The Northwest Coast, a complex pattern of islands, coastal plains, foothills, and mountain ranges, extends from California north to Alaska, encompassing all the territory west of the Cascade and Coast Ranges. Its climate is one of even, moderate temperatures (except in the mountains) and relatively heavy rainfall. This combination of mild temperatures and abundant rainfall produces a lush, dense forest vegetation of conifers, deciduous trees, mosses, and ferns.
To its Native American inhabitants of the 1400’s, the long, slender coastal region presented both a favorable and a forbidding environment. The sea and the rivers held many resources, but to exploit them required the development of super craft to navigate waters that were often stormy and rough. The forests were rich with game and many edible plant foods, but the vegetation of much of the area was so dense that land travel was extremely difficult, and large parts of the heavily forested foothills and rugged mountains were unsuitable for human settlements. Villages instead were located along the rivers, on the shores of bays and low-lying offshore islands, and occasionally even at sheltered locations fronting on the open ocean.
It is estimated that the Northwest Coast of the 1400’s had a population of about 130,000 and thus was one of the most heavily populated areas of North America north of Mexico. The people had no agriculture but, over thousands of years, had developed techniques and equipment to exploit their environment, basing their economy on fishing in streams and coastal waters that teemed with salmon, halibut, and other varieties of fish; gathering abalone, mussels, clams, and other shellfish from the rocky coastline; hunting land and sea mammals; and collecting wild plant foods. By the end of the century, they reached a high cultural level usually found only among agricultural people, enjoying a stability that allowed the development of a complex social and ceremonial life, an elaborate technology, and one of the world’s great art styles.