top of page


Quileute Reservation, WA 98350, USA

First Contact:

gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization

Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

Traditionally Important Resources

The Quileute and their neighbors traditionally utilized a very broad array of marine and terrestrial animals and plants for food, medicine, and fuel, and as raw materials to manufacture their rich material culture. Some taxa are prominently noted in ethnohistoric accounts and ethnographic documentation. Other important animal and plant resources comprised the majority constituents of archaeological shell middens, reflecting their importance as well. A list of traditionally used resources inhabiting the nearshore marine environment is given by Shaffer et al. (2004:52-63). The social and ceremonial aspects of different kinds of subsistence activities were reflected in several “secret” societies historically maintained by the Quileute and their neighbors, which placed individual importance on the different specialized skill for different species of animals. Frachtenberg (1921) studied these societies and their rituals among the Quileute. Several technical reports of nearby archaeological investigations provide complementary data (e.g., Duncan 1981; Huelsbeck and Wessen 1994; Wessen 2006).

Detailed analyses of the Ozette fauna indicates that over the centuries leading up to and during initial Euroamerican contact there was a reliance primarily on locally available animal species, some of which are now locally extinct or greatly depleted – such as sea otter, pelican, and albatross (Huelsbeck and Wessen 1994). Taxonomic breadth and diversity of animals identified at Ozette are remarkable: 90 species of invertebrates that include clams, gastropods, chitons, cephalopods, sea urchins, crabs and barnacles – but predominantly California mussel, littleneck clam, and Sitka periwinkle; 42 species of bird, primarily waterfowl taxa but most identified specimens of a single taxon were gull; 27 species of fish both marine and anadromous – predominantly greenling, lingcod, halibut and salmon; and 27 species of marine and terrestrial mammal – predominantly gray and humpback whales and northern fur seals, with lower quantities of sea lion, porpoise, and elk. The abundance of whale bones in the Ozette assemblage may reflect hunting summer-resident gray and humpbacked whale populations, and salmon bones may be remains of a rich Lake Ozette sockeye salmon population. The modern absence or rarity of some taxa present in the archaeological record, such as northern fur seal, may indicate habitat degradation or commercial over-exploitation (Gustafson 1968; Huelsbeck and Wessen 1994). The paucity of others, such as herring and smelt, may reflect recovery bias caused by relatively limited fine-screen recovery. The remarkably well-preserved wood, shell, bone and stone tool assemblage from Ozette also gives an unprecedented view of Native technology, including implements used for hunting, fishing, and gathering resources. Although based on smaller excavated volumes and assemblage sample size, analysis of the shell midden deposits at La Push identified a variety of marine mammals (northern fur seal, California sea lion, and whale – but no harbor seal), terrestrial mammals (beaver, deer and elk), birds (loon, falcon, thrush, robin, crow, goose, duck, scoter, pelican, cormorant, gull, tern, auk, puffin, fulmar, and petrel), and shellfish (primarily butter clam, California mussel, and native littleneck clam, with lesser numbers of barnacles, whelks, and gastropods). These taxa represent not only local food-gathering activities near the village at La Push, but also open-water forays within the usual and accustomed fishing grounds of the Quileute to obtain sea mammals as large as the blue whale (Reagan 1917; Trites and Robertson 2014). Fish remains are not differentiated in Duncan’s published report, nor are plant remains mentioned, and the only quantification of the faunal remains is within the broad categories of Mammal, Fish, Bird, and Shell (Duncan 1981). This highlights the data gaps present in the archaeological record that are in all likelihood derived from excavation and sampling issues. In terms of the traditional technology present at the ancestral village at La Push, a variety of stone and ground bone and antler artifacts were recovered from the project, some relating to fishing (net weights, bipoints, etc) and some to sea mammal hunting (harpoon valves). A more recent archaeological investigation within one portion of the site damaged by construction yielded a similar marine-oriented faunal assemblage, and the addition of harbor seal (Wessen 2006)

However, the sheer sizes and speeds of blue and fin whales would have made them extremely challenging to hunt. It is therefore noteworthy that fin whales are linguistically reflected in the Makah language—with the month of March being named “the month that fin-back whales appear” (Swan 1870). Evidence of hunting is further supported by Collins’s (1892) report of nine fin whales being landed at La Push by Quileute whalers in 1888. By the mid-nineteenth century, North Pacific right whales had been depleted by commercial whalers and were likely no longer available to indigenous hunters. Swan (1870) noted that right whales were caught off the West Coast, particularly off northern Washington and Vancouver Island. However, he did not indicate when the whales were taken, either in terms of time of year or whether indigenous whalers were still catching them in the mid-1800s. Such historical data combined with known habitat preferences and behavioral ecology means that right whales, along with blue and fin whales, would have been available to hunters, though some would have been more challenging to catch than others.

