Cooking and Housekeeping
Tasks which revolved around the home, including cooking and
housekeeping, usually were the responsibility of women. These
traditional tasks were usually performed in the company of the other
women in the home or sometimes in the village; there was a feeling
of communal responsibility for these tasks. Housekeeping duties were
simple sweeping, arranging the bedding, assuring all utensils and
tools were in order. Things were simpler then when one realizes that
people did not have various outfits of clothes and numerous pairs of
shoes, even the wealthier Coastal groups. Clutter was not a problem.
Cooking required more planning and work than today's homemaker
devotes to these tasks. Their methods of cooking were similar to
those of the modern homemaker broiling or roasting, baking and
boiling. But appliances were not available as they are today.
Coastal and Puget Sound Region
There was usually plenty to eat in the Coastal and Puget Sound
Indian house. The shelves below the rafters were piled with dried
fish, meat, roots and berries, and with fish oil which served as
cream, butter and salad dressing. A family could live well for weeks
and even give feasts without going outside the house. During summer
the family moved from camp to camp, living completely on each kind
of fresh meat or vegetable food they found available. Cooking
methods used were broiling or roasting, baking and boiling.
Broiling or roasting was the method for cooking fresh foods. It took
little time and required no more equipment than a few green sticks
with pointed ends. On these a fresh fish or a strip of meat was
propped before the embers. When they wanted salt, they used sea
water or seaweed which was not to be found at inland camps.
Meal service in the Indian home was quite an elaborate affair,
though more informal at their summer camps. There were generally two
meals a day one at mid-morning when the first bout of work was over,
and the last meal at sunset.
The Indians rose at dawn and washed in the rivers which were always
near their houses. Then the men and younger women went out to work.
If they were going far, they might take some camas bread or dried
berries. The older women swept the sand around the fireplace with
cedar branches then broke up some of the cedar bark which was their
usual firewood and piled it on the fire which was left smoldering
from the previous night. They put some stones in the fire to heat
and carried water from the river in a wooden box or water-tight
Then the woman would get out the dried food she planned to serve. If
it was fish, she had probably started soaking it the day before
because dried salmon, as tough and shrunken as kindling wood, takes
up a great deal of water. She took it from the soaking bowl and
pounded it, removing the bones she found. Then she placed it in the
boiling box and added a little seaweed to salt it.
When the family arrived for the meal, perhaps with some guests, the
men sat down first. All knew the rules for table manners so before
sitting down, they rinsed their mouths out with water. Then a bunch
of shredded cedar bark which served as a towel was passed around.
Each wiped the grime of the morning's work from his hands then
washed them in a bowl of water and wiped again. Finally, each took a
drink of water from the drinking bowl because it was not proper to
drink during meals. If the meal was elaborate, a woman might serve a
course of plain dried fish with oil before the cooked food was
served. In that case, she laid the dried food on the mat and placed
a small bowl of oil for each two or three guests. When the course
was over, there were some oily fingers and a helper went around with
the shredded cedar and the bucket of water. With scores of lakes,
rivers and streams, water was plentiful.
Courses of cooked food were served in dishes. These were wooden
platters shaped somewhat like a canoe though they were flat on the
bottom. A dish might be a foot and a half or two feet long, and in
one corner of it stood the oil dish. They ate with ladles made of
wood or mountain goat horn; or sometimes used clam shells.
People sipped delicately from the tips of their spoons, never
opening their mouths wide enough to show their teeth.
After the cooked food course, people used a wooden finger bowl and a
cedar bark napkin. Then, if this were a gala meal, there might be a
dessert of dried berries, again with oil. After the final hand
washing, the drinking bowl was passed around. No matter how salty
the food, a well-behaved person always waited for this. If they
needed a drink during the meal it would be thought that he or she had
eaten too much.
