The area along the Pacific Coast north of California and between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean, is the home to many Indian nations who traditionally based their economy on the use of sea coast and river ecological resources. This is an area which stretches from the Tlingit homelands in Alaska to the Tolowa homelands in northern California. The Indian nations along the Northwest Coast, and particularly in the northern and central portions of the region, have a highly developed woodworking tradition that includes houses, canoes, bent boxes, totem poles, and household utensils.
For the people of the Northwest Coast, the single most important plant is a tree – the cedar. The use of this tree permeates all aspects of the Native American cultures of this region and provides for many of life’s necessities. Prior to the European invasion, the people of the Northwest Coast lived in large, multi-family houses built with planks on a post and beam frame. These houses were usually arranged in a single row facing the water.
Shown above is a display from the Royal British Columbia Museum showing house construction.
Shown above is the traditional longhouse at the Royal British Columbia Museum.
One of the most important tools in working with wood is the adze. Traditionally, the Northwest Coast people made several types of adzes: an elbow adze in which a blade was hafted to longer wooden handle, a straight adze in which the blade was driven into an antler haft, a U adze and a D adze. The jade blades often used in the adzes and chisels were made by Indian nations in the interior and traded to the coast. The blades were often heat treated to make them harder. Shown below are some of the displays at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
Stone Hammers and Mauls:
To split the cedar into planks which could be used for building houses or boxes, a small cut was made in the log. Wedges of bone or antler were then inserted into the cut and pounded in with a maul. Using wedges of graded sizes, the log was then split into planks.
The people made two basic kinds of stone hammers: the hand maul in which the handle or grip was carved into the stone and the stone hammer which had a wooden handle. Shown below are some of the different stone hammers and mauls which are on display at the Royal British Columbia Museum.
Shown above is a double-handled stake pounder.
Shown above is a pile driver which was used for driving posts into the ground.
The Kerfed Box:
One of the unique items among Northwest Coast First Nations are kerfed boxes (shown above loaded in a canoe for transport). These are wooden boxes in which the sides of the box are made by scoring and then bending a single board to form the sides of the box. The single side seam is then carefully fitted and sewn together with spruce root. The bottom of the box is also carefully fitted and sewn to the sides. These boxes are waterproof and some are used for cooking. The watertight boxes can be filled with water and when hot stones are dropped into the box the water can be brought to a boil.
Shown above is one of the kerfed boxes on display at the Royal British Columbia Museum.
Shown below are some of the tools used in making kerfed boxes.