California Coastal Native Americans - Eva Varga

January 11, 20133

Over the past few months, as we have traveled to various parts of California and Oregon, we have had many opportunities to learn about the Native Americans of this region.  It has been a gratifying experience – made even more rewarding because the learning opportunities have occurred naturally and in context to our daily lives.  I’ve always believed that seeing artifacts, standing in the same surroundings, and being able to truly experience what life was like in the past has a greater impact than reading about it in a textbook. 

I have had a profound memory of a field trip that I must have experienced as a little girl.  Every time I travel on the coast – either north or south from the county in which I grew up – these memories come flooding back to me.  Sadly, I don’t recall exactly where I had visited but I clearly remember sitting in a Native American longhouse and hearing tribal elders share stories of their ancestors and demonstrate their tools and lifestyle.  I have always wanted to return – particularly now so that I can share that experience with my own children. 

When we were in Trinidad a few months ago, we traveled to Patrick’s Point State Park – where we visited the recreated Yurok village, Sumêg, consisting of traditional stye family houses, a sweat lodge, a redwood canoe – and Redwood National and State Parks – where we further explored the dynamic ecosystem of the Redwood forest.  As we wandered about and as the kids completed the activities to earn their Junior Ranger badges, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was where I had come as a child. 

The Northwest Coastal Indians lived in what is now Alaska along the Pacific Ocean down the coast to Northern California. This was a rugged strip of land with many small islands, deep inlets, and narrow beaches. The mountains rise to the shore in many places. Thick forests of spruce, cedar, and fir dominate the area supplying and endless supply of wood. Many rivers and streams cross the land. By the 1750’s more than 100,000 Indians lived in this area because it was richer in natural resources than any other area of North America.

While this territory was crisscrossed with thousands of trails, the most efficient form of transportation was the dugout canoe (pictured above) used to travel up and down rivers and cross the wider and deeper rivers such as the Klamath. These tribes used the great coast Redwood trees to build their boats and houses. Redwoods were cleverly felled by burning at the base and then split with elkhorn wedges. Redwood and sometimes cedar planks were used to construct rectangular gabled homes. 

Most villages consisted of large rectangular houses constructed of planks splits from fallen redwoods.  These houses were built over pits dug beneath the building, with the space between the pit and the walls forming a natural bench.  The posts were often decorated with carved figures. The earth floors were divided by woven mats into family units. Several families lived in one of these large structures. Cook fires in the center of the building were shared and an opening in the roof allowed smoke to escape. 

As we explored Sumêg, the exhibits at the visitors center, and the Native American museum at the Trees of Mystery, the kids made many connections to our studies.  We saw artifacts representing many of the tribes from across North America, including the Hidatsa (we had recently studied the expedition of Lewis & Clark and the contributions of Sacagawea), Modoc, and Wintu.  We discussed the similarities and differences between the coastal tribes as those we were familiar with in Central and Southern Oregon and the Northern Sacramento Valley.  

Vast difference exist between the coastal peoples, nearby mountain range territories, and the vast central valleys.  Nevertheless, all of these tribes enjoyed an abundance of acorn and salmon that could be readily obtained.  We marveled at the variety of the regions basketry – both coiled and twine type baskets were produced throughout the area. 



  • Theresa Novak

    January 20, 2013 at 4:22 am

    I live on the East Coast and we have studied and visited many Native American sites. The homes in this region were so different. It is really so fascinating how they built what was needed to the area and survived on what was available to them. We could learn a lot from that.

    We homeschool as well and this term we joined a co-op, one of the parents has a degree in Native American studies and is teaching a wonderful Native American class that both of my girls are enjoying.

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