As previously mentioned, food was plentiful in the Coastal and Puget
Sound regions. Along with the vast quantities of seafood provided by
the rivers, lakes, ocean and bays, the saltwater beaches also
provided a wide variety of shellfish throughout the year which were
dug using a carved digging stick. Some of the clams, oysters,
mussels, etc., would be smoked, dried and stored to be used or
traded later. Vegetable roots or bulbs such as salmonberry sprouts,
camas, wapato, tiger lily, and fern were dug at the appropriate time
between early spring and into late fall using a different type of
digging stick. Also, from early summer to late fall, nature provided
many different types of berries such as red and blue elderberries,
blackberries, salal berries, huckleberries, cranberries, wild
strawberries, thimble berries, and blackcaps. These berries were
dried and stored in baskets for future use. The huckleberry leaves
were also collected and dried for tea. Certain types of nuts and
seeds were also gathered in the fall.
The art of basket making was highly developed by aboriginal women
throughout Washington State. Different types of baskets were used
for cooking, food gathering and storage, and carrying water. A few
distinctions in basketry methods will be made from one culture area
to the next. Overlay was one of the methods used for making a basket
of coarse, strong materials, but covering the outside with fine,
colored grass in bright patterns.
Figure A above shows the method. Instead of the usual two weft
(horizontal threads) strands, the workers used four; two strong ones
and two decorative ones. The decorative strand was always laid along
the outside of the actual weaving strand and kept there as the
strand twisted so that it always faced out. The result was a basket
whose outside was all in glistening color (detail shown in Figure B)
while the inside showed only the plain spruce or cedar root.
This was a method popular in northern California where the twined
baskets were beautifully fine. The same method extended to the
Oregon coast, so often like California. A few were made on Puget
Sound and Figure B comes from the Skokomish. It is a large, flexible
basket made of cattail with an overlay of squaw grass in yellow and
A woman who needed to make baskets, and every woman did, began
planning for it many months in advance. Basketry was primarily
winter work, to be done when she could sit in the house for weeks at
a time with her materials around her. These materials had to be
gathered in the summer when each twig, root and grass to be used was
at its best. Roots and twigs had to be soaked, peeled and split,
grass cured and sometimes dyed. One Indian woman said, When I begin
to weave a basket, my work is already half done.
The big trees were the mainstay for basketry, as they were for the
rest of the household equipment. The roots and limbs of the young
cedars were peeled and split into strands as strong as wire; Indian
women on the coast used the tough, slim roots of the spruce tree.
For coarser work, they split the cedar bark into flat strips like
tape, or dried the cattails and rushes. These formed the body of the
basket. If it were close woven and allowed a field for decoration, a
woman generally decorated it even though it was to be used only for
cooking or storage. She might use rows of different kind of weaving
but more often she added color. Experts have said the colored
baskets of this region were the most handsome in America.
Colored grasses, which were the Indian woman's substitute for
embroidery silks, were among her most valued possessions. She had to
make long trips to the mountains for the shiny bear grass which she
might use in its natural cream color, or she might dye it yellow
with the root of Oregon grape or black with swamp mud. She flattened
out the black stems of maidenhair fern. She peeled the bark of the
wild cherry and rubbed it to a glossy dark red. On the beaches she
found bone-white shore grass or black sea growths. Basketry was made
by three methods Twining, plaiting and coiling. Basket makers loved
to vary their work with fancy edges and many varieties of stitch,
and one favorite method was the scalloped edge. A favorite
decoration was false embroidery with the design showing only on the
outside of the basket and the pattern slightly raised as in
needlework. Sometimes a woman would weave in one or more bright
strips of grass to make her basket different.
Mat making was a part of basketry and every woman had at least as
many mats as baskets. She made them of cedar bark strips or tall,
hollow cattails which grew thick along quiet streams and lakes. The
women gathered them from canoes in July and August and dried them in
the sun. In winter, they strung these stalks side by side using
string made of nettle fiber or from cattail using a special needle
for mat making. No woman could have too many cattail mats, and they
were made in basically three sizes. The largest mats (about five
feet by twenty feet) were used along the walls as insulation and as
room dividers. Medium-sized mats were used as mattresses, table
coverings, rain capes and umbrellas, and folded for pillows. The
smaller mats (about three to four feet long) were used as cushions
for sitting in the house and the canoe. Cattails were a highly
prized trade item with northern tribes as they felt these mats were
superior to the cedar bark kind.
