The Makah Indians originated on the Pacific Northwest Coast in Washington State. The first written historical records of the Makah date from 1860. Their territory extends 15 miles on both sides of Cape Flattery, located south of Vancouver Island. Members of the Tribe hold long-established beliefs of the spiritual world and have developed a reverence for many different mythological figures associated with their coastal lives.
The Makah Indians believe the world is filled with powerful spiritual forces. These forces are not beings, but rather sources of power that can be used for good or evil purposes. The Makah are not concerned with the afterlife or abstract morality but rather focus their attention on how to improve their present lives. Elizabeth Colson, in her book “The Makah Indians: A Study of an Indian Tribe in Modern American Society,” finds that they are most interested in the power to heal and increase happiness in this life.
The Makah believe that physical beings would return to the world after death as spirits and would haunt the places they were attached to before their deaths. The Makah have a ritual tradition of burning an individual’s personal possessions after death and throwing them out onto the beach. Some of the possessions can be given to non-family members and strangers who are not likely to be haunted by the deceased individual. The personal belongings cannot be kept in the family, according to Makah tradition.
The Makah Indians believe in several mythological figures in the natural world. Hohoeapbess, translated as the “Two Men Who Made Things,” are said to be the brothers of the sun and moon who transformed people, animals and landscapes from a different, ancient condition into their current form. Another important mythological figure is the Raven, who provides help and benevolence to people. But not all of the mythological figures in Makah tradition are benevolent. Sxwayok, or Basket Ogress, for instance, is believed to carry away children in her basket for cannibalistic purposes.
According to Makah Indian tradition, certain Makah cultural practices can only be performed by members of particular families. Cultural celebrations such as weddings, memorials and naming ceremonies require members from particular Makah families to perform song and dance during the celebration.