Our fascination with the diverse, complex and unique native cultures of the Pacific Northwest is a measure of how satisfying they were to the people who created them. The progress of these ancient cultures was rudely interrupted by contact with the West and the forcible inclusion of their members into the social systems of expanding nation-states. The fact that the inclusion may at times have been directed by a spirit of sincere idealism cannot obscure the reality that it was often cruel and destructive. At the time of the treaties, most Americans assumed the native peoples would vanish like the frontier itself. In most cases, however, neither the people nor their cultures disappeared entirely, and today many are experiencing a revival. This reassertion of identity has led to a salutary change in attitude of many non-Indians who are less likely to perceive native people to be anachronisms, irrelevant or Hollywood stereotypes.
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It must also be understood that the collection with all its limitations seeks to describe the lifeways of a host of groups scattered over the Northwest Coast and the Plateau, a vast area encompassing southeastern Alaska, coastal British Columbia, the State of Washington,northern Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana. The very terms Northwest Coast and Plateau exercise severe limitations on our imaginations by inviting us to lump extraordinarily diverse groups into two broad categories. The similarities that enable ethnographers to identity the Makahs of the outer coast, hunting grey whales out in the Pacific in splendid cedar dugouts, and Nisquallies at the head of Puget Sound, who cultivated root crops and later raised horses on their broad prairie, as belonging to the Northwest Coast culture area tend to obscure the differences between them. It has also led to the very mistaken practice of labeling all Northwest Coast groups as "totem pole Indians'. The same indistinction blurs our view of those groups we identify as Plateau, among whom the Coeur d'Alene, fishing their great blue lake in pine bark canoes, differed markedly from the Nez Perce riding to buffalo country on gaily caparisoned apaloosas. Throughout this vast region each native group possessed a unique and enduring culture whose oral history and mythology reached back to the beginning of time.
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At best, 2,300 photographs and 7,700 pages of text can serve only to introduce an extraordinary cultural mosaic of profound complexity and antiquity. Indeed, that is the collection's purpose, but it also provides important primary materials to students and scholars and points them toward other sources of information. To facilitate this, several regional authors have written essays on topics that focus on specific cultural groups and pertinent cross-cultural topics.
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