The Coast Salish Nation

The largest political grouping is the winter villages. Each village was made of a group of extended family households, of which the eldest male was considered the head. The household head met as equals to decide village affairs and had to come to a concensus before making a decision. Siiem (see-em), the leaders, had to be generous in potlatches, respectful, peaceful and knowledgeable about the spirit world and about the history and customs of his people. Siiem could not be war leaders. The household leaders could be siiem but were not necessarily. The Coast Salish could be broken into four kinds of people: the leaders, the good people, the worthless people and the slaves. The worthless people existed mostly in legends rather than in fact, but they were the ones that forgot their relatives, history or customs, were lazy, immoral or not spiritual. The slaves were an extremely small group of people, caught in warfare. The status of slave was hereditary. A slave could be freed: if a slave was particularly gifted, if the slave's family gave blankets (which rarely happened because having a former slave in the family tainted the family) or if the slave married a free person (which also rarely happened). The slaves helped to gather the large variety of foodstuffs available. Families and villages did own the more rare resource areas. Ownership was thought of more in the way of rights to the land. Anyone could travel over it, but to harvest from it one had to ask the owner. Permission was usually granted. A case where this might not happen is if a river was being overfished, in which case the owner would not fish it or allow anyone else to do so. Ownership entailed responsibility.

The Coast Salish believed in a spirit helper. The spirit power may bestow a gift after a spirit quest, for example the skill to hunt, heal or weave. The spirit helper may also bestow a song and dance, and maybe nothing else but this is a gift of spiritual well-being. If your are doing well it shows that you are in touch with your spirit. There was more than one way to have a spirit quest. Whichever way was employed the seeker saw the spirit helper and received a gift. The experience was always kept secret and personal. The gift was only for the seeker.

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