Conclusions The field notes of Frachtenberg (1916) and others note that the Quileute had been practicing whaling since immemorial times. Additional historical and archaeological data confirm that the Quileute successfully hunted and consumed many of the same species taken by the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth whale hunters during and before treaty times. The archaeological, historical, and ecological data are thus consistent with the Quileute hunters being exceptional seamen, navigators, and whalers.


Importance of Animal Products


Invertebrates, in consideration here as most frequently harvested include three scientific phyla: a) mollusks such as bivalves (e.g. clams and mussels), gastropods (e.g., snails, limpets, and abalone), cephalopods (octopi and squid), and chitons; b) arthropods, which include crabs, shrimp, and barnacles; and c) echinoderms such as sea urchins. The conventional term “shellfish” is a category that subsumes many of these taxa, regardless of the presence or kind of shell they bear, but is avoided here given its different connotations when considered in scientific, socio-cultural, or commericial harvest contexts. Regardless, invertebrates have played a continuously important role in traditional Quileute subsistence extending back millennia. Their remains – the shells of mollusks (and their beaks, in the case of cephalopods) and arthropods, and the tests, spines, and other hard parts of sea urchins – comprise a substantial volume of archaeological middens along the coast, and are also found inland on former shorelines elevated by tectonic processes above modern sea level (Duncan 1981; Wessen 1994; Wessen and Huelsbeck 2015). Ethnohistoric observations and ethnographic studies indicate that invertebrates were an important part of the traditional diet and economy, consumed locally and processed for trade with other Tribes (Ray 1954), and retain importance to the Tribal community today. A tremendous amount of traditional knowledge supports historic and modern collecting of these animals, by directing gathering practices in the right seasons and with the right methods to help ensure safe and sustainable harvests (Shaffer et al. 2004:11-17). The variety of traditionally harvested invertebrates mirrors their biogeographic diversity in the littoral, and to a lesser extent nearshore, environment. Most bivalves are sessile, or immobile, during most of their lifespan, and serve as a year-round, easily procured and nutritious resource. Other invertebrates such as crab and octopus move throughout the nearshore environment and supplemented the traditional diet as well. Although almost 100 distinct invertebrate taxa have been identified in the local archaeological record, both archaeological and ethnographic data indicate oysters, mussels, clams (especially littleneck, butter, and razor clams, as well as blue mussels), chitons, and octopus were the most intensively harvested invertebrate taxa in early times. Today crab is a major commercially harvested species by the Quileute. Bivalves are extremely sensitive to habitat perturbations because they are primarily sessile animals that filter the sea water in which they live for sustenance. Shells from shell midden sites yield environmental proxies such as molecular isotopes in certain ratios and changing widths of growth rings in single individuals, making them valuable indicators of the environmental conditions of a shoreline at a specific point in time. Shell deposits, whether cultural middens or former natural death assemblages, found in places that are no longer active shorelines may reflect either gradual environmental change such as rising sea levels or abrupt changes such as tectonic uplift. Replacement of a substrate type (e.g., mud, sand, gravel) that a particular invertebrate taxon relies upon may occur as erosion increases or decreases, which may be tied to changes in sea level, wave fetch patterns, and/or sediment sources located elsewhere along the shoreline. Some invertebrates are dependent upon lower intertidal kelp beds, particularly sea urchin whose health is directly connected to the health and abundance of kelp beds that are sensitive to sedimentation (Shaffer et al. 2004:14). A reduction in the abundance and individual size of blue mussels is attributed by Quileute elders to changes in nutrient availability, nor are certain kinds of chiton seen at the same numbers as they were in the past (Shaffer et al. 2004:15). In some cases, non-Native recreational harvest of certain invertebrate taxa has also likely contributed to their decline, as in the case of littleneck and butter clams between La Push and the mouth of the Hoh River (Shaffer at al. 2004:16). Given anticipated climate change over the coming decades that will entail changes in sea level, as well as temperature, salinity, and acidification of marine waters, this traditional resource will likely undergo negative biological impacts. Utilization of a diverse array of shellfish taxa and various invertebrate habitats has been a hallmark of traditional harvest, which may mitigate the effects of climate change to some extent.


