Until historic times, the Makah Tribe was composed of five principal winter villages. The prehistoric population of the Makah was estimated to be between approximately 2000 – 4000 people. Today there are roughly 1500 living in and around Neah Bay. The five villages were located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. These villages were composed of large cedar plank longhouses, which housed many members of an extended family.
The social units of Makah life were large extended families. Cultural information was vested in these families, as were inherited cultural privileges, or “tupat” such as ownership of songs, dances, stories, land and ocean resources and cultural information. Such “tupat” was and is today, owned not by the Makah as a whole, but by Makah families and individuals within the Family.
Like many indigenous cultures, the arts play an important role in daily life. Today many Makah make a living as artists. Carvers sell masks to galleries, shops and individual collectors throughout the world. Many northwest coastal carvings have a distinct style found nowhere else. They depict animals which were, and still are important to Makah culture. Whales, salmon, halibut, ravens, eagles and wolves are among the most commonly used images in these designs. The carvings usually tell a story, and these stories are passed down within the family. Many Makah are skilled woodworkers and can make nearly anything they need from the trees, which grow in the surrounding forest.
While the most commonly used wood is western red cedar, artists can also be found working with alder, yew and spruce. Carvings can range in size from tiny masks made for earrings to giant, ocean going canoes and totems.
Although Makah cultural practices vary from family to family, dance and song have always been an important way for native peoples to communicate, tell stories and pass down cultural information to the next generation. This was the way most of our ancestors received the stories of their elders before written language. Songs, dances and stories are owned by specific families or individuals, meaning that they can only be performed by members of that family. At potlatches, these songs are performed by the families to reaffirm ownership and identify family members which have the right to sing them. The songs are used at weddings, naming ceremonies, memorials and other family or community celebrations.
Today, the Makah still practice their ancient heritage, teach language start children, hold dance practices and participate in canoe journeys. They continue to pass down the ancient songs of their ancestors and new songs are composed to commemorate important events in their lives.
Source: Text Copyright of the Makah Tribal Council website