Washington Indians

American history written in terms of the white man is a story of his triumphant march westward, clearing the land, breaking the sod, draining swamplands, and setting up frontier settlements, which quickly developed into sprawling towns, or sometimes into bustling cities. For the Indian, however, this never-ceasing advance into his lands has meant the end of his way of life. From the moment of the first encroachment upon his preserves and the enforced contacts with white men -- at first with trappers and fur traders and later with other occupational groups -- the breakdown of Indian culture was inevitable. This included the alteration and disarrangement of his economic and linguistic forms, and adjustment to the life imposed upon him by the unyielding and ruthless intruders. The process of acculturation still goes on, and it is apparent that, when the informed remnant of the old Indian line has departed, the native culture and its unrecorded native lore will be forever lost. In comparatively recent years, however, there has been an awakened interest in the Indian, and scientific ethnological and archeological study has been undertaken to preserve for future generations a true record of the first Americans and their culture.

Archeological research in the State of Washington has merely scratched the surface, only a few studies having been made of the early cultural remains found in the Yakima River Basin and the Puget Sound region. In all probability, prehistoric people made the pictographs and petroglyphs found in eastern Washington and along the Columbia River. The origins, functions, and meanings of these picture writings and rock carvings are still a matter of conjecture, and they are not explained either by the Indians or by anthropologists and archeologists. Studies do indicate, however, that the culture of the early peoples did resemble to some extent that of historic Indians. These researches, moreover, have furnished additional evidence to support the theory of the Asiatic origin of the Indian. Remains of later periods are much more numerous, and considerable progress is being made in collecting and preserving them.

The best collection of Indian archeological and ethnological material in Washington is in the State Museum, University of Washington campus, Seattle. Among the items are baskets, drums, carvings, clothing, tools, and various weapons. In several towns in central and eastern Washington are smaller collections made by individual members of the Columbia River Archeological Society, with headquarters in Wenatchee. The State Historical Society Museum, located in Tacoma, has a fairly large collection. Museums in the East, notably the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., also display collections of Indian objects from the State.

On the basis of culture traits, the Indians of Washington may be divided into two major groups, one comprising those bands east of the Cascade Range, and the other those west of it. The sharp cultural differences that developed between these groups arose in large measure from the barrier to intercourse formed by these lofty mountains. Contributing also to the formation of distinctive culture patterns was the sharp contrast in the physical character and climatic conditions of the two areas. East of the Cascades, in the semiarid plateaus and grasslands of the Columbia River system, considerable cultural similarity existed. West of the Cascades as well, from British Columbia south to the Umpqua River in Oregon, native cultures were sufficiently homogeneous to permit this region to be regarded as a single culture area. Within this coastal area, sub-areas are discernible, such as the Makah and the Puget Sound groups to the north and the Chinook along the Columbia.

Cultural diffusion did take place, however, as evidenced in the development of the Chinook jargon, a kind of trade language. This language, in its basic content the Chinook tongue, was formed by accretion of corrupted words from native groups who traded together, plus words later added by the whites. It arose from intertribal communication and the demand for a medium of communication in exchange and barter. It finally became the trade language used by the natives throughout the Northwest in their dealings with the whites.

Frequently northern Indians, from the region that is now British Columbia and southeastern Alaska, journeyed south in their war canoes, through the protected Inland Passage, to attack the Puget Sound Indians for the purpose of capturing slaves; and these onslaughts resulted in a transfer of culture. Some interchange also took place between inhabitants of the Columbia River region and those of the Rocky Mountain and Plains areas.

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