Traditional use of fish by the Quileute includes species considered ecological keystones, such as salmon (chinook, coho, and sockeye; less so the steelhead in treaty times, although extensively today) and smelt (surf smelt and night smelt especially) (Powell et al. 1996:I-16; Powell et al. 1998:B26), and other commercially important species such as halibut and black cod (sablefish). Other taxa that have received less attention by industry and fisheries scientists were still important sources of food and bait, such as sculpin and surfperch. The archaeological record, as seen at Ozette and La Push, suggests focus on harvesting fish in the open water. The small numbers of herring identified at Ozette and smelt at La Push indicate a recovery bias that likely does not reflect the importance of these small keystone species that were important prey for humans, as well as larger fish and sea mammals (Huelsbeck 1994a; Wessen 2006). Ethnohistoric observations and ethnographic studies indicate that anadromous fish, principally salmon (primarily Chinook and coho), were an important component of the traditional economy. The places along rivers where fish were harvested were named and identified with specific families, with rapids being the focal fishing places. The traditional fishing practice included a variety of traps, tools, and nets. Fish were smoked for storage using vine maple or alder (Ray 1954). Other fish noted in ethnographic research include steelhead, halibut, flounder, cod, sturgeon, as well as silver eels (e.g., Ray 1954). Fish that were caught in the open ocean were harvested using a variety of different lines and hooks. Today, black cod and halibut are the most important open-water fish for Quileute commercial harvest. Although black cod bones have yet to be identified in shell midden remains along Washington’s outer coast, recent analysis of fish remains elsewhere on the Olympic Peninsula indicate this may be a product of persistent mis-identification on the part of archaeologists (Nims 2016), and that local shell middens may indeed contain a record of pre-contact use of this fish. Response of certain fish taxa to environmental change has been the focus of study by fisheries scientists for decades, although the progress made in understanding patterns such as salmonid return rates and climate forcing mechanisms has yet to be well understood in terms of these patterns’ effects on traditional fisheries. Pre-contact fishing patterns as seen in the archaeological record show general continuity through time in fishing patterns; with differences in fish bone assemblages between houses excavated at Ozette attributed to social differences and contemporaneous families harvesting in different family-owned fishing territories (Huelsbeck 1994a:86). Unpredictable weather makes fishing in the oceans more dangerous; fishermen report that glaciers and icefields on coastal mountain ranges were used as landmarks, and their decline has made traditional navigation more difficult (Papiez 2009).


Traditional use of birds in this region is known from relatively small but taxonomically diverse archaeological assemblages from Ozette and La Push, and passing mention in ethnographic notes. Although interpretations of archaeological data based on specimen counts and meat weight estimates suggest that bird hunting was secondary to sea mammal harvesting and fin-fishing in terms of importance in the seasonal subsistence cycle, their importance in terms of taste and non-food uses is highlighted in ethnohistoric observations (e.g., DePuydt 1994:249; Swan 1869). Pelagic birds, notably albatross, are relatively well-represented in pre-contact Quileute shell middens (Schalk 2014; Wessen 2006), and albatross is specifically mentioned by James Swan as a species given to him by a Quileute chief (Boxberger testimony, US v Washington, Subproceeding 09-1, 3/12 Tr. pp. 112:25- 114:7). Because their traditional territory includes the major ecotone where open ocean meets the rivers, prairies, wetlands and uplands of the Olympic Peninsula, the Quileute had access to waterfowl and other resident birds available year-round as well as birds that usually spend their time well out over the open ocean or trans-continental migration routes. Bird species reported as prey include ducks (including shaggy ducks), geese, grouse, as well as gulls as sources of eggs. Migratory bird hunting began in May, and these were shot with arrows or snared, while gull eggs were collected in June, especially from the offshore islands. The more local archaeological bird bone assemblages show a variety of species that served the needs for food, as well as bones, feathers, and other anatomical parts for making tools, clothing, and other items. However, these assemblages do not shed light on changes in bird procurement or the health of their populations over time (DePuydt 1994; Duncan 1981). Some bird taxa have historically become more abundant, but as a result of environmental change and not in a way that benefits traditional subsistence. For example, some Canada geese have become resident to the region as farmland has increased and provide a year-round source of food for the geese (Shaffer et al. 2004:27).

