Native American Tribes of the Pacific Northwest

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13139

They built houses of cedar, carved totem poles and masks, and wove clothes from cedar bark and wool. Meet the Haida, Chinook, Tlingit, and Kwakiutl! Learn about totem poles, and make one of your own!


United States, World

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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You've probably seen pictures of totem poles created by natives of the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe you've actually seen some in person!

  • Have you ever wondered what the animal symbols on the poles mean?

A totem pole tells the history of a family or a clan, mostly through animal symbols. Some of the most common animals used are: eagles, bears, ravens, whales, frogs, beavers, and wolves. Each animal has specific characteristics that resemble the person, family, or clan it represents. 

  • Which characteristics do you think each of these animals represents?

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The Pacific Northwest tribes had forests filled with animals to hunt, trees for building houses, and waterways full of fish to eat. They were able to meet all their basic needs, so they had time to devote to art, culture, and trade.

They lived in the areas from the southern coast of Alaska to what is now Oregon state.

map showing Northwest tribe area

Image [cropped] by Spacenut525, via Wikimedia Commons, was released into the public domain.

Watch the following video for an introduction to the Pacific Northwest tribes. Throughout the lesson, write down what you learn about the homes, food, skills, natural resources, languages, and culture of these tribes. You'll use this information later in the Got It? section.

Kwakiutl Native Americans of the Northwest from Tom Janssens:

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As you learned at the beginning of the lesson, one of the main art forms the Northwest people developed was the totem pole. Watch Totem Poles | Native America | PBS to learn more:

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Along with totem poles, Northwestern natives also carved other things out of wood. They carved stone as well. They created--and still create--very colorful, stylized art. Explore some of these works of art at Infinity of Nations from Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian before watching the video below.

Inside the Collections: Pacific Northwest Coast Peoples from American Museum of Natural History:

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The Northwest people developed a rich variety of ceremonies and rituals. One common tradition is the potlatch. A potlatch was a great feast given by a wealthy man, to which he would invite many guests. The feast would celebrate some important event, such as the raising of a totem pole, and the host would distribute some of his wealth by giving the guests many gifts. The party would go on for many days with much feasting, storytelling, and dancing.

Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka distributing potlatch

Image by James Gilchrist Swan, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Potlatches were banned in the 1800s by the U.S. and Canadian governments, who saw them as a waste of wealth and resources. But the bans were lifted in the 1950s, and now many tribes continue the tradition.

Another interesting part of Pacific Northwestern culture is that many of the tribes were matrilineal.

  • What does that mean?

It means that clan membership was based on the mother's clan, and that property was owned by the women and passed down from mothers to their children.

Like many Native American tribes, the Northwest tribes' cultures included origin stories explaining where their people came from as well as other traditional stories, songs, dances, and craft skills that were passed from generation to generation.

Watch a native woman weave a ceremonial robe in NMPBS ¡COLORES!: Clarissa Rizal from New Mexico PBS:

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The native Northwest people had a widespread trade route, from what is now Washington state all the way up the coast to Alaska. Many natives grew rich through trade. They traded with other tribes and later with Europeans.

What did they trade?

  • furs, especially of sea otters and seals
  • dried fish, especially salmon
  • shells used to make jewelry and tools
  • woven blankets and baskets
  • canoes

Now let's meet some of the tribes of the Northwest!


The Chinook lived along the Columbia River in what is now the states of Washington and Oregon.

Like the other tribes of this area, they lived off the forests, ocean, and rivers, by hunting, fishing, and trading. They made plank-houses and canoes from cedar trees, and they also made clothing, baskets, and other items. The Chinook developed a special language just for trade and became known as the great traders of the Northwest.

Watch a portion of the following video to see how they harvested the cedar trees and how many things they were used for!

Native Americans People of the Northwest Coast from ccarnelli09:

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The Tlingit (pronounced klinket) lived along the coast of southern Alaska and northern British Columbia. Many of the men were woodcarvers, and many of the women wove baskets.

Many Tlingit families grew wealthy owning many furs, blankets, and other items. A wealthy man would have a potlatch to share his wealth and, in return, would be invited to others' potlatches where he would receive gifts.

Listen to a Tlinglit man explain Tlingit clans in the first video below and the importance of the potlatch in the second.

I am Tlingit from anashinteractive:

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The Importance of Potlatch from anashinteractive:

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The Haida are related to the Tlingit and also live on the islands near the coast of southern Alaska and northwest British Columbia. However, their main homeland is the Haida Gwaii archipelago. It came to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands but was given back to the Haida in 2010.

Watch the following to learn how the Haida people are trying to revive their culture and language.

First Haida language film offers rare, powerful glimpse of Haida people from CBC News: The National:

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The Kwakiutl (pronounced kwah-kee-oo-tl) people live along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia.

Watch 5 Facts about the Kwakiutl, from Heather Fritts, and see if they are similar to the tribes you've already learned about!

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The Kwakiutl have another name, Kwakwaka'wakw, which means speakers of the Kwak'wala language. The Kwak'wala language, like many of the languages of the Northwest natives, is very difficult to learn and has sounds that we don't use in English.

Listen to the Lord's Prayer in Kwak'wala and try to pick up on those unusual sounds!

The lords prayer- Kwak'wala from Pewi Alfred:

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Now that you've learned about the natives of the Pacific Northwest, head over to the Got It? section, where you'll organize your facts on these tribes and develop some ideas on how to preserve their cultures!

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