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The Quileute People
The narrow strip of coast from the Panhandle of southern Alaska to northern California forms the Pacific Northwest culture area. The Pacific Northwest is cool, damp, thickly forested, and cut by many rivers. In the middle of this region at the mouth of the Quillayute River on the Pacific coast are the Quileute people.
Although the Indians from the Quileute were all hunters, they developed one of the richest cultures in North America because they had a surplus of food and much leisure. The streams provided salmon, the ocean offered cod, halibut, shellfish, and sea mammals, and the land furnished game and berries. The Quileute learned to smoke these supplies in order to preserve them for the long rainy winter months, and they had more food than they could eat.
The Quileute built rectangular wooden houses with ridgepoles and pitched roofs very like European houses. The houses had frames of huge logs, several feet in diameter, and were covered with broad planks to keep out the heavy rains. Nevertheless, because the roof planks were only weighted down with stones, they sometimes blew off in a strong wind, and the occupants were soaked. Many houses were 40 by 100 feet (12 by 30 meters), with carved, painted doorposts and painted gable fronts facing the nearest water.
Quileute men went unclothed or wore full-length tunics of woven plant fibers. They found bare feet more comfortable in the damp coastal climate but added deerskin leggings and moccasins for overland travel. Round brimless hats or conical broad-brimmed ones of plant fibers kept off the rain. Blankets and fur robes, of light sea otter fur if possible, gave protection from the cold. The women's basic garments were a woven plant-fiber skirt and sometimes a cloak. Both sexes were tattooed, and in the central region their heads were flattened in infancy as a sign of status.
The Quileute Indians were skillful craftsmen. Carvers made wooden masks, boxes, and utensils with vigorously stylized bird and animal designs. They made large dugout canoes by alternately burning the interior of a large log and chipping out the charcoal with a hoe-shaped stone adz. Equipped with bailers of hollowed-out wood, the dugouts could weather any storm at sea.
The Quileute lived in large extended families, each of which occupied a plank house. Each couple within the family had a separate cubicle in the house.
Unlike most other Indians, those of the Pacific Northwest were obsessed with the desire for prestige and property, especially in the north. Prestige meant noble birth. Property included ownership of food, blankets, canoes, slaves, and sheets of hammered copper, and the exclusive right to a particular title, crest, or song. Society was rigidly graded by these standards. At the top was a small group of rich, wellborn nobles. From childhood they were urged to restrain their desire for food and pleasure and to work hard to accumulate property. On special occasions, such as the birth of a child, the nobles gave pot-latches, or feasts, to increase their rank. Two or three times in his life a noble gave a very big potlatch at which he fed his guests his whole store of food and gave them rich presents or destroyed his property in their sight while singing his own praises as host. To avoid public humiliation the guests invited him to potlatches in return and gave him presents of equal or greater value. The richest men became the headmen of the villages, but if they were niggardly or became bankrupt by giving potlatches, they lost their position.
Below the nobles were common people, and below them were slaves. Slaves were war captives, those who had fallen into debt, and the children of slaves. Although slaves were sometimes well treated, their masters occasionally killed them as a sacrifice to the spirits or to their own vanity.
The people of the Quileute continually sought the protection of animal spirits, chiefly the raven, bear, eagle, and beaver. And according to folklore, the Quileutes descended from wolves. Individuals sought visions of guardian spirits and appealed to them if misfortunes occurred. Shamans conducted special rites and cures. Religious life was dominated by secret societies to which only the nobles could afford to belong. Members met in large sweathouses where they bathed in steam made from cold water thrown on hot rocks. There they gossiped, sang, and held periodic ceremonies, including masked dancing. To the north the initiates of the Kwakiutl Cannibal Society were believed to be possessed by spirits who caused them to eat human flesh.