Marine Mammals

Marine mammals have always played a central role in traditional lifeways of the Quileute and other northern coastal Washington Tribes, setting these groups apart from other Native groups in Washington and the southern Northwest Coast. Marine mammals, most notably whales and fur seals, are well-represented in both the local archaeological and ethnographic records, and have been the focus of modern fisheries biologists for several decades. For these reasons, the relationship between coastal Washington Native peoples and marine mammal resources is perhaps one of the most informative lines of evidence for traditional adaptations to environmental change. Archaeological data sets provide insight into change over time in the methods and targets of traditional sea mammal harvest. The Ozette assemblage is the largest and most thoroughly studied archaeological assemblage of marine mammal bones in the region (e.g., Gustafson 1968; Huelsbeck 1994a), although the shell midden at La Push exhibits the same general taxonomic profile indicating a focus on marine mammals including fur seals and whales (Duncan 1981; Reagan 1917). Archaeological and ethnographic evidence demonstrates over 900 years of regular fur sealing up to 50 miles offshore by the Quileute people. Over 90% of the mammal bones in the La Push midden are fur seal bones (Wessen 2006). Fur seal biology demonstrates a centuries-old migratory path 30- 60 miles offshore of the Washington coast (Trites and Roberson 2014). Ethnohistoric observations and ethnographic studies indicate that the Quileute were a renowned whaling group, and that whaling was an extremely important activity in the traditional economy and “considered the highest occupation” (Andrade 1931; Frachtenberg 1916; Howeattle and Payne 1916). A diverse and technologically sophisticated material culture was used to harvest whales, including canoes, paddles, harpoons, and floats. One of the more iconic whale species along the coast of Washington, the gray whale, was traditionally hunted in May during the seasonal round. Other species, such as finback whales and humpback whales, were also traditionally hunted on an annual basis. The cultural significance of whaling was emphasized by the high degree of ritualized behavior associated with it, and the specific rules which determined the sharing of the meat with those who contributed to the hunt (Frachtenberg 1916; Singh 1966:44,79). Alongside whaling, harvest of sea lions, hair seals, sea otters, and porpoises was an important part of the traditional economy (Singh 1966). They were usually harvested from March to July during the seasonal round. There was an important spiritual component to sealing, such as avoidance of certain foods on the part of the sealer, which was as important as mastery of equipment and skill in pursuing these prey.

Terrestrial Mammals

Harvesting of terrestrial mammals was an important part of the traditional economy of the Quileute and other Tribes on the Olympic Peninsula. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence suggest the importance of some of these species, such as elk, deer and bear, were seasonally hunted and interwoven within the social fabric of Quileute culture (Ray 1954). The presence of terrestrial mammal remains in archaeological shell midden deposits confirm hunting forays along the coast and into the interior to capture mammals both large (bear, elk, and deer) and small (e.g., beaver, raccoon), but in much smaller proportions than marine mammals. As noted above, some of this may be from the various biases inherent in data only available from coastal shell midden deposits.

Ethnohistoric observations and ethnographic studies contribute additional insight on traditional use of land mammals. They indicate that elk were hunted with bows, traps, and were also driven, and their meat was dried. Deer hunting areas have been identified, and sometimes associated with specific families. Elk and blacktail deer were traditionally hunted from June to August using bows, arrows, drives, and snares (Singh 1966: 65), and elk hides were trade items and used to construct temporary hunting shelters. An effort was made to hunt elk near canoe landings, for ease of transport back to camps and villages. Mature elk were preferred for their higher quantities of fat; elk hunting required spiritual expertise and assistance. Deer and bear were also trapped, with specialized deadfalls designed for bear in the late fall (Singh 1966: 42). The meat of elk, deer, and bear was often wind- or sun-dried and sometimes smoked as well, with the fat cut away from the meat to dry separately. Beaver and land otters were speared and caught in creeks and streams in November, often using logs to block the flow of water. Rabbits were also hunted or snared, and their meat was usually eaten fresh.

