant was then mashed into a pasty dough and made into bread. Both Indians’ diets were based mainly on meat, so the camas bulb was a staple source of carbohydrates, and it helped provide a more balanced diet, and a source of quick energy.
Animals played a vital role in the daily lives of the Coastal and Plateau Indians. Plateau tribes used buffalo as a big source of food but also as shelter; their skins were thick and made excellent tipis (tee-pees). Tipis were cone-shaped houses that were easily built and portable, which was ideal for their nomadic lifestyle. Coastal Indians also relied on animals, such as the whale, whose oily blubber was used as a preservative for their food and created a sun protection when mixed with mud. Shellfish, such as the mussel or oyster, had strong shells that were sharpened and used as the blade on fishing spears. The Plateau and Coastal Indians were very resourceful with animals.
Other similarities between the Indians include some of their beliefs. Both groups believed that all objects had a spirit, an essence of life or immaterial body. Young men, and in some tribes young women, were sent on a ‘spirit quest’ to find their spirit guardian. They were taught different ways of detecting symbols to learn what their spirit might be. The spirit would decide what path they led; if someone’s spirit was the eagle, they would surely become powerful, a future chief or shaman (medicine man). The Coastal people relied quite a bit on the sea, and believed in ‘salmon people’ that would sacrifice themselves to feed the Indians, while the Plateau people believed in a giant coyote that created each Indian tribe from the body parts of a giant tyrant beaver. Though a few aspects of their religions were different, overall they were quite similar; notice both groups shared a belief in a being more powerful than themselves. These godlike beings are the same, just adapted differently to apply to different lifestyles. Beliefs varied in a few ways, but were overall more similar than not between the two peoples.
Slavery was brutal among the Native North Americans. Coastal people would raid enemy villages by the light of the moon, and abduct villagers to use as slaves. When a chief from another tribe was visiting, oftentimes the host tribe would kill their slaves to use as canoe rollers to bring guest canoes ashore. Plateau people differed; they didn't use slaves very often until horses were introduced and integrated into their societies. Horses allowed them to travel long distances, and carry more supplies (including slaves.) Plateau Indians also made their prisoners of war do a psychologically torturous dance involving the scalps of their own relatives. They were beaten, and after a few days of the 'scalp dance' the captives would become slaves. Both Plateau and Coastal Indians practiced horrifying slavery, possibly the most brutal in all of history.
From slavery to the spirit quest, the Plateau and Coastal people were quite similar. Whether spiritual or not, these amazing people were connected by their similarities. From brutal slavery to their resourceful uses for skins and whatnot, the Coastal and Plateau Indians had more in common than it would seem, though their differences were more common.
The Coastal and Plateau peoples of the northwest were tremendously different; Coastal people were stationary, while the Plateau people were nomadic, differences in buildings and art were numerous, and even food gathering styles varied. The social structures between the two peoples were quite different. Differences between the Coastal and Plateau Indians of North America were abundant, and easily outweigh their similarities. They were two distinct cultures, which are commonly grouped together as one.
The Coastal people were great fisherman, while the Plateau people lived a more hunting-based lifestyle. Coastal people were possibly the only people that lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle but were not nomadic. Supplies were available everywhere, and fish were plentiful. Plateau people hunted massive buffalo and smaller land animals, as fish were not as common on land.
Art styles were also quite different. Coastal Indians built massive wooden totem poles, and did a lot of artistic carvings. This art was possible for them since they were living in permanent settlements and lugging it around was not a problem like it was for the Plateau Indians. The Plateau people expressed their art in smaller, simpler ways. Their clothing was patterned with rich colors, and their headdresses were elaborate, often adorned with colorful feathers and buffalo horns. Beads were also commonplace with Plateau Indians as a means of expressing creativity. Art styles varied quite a bit between people of the coast and people of the plateau.
Construction styles and architecture were another key difference between the Coastal and Plateau Indians. Coastal Indians used cedar planks to build great wooden longhouses that could support several families. Some were over one hundred feet long and twenty feet wide – over 2,000 square feet per structure. Since the Coastal Indians were not nomadic, these houses suited them fine. Coastal people also had massive canoes, carved from a single piece of wood. Their canoes were used for transportation, trading among other tribes, fishing, and whaling. The Plateau people, however, were nomadic. As they moved, their houses did too. The buffalo-skin tipis they lived in were only large enough for one family, but could be taken down and rebuilt in a matter of minutes. Tipis were light, simple, and could be stored on a horse without a problem. Plateau people’s watercraft was quite different from the Coastal people’s. Plateau canoes were small, made from bark or animal skins, and could usually hold just a few people.
The social structures were completely different between the two social groups. Coastal Indians were hierarchical, or class-based. The chief and the nobles were the highest class, then there were commoners, then came the slaves. Plateau Indians had a different social structure, yet is was still based off the hierarchical class-system. Everyone was either a slave or a commoner, and it remained this way until horses became a pivotal turning-point in Plateau societal structure. The two groups were different in their social setups, despite the fact they were loosely based around the same idea.
Coastal and Plateau Indians were each unique people, and their cultures, societies and lifestyles were very different. The differences between the Coastal and Plateau Indians were plentiful, and their similarities less common. True, both tribes relied on the camas root, shared similar beliefs, and practiced a brutal form of slavery, but differences between the groups were endless. These differences, such as hunting styles, construction, even the social structures, were quite numerous and set each group apart in many ways.
Indians are vastly stereotyped. Knowing how different these two cultures can be, can opinions be changed? There is cultural stereotype occurring all over the world. Not all Indians ran around hunting buffalo and shouting war cries as common stereotypes would make it seem. The United States currently views Middle Eastern people as bearded terrorist men that want to kill - though this is clearly false. Every culture is different, it is up to our leaders to recognize this and let the world know. Other countries can be as different as the Coastal and Plateau people, and the public needs to know that stereotyping other countries will probably just demand a retaliation from the other countries. What goes around, comes around. Wars, death, poverty, starvation, slavery, violence – all this could be completely avoided if we could just try understand each other better.