First Peoples of Cascadia

As described by Cascadia Institute director David McCloskey - Cascadia is a construct that shapes an identity and place. This region has had many similar names in the near past: New Spain, New Caledonia, New Archangel, New Georgia, the Columbia Department, the Oregon Territory, the Northwest, the Pacific Southwest, the Pacific Slope, Ecotopia, the New Pacific, Ecolopolis, each chosen to convey an idea, often imposed by a different ruler or power, often thousands of miles away with little connection other than a few lines and names on a map.

The term Pacific Northwest is largely used in the American context, while the Canadian equivalent is Canadian West. and begs the question… “Northwest of What?”. In both of these examples, the answer is the distance away from the political capitals of their respective political entities.

Cascadia then is the name of the land, given to it by the people who live here. Rather than names representing far off people or places, Cascadia highlights the importance of the water we all rely on, and the cascading cascades as the the first drop hits the ground, through evergreen forests and desert canyons, as it journeys on its way to the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean.

Though different linguistic maps match Cascadia very closely, first nation populations inhabited the region and had many different names for the people, cultures, places and areas, there was no one unified name for the larger area of the Cascadia bioregion in it’s entirety. Before 1800, it is estimated that more than 500,000 people lived within the region in dozens of tribes such as the Chinook, Haida, Nootka and Tlingit.

The people of these tribes share a common understanding that their very existence depends on the respectful enjoyment of the regions river basins vast land and water resources. They believe their very souls and spirits were and are inextricably tied to the natural world and all its inhabitants. Among those inhabitants, none are more important than the millions of salmon that bring sustenance and prosperity to the region’s rivers and streams. Indian fishers have fished the waters of the Columbia Basin for thousands of years. It was a central part of their cultures, societies, and religions.

Despite some differences in language and cultural practices, the people of these tribes have long shared the foundation of a regional economy based on salmon. To the extent the resource permits, members of these tribes continue to fish for ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial purposes. They still maintain a dietary preference for salmon, consuming sometimes ten times the US average. For these tribes, salmon is important and necessary for their physical health and spiritual well being.

Cascadian Coast Native American cultural area extends along the coast from southern Alaska, Washington and Oregon and down the Canadian province of British Columbia to the northern edge of California, and traded extensively with the Plateau people further inland. With the arrival of colonial explorers, traders and settlers, many of the indigenous populations were hit very hard by disease. By 1850, it is documented that smallpox wiped out roughly 65 to 95% of Northwestern Indian populations with some estimated 100,000 still remaining. Since then, many first nations people were subjected to forced removal, displacement, separation, and programs designed to eradicate native linguistic languages, tradition and culture.

Pre-colonial contact, on the northwest coast of North America, the mild climate and abundant natural resources made possible the rise of a complex aboriginal culture that expanded through the Cascadia bioregion, and connected in with a continental system of trade and exchange. The people who lived in what are today British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon were able to obtain a good living without much effort. They had time and energy to devote to the development of fine arts and crafts and to religious and social ceremonies.

Using the Salish Sea, rivers and other waterways as primary highways, complex trading networks arose and Chinook Jargon, now close to extinct, also called Tsinuk Wawa, was used as a trade language. It is thought to have originated among the Northwest Coast Indians, especially the Chinook and the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) peoples. As English and French settlers and pioneers made their way to region in the 1800’s, Chinook Wawa grew to be the lingua franca for the fur trade, and of the Cascadia bioregion, and many elements in the pidgin’s vocabulary, such as potluck, sasquatch and others can still be seen in Cascadian English today.

The Northwest Coast Indian peoples, who lived in the Pacific Northwest, can be classified into four units, or “provinces.” The northern province includes speakers of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and the Tsimshian-influenced Haisla (northernmost Heiltsuq or Kwakiutl). The Wakashan province includes all other Kwakiutl, the Bella Coola, and the Nuu-chah-nulth. The Coast Salish–Chinook province extended south to the central coast of Oregon and includes the Makah, Chinook, Tillamook, Siuslaw, and others. The northwestern California province includes the Athabaskan-speaking Tututni-Tolowa as well as the Karok, Yurok, Wiyot, and Hupa.

