Humans have lived in Washington for as long as 11,500 years. The first inhabitants of present-day Washington were descendants of the peoples who crossed the land bridge linking the northeastern part of Asia and North America at the Bering Sea. Archaeologists discovered a rich site in the southeastern part of the state near Palouse Falls, dating to about 10,000 years ago. This dig was filled with human bones, weapons, tools, elk remains, and bone needles.
The Native American population of Washington state belongs to two distinctive regional groups: those who live on the Pacific Coast west of the Cascade Range, and those who live on the Columbia Plateau, east of the range. Different environments and the mountain barrier resulted in two different cultures and lifestyles.
Some of the principal coastal groups include the Quileute, Quinault, Makah, Lummi, Chinook, and Snohomish. Since the area had a relatively mild climate and abundant food sources, the coastal peoples tended to live in permanent cedar houses. These structures, called longhouses, were sometimes about 30 m (100 ft) long and 12 m (40 ft) wide and often housed a number of families. Groups of longhouses were frequently built near the ocean or along a river.
From these locations, Native Americans collected fruits, nuts, and roots, gathered shellfish, and fished for salmon, halibut, and trout. Salmon was a significant part of the coastal people’s diet, and many tribal people honored the fish by holding an annual ceremony for the first salmon catch of the season.
Native Americans developed many ways to catch the fish, including building fishing platforms, stretching nets across streams, and lancing harpoons at the fish. The Quinault and the Quileute, who lived on the coast, hunted fish in dugout cedar canoes. The Makah ventured out to sea to harpoon whales.
The coastal peoples had a rigid class system. Social status was often displayed at a potlatch, a ceremony held in honor of a special event such as a marriage or the birth of a child. Native American chiefs invited people from all around the region to come celebrate. Guests would come for several days to eat and dance. On the final day of the potlatch, chiefs would give gifts to their guest, offering proof of their great wealth.
Some of the principal Native American groups on the east side of the Cascade Mountains include the Okanogan, Spokane, Wenatchee, Yakama, Cayuse, Nez Perce, and Palouse. Although the Native American peoples of the Columbia Plateau had a diet similar to that of their coastal counterparts, they had to work much harder to procure their food. They lived in a harsh climate and had a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Often Native American peoples spent the summer months at fishing sites or in the mountains collecting roots and berries. They carried light, portable structures made of long poles and woven twigs and fibers to their summer camps and spent the cold season on the canyon floors. They built large, well-insulated pithouses that provided protection from the cold and the wind. These pithouses were 1.8 to 2 m (6 to 7 ft) underground, with skins and dirt forming a conical roof supported by poles.
Like the coastal peoples, the Columbia Plateau Native Americans consumed salmon and other fish that swam up the Columbia River. They also hunted deer, elk, bear, and small game. When the Plateau peoples, and in particular the Nez Perce, started to use and breed horses, they were able to travel farther to hunt. Trade among the Native American peoples of present-day Washington was common. Inland and coastal peoples met annually at a place on the Columbia River to the east of the Cascades (the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon), where they exchanged goods, danced, and had feasts. Native Americans developed a common dialect, which was used when trading with people who spoke different languages. This trade language was loosely based on the Chinook language and had vocabulary from many other regional Native American languages. See also Native Americans of North America. "Washington" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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