Oregon History: Northwest Coast

deer and elk
Native Americans set fire to large parts of the Willamette Valley and other valleys for several reasons, including to stimulate the growth of browse for deer and elk. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
The native peoples of the shoreline and western Oregon valleys, in general, shared lifeways common with Indians residing along the North Pacific from Cape Mendocino to southeast Alaska. From the Clatsop at the mouth of the Columbia to the Chetco at the California border and from the Clackamas near the falls of the Willamette to the Takelma and Shasta of the Rogue River Valley--these people shared a common setting: a wet, temperate region, heavily forested, connected by rivers running into the sea. Their environment provided the essentials of life: cedar to frame and cover their houses, materials for clothing and dugout canoes, salmon and other fish as primary subsistence, and a bounty of game, roots, and berries to supplement their diet.
For these Indians life was predictable and generally easy. They had to work hard to secure and maintain supplies of firewood, repair their fishing traps, weirs, and nets, and engage in extensive gathering activities, but for them, nature was generous. Shoreline residents harvested vast quantities of mollusks and crustaceans from the intertidal zones. Valley Indians dug camas and wapato, gathered and processed acorns, hunted deer and elk, and worked a bit harder to survive. Annually they set fire to the meadows, opening and shaping the landscapes of the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue River valleys. Burning stimulated nutritious browse for deer, assisted women in the harvest of tarweed seeds, stimulated the regeneration of berries, and maintained an open understory, which undoubtedly enhanced the security of settlements.
Oregon natives of the western part of the state possessed sufficient time and wealth to develop special arts. The Chinookans of the Columbia River carved handsome, high-prowed canoes with animal effigies on their bows and erected remarkable wooden spirit figures at vigil and grave sites. The Tututni and Chetco of the south coast bartered for raw materials and made massive obsidian wealth-display blades; wove intricately decorated basketry with geometric designs of beargrass, maidenhair fern, and wild hazel bark; and sent their young people off on spirit quests to sacred sites atop mountain peaks or promontories overlooking the sea. The Coquille, Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw, Alsea, and Tillamook occupied estuaries that carry their names. A dozen bands from the Tualatin to the Santiam and Yoncalla lived in the Willamette Valley and northern Umpqua Valley. South of them resided the Upper Umpqua, Cow Creek, Shasta Costa, Takelma, and Shasta. Western Oregon Indians had connections of trade and commerce reaching into northern California and to coastal Washington and British Columbia. They were involved in the flow of dentalium shells, elk hide armor, slaves, and surplus foods. Their lifeways echoed the strong traditions of art, ceremony, social class distinction, and emphasis on wealth that ran for hundreds of miles along the North Pacific Coast.