Coast Salish

Coast Salish peoples inhabit the Northwest Coast of North America, from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, north to Bute Inlet in British Columbia. Coast Salish territories includes much of the ecologically diverse Georgia Basin and Puget Sound known as the Salish Sea (right). This huge drainage basin comprises the coastal mainland and Vancouver Island from Campbell River and Georgia Strait south through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Lower Fraser Valley and the lowlands of Puget Sound. Archaeological evidence of human occupation in this coastal marine area is extensive and ancient, dating back some 8000 years.

Among all First Nations, Coast Salish peoples have been the most displaced by the forces of colonization. Coast Salish territories were divided in 1848 by an artificial boundary between Canada and the USA and large populations of settlers formed at Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle and elsewhere (right). These areas are predicted to grow by about 40 percent over the next 20 years, so the problem of urban sprawl "development" and its destruction of First Nations heritage will become increasingly contentious.

An indigenous mission to "restore, preserve and protect our shared environment and natural resources in our ancestorial homelands - the Salish Sea" has resulted in a number of annual gatherings. "Our ancestors have passed down the traditional teachings of songs, dances, and spiritual ceremonies that depict our identity and strengths of our peoples. Our sacred trust has been given to us from our ancestors and defines our role as protectors of our Mother Earth. We are entrusted with the protection and sustainability of environment and natural resources of our ancestral lands and waters of the Salish Sea. Over the decades our lands and waters have been severely impact by pollution that affects our culture, food, health, and economy. Most importantly hurting our elders who have relied on these since the beginning of time and threatening the lifeways of our children's future" 

Coast Salish languages and dialects include: Northern Salish (Comox, Pentlatch, Sechelt); Central Salish (Squamish, Halkomelem, Nooksack) Northern Straits (SENCOTEN, Sooke, Lekwungen, Lummi); Clallam; and Southern Salish (Lushootseed, Twana). "All Salishan languages are endangered - some extremely so with only three or four speakers left" . More information on the Coast Salish can be found here.

People of Cascadia: Today

Today, first nations both on ceded and unceded territory, officially recognized or not, many displaced and having faced hundreds of years of attempted cultural erasure up until the 1970’s, continue to heal from colonial trauma and reconnect with a rich tapestry of Cascadian culture. In British Columbia in Northern Cascadia, there are now about 200,000 indigenous people in 198 distinct First Nations speaking 30 different languages and 60 different dialects, as well as Inuit and Métis, each with their own unique traditions and history. In Alaska, about 100,000 Native American, or Alaska Native people live in groups from the Iñupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures live, often defined by their language groups. Many Alaska Natives are enrolled in federally recognized Alaska Native tribal entities, who in turn belong to 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, who administer land and financial claims.

In central and southern Cascadia, a similar number of First Nations peoples live in tribes such as the Coast Salish, Chehalis, Colville, Cowlitz, Chinook, Hoh, Makah, Chimakum, Quilieute, Willapa, Tillamook, Nisga'a, Gitxsan, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Nisqually, Wuikinuxv, Puyallup, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Willapa, Yakama, S’Klallam, Kalispel, Elwha, Lummi, Muckleshoot, Quinault, Samish, Sauk-Siattle, Shoalwater, Skokomish, Snoqualmie, Duwamish, Spokane, Squaxin, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Swinomish, Tulalip, Skagit, Coeur D’Alene, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Shoshone Bannock. In Southern Cascadia, additional tribes include the Burns Paiute, Coos, Umpqua, Siuslaw, Grand Ronde, Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Coquille, Klamath.

"First Nations" from the UBC SCARP Cascadia bioregional atlas. Map by Jain Peruniak.


Take a closer look at Aaron Carapella's map of the continental U.S. and Canada and his map of Mexico. He sells prints on his website.

You can download a full PDF of North American Tribal Nations here (PDF)


Native Map and Pronunciation Guide for Tribes within the northern and central Cascadia bioregion. Learn more at firstnations.eu