The Siuslaw and Kuitsh (Kalawatset) are a Native American ethnic group. They are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua Indians. The Siuslaw traditional homelands were on the Central Oregon Coast of Western Oregon.
Landscape and Environment
The Siuslaw and Quuiich (Kuitsh, Lower Umpqua or Kalawatset) peoples were two closely related American Indian tribes who lived along the Central Oregon Coast, around the modern cities of Reedsport and Florence. The Siuslaw lived mainly around the estuary of the Siuslaw River, leaving during summer to travel upriver and into the hills of the Coast Range. The Quuiich had their winter villages around Winchester Bay, at the mouth of the Umpqua River. The whole coast held by the two peoples was about 50 miles in length, from Tsi’ima or Tenmile Creek in the north, just south of Cape Perpetua, to the Tenmile Lakes in the south. In summer, both peoples traveled annually as far as the Willamette Valley, and there is a tradition of a Siuslaw village in the Lorane Valley, southwest of Eugene. The Siuslaw utilized landscapes as far as the west of Noti but their eastern border with the Kalapuyans is undetermined. Quuiich fishing camps were in the Gardiner-Winchester Bay lower region but there were villages up the Umpqua river with a named village (Ts’alila) above Scottsburg.
The indigenous landscape was very diverse. The Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua rivers and estuaries were the dominating factor in the local economy, providing fish and shellfish. Good fishing was available from a chain of freshwater lakes, including Siltcoos and Tahkenitch Lakes, which lay behind a band of coastal dunes. The rivers provided a highway into the Coast Range, which lay to the east of the tribal territories. In the mountains, hunting and gathering were major summer activities. The whole landscape was heavily timbered, except along the sand dunes. An underbrush of alder and berry bushes was thick and luxurious, making travel arduous. To some extent, this also protected and isolated the Siuslawans.
The Siuslaw and Quuiich spoke dialects of the same language, called Siuslawan. The language is related to Alsea and Yaquinna and Coosan languages. Scholars have suggested that the language is in the Penutian family, but this is in dispute as there are also Salish influences in the language. Its clear that the Oregon Coastal tribes occupied their locations for a long time period, and this created language and cultural cross influences. It is certainly a rich and complex language, but it is now extinct in spoken form. Primary fieldwork projects conducted by J.P. Harrington, Leo Frachtenberg, and George Amos Dorsey, are well known to scholars, but the language is not fully analyzed at this time. The last speakers of Siuslawan were the Barrett family (May Barrett Elliot, Clay Barrett, Howard Barrett) and Billy Dick of Florence, who were interviewed by Morris Swadesh and Dell Hymes in the early 1950s.
This is a rendering of a text in Siuslawan adapted into Americanist IPA by Patricia Whereat Phillips:
Plank houses were semi-subterranean, up to 50 feet long, built of split and smoothed planks. The roof was gabled with a single ridge pole. Racks along the ceiling stored dried food, baskets, tools, and personal possessions. The interiors were lined with woven tule or cattail mats. Sweat houses were sometimes aboveground and sometimes below ground. Basketry was made with a twining technique. They used tightly woven conifer roots for cooking and water baskets, and made open weave clam baskets, and conical fishing trap baskets. Fishing weirs were also woven and installed in bays, estuaries and rivers to trap fish.
The Siuslaw toolkit included a wide array of hunting, fishing, and woodworking tools, including toggle harpoons. Hunting tools doubled as weapons of war. Bows were made of yew and vine maple, and the Siuslaw held them at a horizontal angle to shoot. Like some of the Athapaskan people to the south, elk-hide armor was used.
Clothing was appropriate to the season. In the warm summer it was minimal, but during rain or cold, tanned hide or plant fiber clothing was worn. Men wore belted buckskin shirts and leggings, and water-repellent capes of cattail or shredded bark were used during the long rainy season. Women wore long fiber or hide dresses or skirts, and flat-topped woven basket hats. Regalia and ceremonial gear were signs of wealth, and included woodpecker-scalp headgear, dance costumes, and decorated belts and headbands. Moccasins were only used on long trips – the climate and landscape were so wet that bare feet were more practical.
Tattooing was practiced, especially among women who marked their wrists and possibly legs. Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw & Alsea women all practiced wrist tattooing as part of womanhood ceremony, representing one who would have strong hands for weaving and cooking and all women had to do. Facial tattoos were uncommon. The Siuslawans did not commonly practice the flatten their heads, but some few individuals did have flattened heads. The Alsea peoples to the north represented the southern limit of the practice of distinctive head-flattening that was common along the Columbia River to the north. Head flattening was a prestige marker among the Chinookans and their neighbors, and those without flattened head were looked down upon.
Society was quite stratified, probably into four “classes.” The elite were defined by wealth and its attendant prestige, and below them were progressively poorer people of lesser status. At the bottom were the slaves, who were rather few in this area. It was possible to fall into slavery from gambling debts, but only the wealthiest people held slaves. The Siuslaw and Quuiich were often themselves raided by other peoples for slaves. Each village had a chief or leader, usually a wealthy and respected man who mediated village disputes, imposed fines, and made sure that wealth was distributed to the less fortunate. Bride purchase was an important factor in setting one’s status for life, and marriage and its financial obligations played a very important role in stabilizing and integrating the society.