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Siuslaw and Kuitsh: Native Americans of the Oregon Coast

This guide was written by former LCC librarian Don Macnaughtan. This guide is no longer being updated or maintained.

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.


Coos children

The Siuslaw and Kuitsh lived in a mild, rainy, marine climate with ample resources of fish, plants, timber, and game. They followed a seasonal round of hunting and gathering, moving each season to harvest salmon, berries, elk and deer, camas bulbs, fern roots, and shellfish. Occasionally, they hunted seals and sea lions, and any stranded whale was eagerly rendered for blubber and oil. However, they probably did not engage in open-ocean whaling or sealing.


Prehistory

Human occupation of the Oregon Coast is being constantly reevaluated, and dates of occupation are being pushed further back. Currently, it is believed that people began settling the coast over 10,000 years ago. The Siuslaw and Quuiich people are therefore of great antiquity. They have probably lived in the same locations for hundreds of generations.

Language

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:

Example sentences in the Siuslaw language
 

a list of words in English and Siuslawan


Technology

The Siuslaw and Quuiich built large, high-prowed canoes up to 30 feet long, carved out of cedar logs. They were mainly for river, bay, and open ocean travel. The coastal tribes would travel up and down the coast trade with neighbors visiting fishing grounds, shell fishing sites, sea mammal hunting sites, and trading with neighbors. Some canoes from the Chinookans, special western or Chinook style canoes were likely acquired through trade, and they were especially good in the ocean, but all coastal tribes were adept carvers in their own right.

Edward Curtis image of a Cascade Indian woman, Kalliah, in a Chinookan Style Canoe on the Columbia River
Edward Curtis image of a Cascade Indian woman, Kalliah, in a Chinookan Style Canoe on the Columbia River

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 and Decoration

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.

Health

The Siuslawans lived in an environment rich with many types of foods, and were probably in better health than 18th century Europeans. Food resources were reliable and abundant, and supported a population of several thousand. Starvation was seldom a problem. Many vitamins and minerals not normally available in northern climates or in the winters could be getting through eating oily fish and sea mammal fats, which stored such nutrients. More likely causes of illness and mortality were injuries from hunting and fishing, and possibly from warfare and interpersonal violence. The population was much more disease-free than their European and Asian contemporaries – there were only about a dozen important infectious diseases native to the Western Hemisphere. Native American peoples generally had no resistance to the introduced diseases from Europeans, which caused declines in population up to 95% in many areas.


Social and political organization

The Siuslaw and Kuitsh did not define themselves as a people in a political or even a linguistic sense, in the way that modern nations and ethnic groups define themselves. Almost all organization was at the village level, which was based on related males, with their wives and children. Essentially, everyone outside the village was a “foreigner”. However, women married outside their village, and each village had extensive relationships of marriage, trade and alliances with their neighbors. Some people probably spoke several of the nearby languages to facilitate their relationships, or used trade and sign languages. Villages combined to meet special threats, like an alien slaving expedition or other regional catastrophe.

Much of local life was focused on wealth and its acquisition. Subsistence was seldom a problem, and social ranking was largely determined by personal wealth, as represented by valued possessions such as dentalia (a shell “money” from Vancouver Island), woodpecker scalps, abalone and olivella shells, and decorated regalia.

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.


Religion

Little is known of Siuslawan religion, but it probably closely followed neighboring Coosan forms. There were “doctors” or shaman (Palqa), probably of two types – doctors who trained intensively to cure illness through magic, and priestly shamans who elaborated various tribal rituals. Ritual purification was carried out for women after childbirth, at first menstruation, for anybody who had killed (in battle or in murder), or anybody who had handled a cadaver. Both types of shamans were feared for their power and were sometimes killed if they were thought to have killed someone with poison, or if the patient they were trying to heal, died, and the family desired retribution.


Ceremonies and pastimes

Dances, games and feasts were popular activities at various important times of the year, such as first elk and first salmon of the season. Winter was the season for story-telling, when the galaxy of stories from the oral literature were recited for old and new audiences (many of these extraordinary tales were recorded by Leo Frachtenberg in  his book Lower Umpqua Texts). Gambling, as in all of Western Oregon, was a serious pastime, using beaver-teeth dice, stick game, and shinny (pawksh) was played during important events, when tribes gathered for trade or for salmon runs. Gambling was quite common and many peoples would gamble all they had during stick game tournaments.


Recent history

Spanish and Asian ships may have contacted the Siuslawans in the 17th and 18th centuries. There is ample evidence of Chinese coins and pottery from the northern part of the Oregon coast. Coos tradition recalls a visit from a Japanese junk, which returned across the Pacific with some local people as passengers. One important geological event took place on Jan. 26, 1700. A monster earthquake calculated at 9.0 on the Richter scale tore apart the Pacific Northwest coastline from Washington state southwards. The effect on the Siuslaw is unknown, but probably many villages were wrecked or inundated by tsunamis.

In the late 18th century, British, Russian and American traders appeared along the coast in increasing numbers, introducing iron and textiles, but also a wave of disastrous epidemics. The first smallpox appeared on the Oregon Coast in 1775, probably introduced by Spanish sailors. Another smallpox epidemic broke out in 1801, and from then on measles, whooping cough, influenza, syphilis and dysentery visited the coast in a deadly series. In 1830 a sickness now believed to be malaria carried off thousands of Western Oregon people, and the Siuslaw population may have been halved again by smallpox in 1836, although at this point a small immunity was beginning to develop. Overall, population plunged from about 3,000 to a few hundred in 30 or 40 years.

In 1828, the Kuitsh attacked and wiped out the Jedediah Smith exploring party at the mouth of the Umpqua, leaving only 3 survivors. Around the same time the Siuslaw destroyed a Chinookan slaving expedition. In the 1830s, huge forest fires devastated the Coast Range landscape, disrupting the local economy and resource base. By the time the settlers arrived in this area in the 1850s, the two peoples had been drastically reduced in number. Open warfare with settlers never afflicted this region of the Coast, but the local tribes were shattered by the combined effects of epidemics, environmental devastation, and cultural extinction.

Descendants of the Siuslaw and Kuitsh peoples live today throughout Western Oregon, and are represented by several federally recognized tribes: the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw, and the the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

2020 edits and contributions by Patricia Whereat Phillips and David G. Lewis
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