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Peoples of the Northwest Coast : their archaeology and prehistory
  • Kenneth M. Ames, Portland State University
  • Herbert G.D. Maschner, Idaho State University

Except when it is raining, summer days are very long in Prince Rupert Harbor, on British Columbia's extreme northern coast. For Ames, this book has its roots in those long twilights. In the summer of 1969, he was a crew chief on the National Museums of Canada's North Coast Prehistory Project's excavations at the Boardwalk site, a large village site spanning the last 5,000 years that was across the harbor from the town of Prince Rupert. The crew was big, and the pace hectic. On clear evenings, he sometimes took a cup of coffee down to the site, a deeply stratified shell midden, and sat at the bottom of the large excavation units, studying the stratigraphy. It was often the only chance he had to think and try to puzzle out what these complex piles of sea shells and dirt meant in terms of human history. That fall, he worked up his ideas in a seminar paper for Lewis Binford at the University of New Mexico, and has not stopped trying to grapple with the coast's history ever since.

Growing up in Alaska, Maschner seldom considered that he would ever conduct archaeology there. After an undergraduate career that included research projects in Honduras, France and the High Plains of Wyoming and South Dakota, he was convinced that his career would be elsewhere. Thus, he was quite surprised to find himself in the Master's program at the University of Alaska learning arctic archaeology and ethnography. His interests in complex hunters and gatherers grew during the mid-1980s and were realized in 1987 when he entered the University of California-Santa Barbara with the goal of investigating the later prehistory of southeast Alaska. One year later he found himself on a beach in the Tebenkof Bay Wilderness Area with two students, 3000 lbs. of gear, a boat and motor, 100 gallons of fuel, a beautiful sunset, an incoming tide, and no idea exactly where he was. This began a long-term research effort that has, over the last 10 years, included a number of complex, maritime-adapted societies across the North Pacific.

Without doubt, part of the coast's fascination is its beauty. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth in which to live and work. Another part are the challenges its archaeology presents. Sites are complex, and often rich (and equally often barren of the data one has worked hard to obtain), and hard to interpret. The climate, the sea, and the land all present the archaeologist with difficulties to test skill, strength, and intelligence. But most Northwest Coast archaeologists don't live on the coast, nor do they spend most of their time braving a driving rain while running a small boat across an inlet, or trying to drive a gear-laden truck across soggy ground. Most spend their time quietly in their offices.

The real challenge and source of fascination is the history of the coast's peoples, as revealed by archaeology. This history is rich and long, and has much to teach. It is also miserably incomplete. For anthropology, the Northwest Coast has often played a central but paradoxical role in attempts to understand human culture. On the one hand, evidence about the coast's peoples has often been used to address fundamental questions about human nature and culture: Why does social inequality exist? How do peoples use and adapt to their environments? What does the structure of myths tell us about how people see their world and act in it? How do non-Western peoples think and what meaning does their art have to them? And so on.

On the other hand, the coast's cultures contradict many notions held by anthropologists and by the public at large. The coast's peoples hunted, fished, and gathered wild foods, yet they lived in large communities, produced one of the world's great art styles and were ruled by an aristocracy. One often reads introductory anthropology and archaeology textbooks where some sweeping generalization about human cultures is made, and it almost invariably ends: " ... of course, the cultures of the Northwest Coast are an exception to that." The author of the text would then go on to ignore the coast. Our fascination with the coast is also due to that exceptionality.

This book has several goals. One is simply to convey our fascination with the coast, and perhaps win some converts. We also wish to attack a stereotype about the histories of non-Western peoples, particularly of hunter-gatherers. We address this issue in more detail in Chapter One, but we want to show that they are not "people without history," whose pasts were timeless and unchanging. We also wish to show that they are not primitive remnants of some remote ancient condition that all humans once shared, but which industrial societies have long since left. All human societies have histories of the same length and their cultures are the product of those histories of identical length. They do not represent some previous stage of human development.

This book has several audiences. The primary one is the public. We have tried to write a book that any educated person with an interest in the region can read with pleasure. Archaeologists are beginning to recognize that one of the field's urgent needs is the widespread dissemination of its results. There is far too little popular archaeology written about North America by professional archaeologists. This audience has been the most difficult for us to write for. We have tried to follow the dictum of physics, a field which produces a lot of good works aimed at the public: if you can't explain it clearly and simply, you probably don't understand it and should leave it out. The reader can judge whether we are successful.

A second audience includes university undergraduates and graduate students, for whom the book can serve as an introduction to the archaeology of the coast, to pressing research questions about that archaeology, and as a resource. A third related audience is our professional archaeological colleagues, both regional specialists and others. For non-specialists, the book is an introduction to the coast's archaeology. For Northwest Coast and hunter-gatherer specialists, many of the ideas and approaches here are new.

Native Peoples, First Nation Peoples, are our fourth, and perhaps most important audience. At a time when many Native peoples either have doubts about archaeology, or find it altogether useless, we hope to demonstrate some of its value. The coast's peoples have preserved their histories through their oral traditions. Archaeology is another route to learning and supplementing that history.

When we began working on the text, Colin Ridler, our editor at Thames and Hudson, insisted that we present our views of things, rather than trying to balance and evaluate all competing ideas. We have tried to do that. Therefore, what follows is what we think happened and why, and what we think to be important. For issues which are not yet settled, and there are many, we either discuss them in the endnotes, or provide enough citations that the interested reader can pursue the issue.

  • Indians of North America -- Northwest Coast of North America -- Antiquities,
  • Indians of North America -- Northwest Coast of North America -- Social life and customs,
  • Indians of North America -- Northwest Coast of North America -- History
Publication Date
Thames and Hudson
Citation Information
Kenneth M. Ames and Herbert G.D. Maschner. Peoples of the Northwest Coast : their archaeology and prehistory. New York(1999)
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