Allison's Book Bag

Potlatches, Whaling, and Other Things You Should Know About

Posted on: March 28, 2014

“Many years of research and hundreds of revisions went into the making of this book,” writes Rosanne Parry about her novel Written in Stone. As a fifth-grader, Rosanne Parry saw the Raven stories of Northwest Coast mythology told and danced by a Native American chief and his family at a longhouse in Washington. The performances seemed magical to her. Parry never dreamed that one day she’d grow up to teach where similar stories were told. Yet that’s exactly what happened. Parry landed her first teaching job on a reservation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Parry also never imagined that one day after leaving the reservation, she would write a story about the Makah and the Quinault tribes. Yet that’s also what happened. Written in Stone is about the way of life of these tribes in the 1920s, a time of critical upheaval when they gave up their whaling culture. I’ll post my review of it tomorrow. Save the date: March 29!

Whether or not you have already read Written in Stone, it might help to know some of background about the two aforementioned tribes. My information comes from tribal websites.


Bordered by the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific Ocean, the early Makah Tribe held a large area of inland and coastal territory. Within this territory, the Makah had five permanent villages: Waatch, Sooes, Deah, Ozette and Bahaada. Each village contained several longhouses composed of cedar planks. The Makah and their extended families would share these structures and it was common to have several generations living in each one. During the summer, families traveled to summer camps, which were closer to the traditional fishing, whaling and gathering areas.

As is the tradition among indigenous people, the Makah used nearly all they took from the land and sea. As they acclimated to the seasons, they knew when and where to hunt and to gather food and materials.

They were mariners and utilized the bounty of the sea. Sea otters proved a valuable trade item used for trade, because it has the thickest, densest fur of any mammals. In the 1700s, their skins could earn the seller enough to purchase a schooner.
The otter’s skin was also used as a chafe guard to be worn under cedar clothing.

Whaling to this day has remained a source of great pride among the Makah. Sperm, right, humpback, gray, fin, and blue whales were among the species traditionally hunted. The Makah hunted whales for their meat and blubber; nearly every part of the whale was designated for use. Oil rendered from the whale’s blubber earned great wealth. The bones of the whale were useful for making spindle whorls, war clubs, bark pounders, shredders, combs, and personal adornments.

As mariners, they used various types of canoes. There were war, whaling, halibut, salmon fishing, sealing canoes and large cargo canoes. There were even smaller canoes which children used for practice. All canoes were carved from western red cedar. The canoes had sails so that paddlers could use the wind to their advantage. When they landed, it was done stern first so that, if necessary, the paddlers could make a quick exit.

Contact with Europeans had a devastating effect on the lives of Makah people. Thousands of tribal members died from epidemics of tuberculosis, small pox, influenza and whooping cough. The loss of family members caused the Makah not only caused grief and fear, but it interrupted the transfer of traditional knowledge and caused many of the old ways to be lost.

In 1855, the Makah villagers negotiated and signed a treaty with the United States. Certain rights were specifically outlined to insure the Makah could continue traditional practices. For example, in order to retain whaling rights, the Makah ceded title to 300,000 acres of tribal land to the U.S. And yet representatives of the U.S. government sought to assimilate the Makah through the implementation of laws against other traditions and the Makah language. The government efforts weren’t completely successful, as evident in the Makah peoples’ continuance of their ancient culture.

The Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) consists of the Quinault and Queets tribes and descendants of five other coastal tribes: Quileute, Hoh, Chehalis, Chinook, and Cowlitz. It is a point of pride for them that they are among the small number of “Americans who can walk the same beaches, paddle the same waters, and hunt the same lands our ancestors did centuries ago”.

Located on the southwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula, their reservation is a land of forests, rivers, lakes and miles of unspoiled Pacific coastline. The boundaries of the reservation enclose a large acreage of conifer forest lands. Roosevelt elk, black bear, blacktail deer, bald eagle, and cougar, are among the animals which make these forests their home. Their ancestors lived on a major physical dividing line. Beaches to the south were wide and sandy; to the north were rugged and cliff-lined.

Families lived in long houses up and down the river. They were sustained by the land. The western red cedar, which the Quinault refer to as the “tree of life,” provided split boards for houses, logs for canoes, and bark for clothing, to name a few uses. The Quinault also make use of the sea mammals, salmon runs, and other wildlife.


Although it seems to be a generic education site, another potentially useful resource is: Native Americans in Olden Times for Kids. It’s here that I found out that a potlatch isn’t just a party. Instead, it’s a really big deal. Planning for a potlatch might take an entire year! Each person invited to a potlatch receives a present. This present can be as simple as a pencil or as complicated as a carving. At any particular potlatch, everyone receives the same present. Other terms explained here include: longhouse, canoes, baskets, woven mats, and totem poles. There’s also a sample raven story.


Written in Stone

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