String and Packstraps
A woman had to make not only her household containers but even her
string which she needed a lot of to tie her bundles and make her
mats, while hundreds of feet of it went into fish nets. The best
string was made of nettle fiber. The stinging nettles with their
four-sided stems grew thick in damp places; and every fall, women
collected huge bundles of them. The stems were split into strips
with the thumbnail and hung up five or six days to dry. Then they
were broken and the long, out side fibers pulled away from the pith
(the soft, spongelike center). To get them really clean and well
separated, they were laid on a mat and beaten then combed over the
edge of a mussel shell or the rib bone of a bear.
When she was ready to make string, she soaked the fibers to make
them flexible. In her left hand she took two slender bunches of a
few fibers each, holding them separate. With the palm of her right
hand, she rolled the fibers slowly along her leg so each bundle was
twisted. Then she pulled the hand quickly upward and the two bunches
twisted together. This made a two-ply string. She also made a heavy
cord to be used in carrying backloads. These packstraps, which were
15 to 20 feet long, were made by braiding except for a length of two
feet or more in the center where the strap crossed the forehead or
chest. Here the Indian woman made a checker board or twill pattern.
Sometimes these front pieces were braided or twined in colored wool.
A handsome carrying strap meant as much to the Indians as modern
women think of their hats today.
Many winter days were spent making nets. All the fine ones were of
nettle strings and a woman kept little pieces of wood cut to
different lengths to measure the size mesh she would make. A fine
string net was almost invisible in the water but it often broke and
the net maker had to keep mending it all summer.
Puget Sound women made their own yarn for weaving and had looms
which were made of wood. They used mountain goat wool which was an
ideal source of wool because it was fine, straight and very soft.
The goats lived in mountains almost impossible to climb, and hunters
say they are harder to approach than any other big game animal.
There were goats in the Rocky Mountains, where few Indians ever
climbed, and there were some in the Cascades. Salish Indians along
the Fraser River sometimes hunted mountain goats and traded the
hides to the Coastal Indians. More often, though, they searched over
the hillsides in spring and summer when the goats were shedding.
Then, almost every bush might bear a tuft of fur, rubbed off as the
Wool dogs were a special breed owned by the women, and they were
kept separate from the house and hunting dogs. There are none of
these dogs to be seen now, and Indians do not even remember how they
looked because they became extinct about the time the gold rush
swamped the country in 1858. Early explorers say these dogs were
small and white, sometimes a brownish black. They resembled the
Pomeranian or similar breeds of oriental origin. When their fleece
was sheared off with a mussel shell knife, it was so thick you could
lift it up by one corner like a mat. The shearing was repeated two
or three times a summer and even then is was hard to get enough wool
for blankets. Dog wool was mixed with goat wool, goose down and with
the fluff of the fireweed plant. These materials, in any proportion
obtainable, were then laid on a mat and sprinkled with a fine white
clay. This clay was a prized possession to be found in only a few
places and women kept balls of it for which they traded. The weaver
beat the clay and fibers together with a flat, smooth piece of wood
that had a handle like a sword. The clay helped take the grease from
the wool and to whiten it because dog wool was not as white as
mountain goat wool. Next the woman would comb the fibers out with
her fingers and roll them on her leg as she did the nettle bark.
After the wool was spun on her spindle, the resulting thread was a
loose, soft twist, as thick as a finger. A blanket made entirely of
this thread was very warm and heavy.
The Salish blanket was ten or twelve feet long if it was to be used
for bedding. A five or six foot piece made a mantle. Usually it was
white but there might be some wool from a brownish black dog or bear
wool worked into a border or into a few wide strips. Occasionally
these crossed each other in a large plaid.
There was not much color until white people brought yarn for trade.
Klallam and Cowlitz women made a few really beautiful blankets;
however, there was no one to encourage them to make these blankets
for sale as the Indians in the Southwest were encouraged. They found
they could get Hudson Bay blankets with far less trouble, and so
they gave up the art some 75 years ago. Had that not happened,
Salish blankets might have been as famous today as those of the
Photos from Daybreak
Star United Indians of All Tribes Foundation article - 1993.
Do not reproduce without permission.