Hunting in the interior for game such as deer and elk is a traditional lifeway that has persisted even as other subsistence pursuits such as fishing and marine mammal hunting have fluctuated over the past century under shifting federal regulations and reconciliation with treaty rights, as well as from highly visible environmental changes to habitats and prey populations. Still, terrestrial mammals are dependent on habitat stability, and climate change that alters vegetation communities and hydrography has the potential to affect the productivity and accessibility of certain taxa. Changes in forest- and brush-fire regimes, for example, can cause prairie habitats and their ecotonal margins near woodlands to expand or contract, which may attract browsing ungulates such as deer and elk if prairies expand, or make them less aggregated and harder to hunt when forests encroach upon prairies.

Importance of Plants

Most cultures south of the Arctic rely on plant resources in at least equal parts as on animals, and the the peoples of the outer coast of Washington are no exception. Plants have traditionally provided food, fuel, medicine, and (especially in the case of cedar) the raw material for making everything from houses and canoes to baskets and lengths of cordage.

 The importance of plant resources in the seasonal cycle is reflected in the traditional Quileute calendar, with some of the phases from March through early September named for particular plants (Powell and Morganroth 1998:3-4). As noted above, the archaeological record tends to underrepresent the importance of plants in Native subsistence, material culture, and other traditions. The Ozette site is an exceptional 25 archaeological case study, combining singular preservation conditions with a comprehensive analysis not only of subsistence plant remains but also the vast and sophisticated material culture made from wood and fibre (Gill 1983).

Ethnographic accounts provide a much richer picture of traditional plant use. The harvest of plants for food began in approximately March, which is called xitsxits'aliktiy’at', or "skunk cabbage getting days."2 Roots were harvested with a four-foot digging stick, often with a handle mounted to it; when sun-dried on mats, edible roots could be kept up to a year. The primary root was camas, which was harvested in the prairies in the spring, and then dried and sometimes traded (Wray 1997: 24). Ferns were also important and harvested from November to April, and included bracken, swordferns, ladyfems, woodfem, as well as licorice fern. 

Berries were harvested near prairies, including salmonberry, red huckleberry, blue huckleberry, salalberry, thimbleberry, strawberry, elderberries, lowbush cranberry, trailing blackberries, the introduced Himalayan blackberry, gooseberry, crabapples, stink currants, rose hips, and Oregon grape. Berries were eaten raw, cooked with other foods or by steaming in earth ovens covered with wet skunk cabbage, or by dried. Preserved berries were then stored in baskets of hemlock or cedar bark. Salalberries could be mashed into cakes and dried.

Other plants traditionally eaten included clover roots, buttercup, tiger lily, horsetail, cattails, wild lettuces, and wild parsnip, and beargrass, Devil’s club, Nootka rose, various mushrooms, and cascara. Skunk cabbage and cascara bark were used medicinally; the former also used as a means of cooking and serving food. Wild lily of the valley was used for an eye wash.

Trees, most notably western red cedar, were an important source of wood for canoes and bark for shelter and clothing. The wood, bark, needles, and roots of hemlock, spruce and fir were also commonly used. Red alder was used to smoke meat and fish, and the flexible and usually straight branches of vine maple were ideal for many tools and traps (e.g., Ray 1954; Reagan 1934). 

Plants, similar to many invertebrates and schooling fish such as herring and smelt, are an ecological foundation at the bottom of the food chain, providing sustenence to almost every kind of animal, including humans. Major changes in vegetation communities on the Olympic Peninsula since the end of the Ice Age have been inferred from a variety of paleoecological data, and hypothetical changes in human land use have been modeled from these reconstructions (e.g., Schalk 1988). Unfortunately, the archaeological data have yet to be generated with either the time-depth or resolution to meaningfully test this model.

shutterstock_300666986 (1).png
Untitled design (17).png

Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Many aspects of traditional hunting and fishing dramatically changed in the 1900s. Through these changes and new adaptations, ethnographers and government representatives who work with the Quileute have noted a high degree of cultural continuity from the time of earliest contact, exemplified by the celebration of a First Salmon Ceremony (e.g., Gunther 1926; Wray 1997:112). The Quileute fished and hunted on a regular basis in treaty times at least as far north as Cape Alava and at least as far south as the Queets River, and used offshore islands, as well1 (Figure 2). Despite both political and economic changes, many Quileute people continue to live on their reservation at the mouth of the Quillayute River. It should be assumed that regardless of where they live, Quileute people continue to maintain a deep tie to their homeland and its constituent environments and plant and animal species.

bottom of page