Chifin Kalapuya Village

Before settlers to Oregon, before the imposition of the names of Springfield and Eugene on the land, there were native villages named by the Kalapuya peoples. Nearly all of these villages began with the syllable Cha- or Tsa-  and where spread throughout the Willamette valley.

The name Chifin (Chafin, Chiffin) is a Kalapuya village name at the junction of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Described as being about the site of Eugene City. Chifin Kalapuya Indians were a sub-village likely related to the Santiam Kalapuya Tribes. Their neighbors being the Pe-u (Mohawk), Chelamela, Winnefelly, Yoncalla and Calapooia at Brownsville. Chifin may have been a village of the Pe-u or Winnefelly. The Chifin signed the Treaty of the Willamette Valley in January of 1855 as the Chafin.

emmons party fording Yamhill river
Emmons Survey party Fording the Yamhill River, 1841


Kalapuya sub-villages were common throughout the Willamette Valley, each sub-village being its own autonomous political unit, somewhat associated with the neighboring Kalapuya tribes. Marriages between other Kalapuya tribes, bands and villages was common, with many marriages arranged for political and economic reasons. It was common for the Kalapuya to find marriage partners within other tribes, like the Chinook, Molalla, or Alsea. Marriage outside of the tribe was a tribal law with tribal headmen and chiefs making many arrangements based on desired political or economic situations.

The Kalapuya occupied key junctions of the rivers on an annual basis, normally having a permanent winter village in a secure location above the floodplain and seasonal fishing and gathering villages further down the rivers in key locations. Most villages were located right on the water’s edge so that canoe use was easy and efficient. The junction of the Willamette and McKenzie was one of these locations.

Smelt (ooligan) Fish, Lewis and Clark Journals 1806

The villages were situation along rivers allowing easy canoe access, and big enough waterways to float a canoe. Many villages would be situated next to important resources. Wapato growing areas would host 20 or more villages, while fishing location may have several villages nearby. Canoes served the tribes of the region as their efficient means of transportation and for carrying goods from the gathering fields to the main trading villages. The trading villages were downriver at the falls where other tribes had primary rights to salmon fishing. These key centers would attract goods from the coast, inland prairies and high desert in exchange for fresh, smoked or dried salmon, lamprey, sturgeon, or ooligan smelt. Kalapuya tribes would harvest vast amounts of camas and wapato, cook the tubers and bulbs in underground ovens and pack the cooked mass to Willamette Falls in exchange for exotic trade products or salmon.

Camas was a primary staple of the Kalapuya Indians. Camas is a lily relative with a nutritious bulb. The plant blooms in May throughout the Willamette Valley on the valley floor. The flowers colors range from deep purple to blue to white depending on the soil nutritional content. Two main varieties of camas grow in the Willamette Valley. White flower camas is normally associated with Death Camas. Death Camas is not a camas variety at all but instead looks like camas when in bloom, the bulbs and main stalks are different. There is a variety of white camas which is normal camas, with a white flower. Culturally the tribes would weed out the death camas from the fields during bloom so that no mistaken roots from the death camas would be ingested.

Camas meadow among Oak Trees, Bush Park, Salem Oregon, 2013
Camas meadow among Oak Trees, Bush Park, Salem Oregon, 2013

Camas is normally dug with digging sticks to a depth of usually 6 inches or less. The digging sticks would be made from hardened iron wood, with an antler handle. Camas fields which are regularly tended allow the camas bulbs to grow to a large size in a few years. People digging camas would only keep the biggest bulbs and throw the small ones back into the hole. Camas fields would be regularly burned, along with the regular field burning of the Kalapuya tribes.

Camas would be gathered in great quantities in the mid-summer. Once gathered a long shallow pit would be dug in the ground. Rocks would be well heated over a fire then placed in the bottom of the pit. The pit would be layered with leaves, bows and camas bulbs, then covered with dirt to create a reduction oven. The camas would bake in the pit for 3 or 4 days, then uncovered. The sweet caramelized camas bulbs would be gathered, the starches in the bulbs now turned to a protein useable by humans. Uncooked camas was not eaten, as it will cause extreme gastric pain and gas.

In other times camas could be boiled in a water filled cooking basket, and then available for eating in about a half hour. The bulbs would turn to a spongy consistency similar to potatoes or pasta. The prairies around Chifin were full of camas, and much camas still grow in the region today.

Kalapuya Man, South of Eugene area, Wilkes expedition, 1841
Kalapuyan Man, South of Eugene area, Wilkes expedition, 1841

The Kalapuyans also hunted and fished and traded for other foods. They would make regular, annual excursions into the Cascades to meet with other tribes for trading and to pick berries and gather weaving materials. The Pe-u, Winefelly and Santiam had vast homelands in the Cascade foothills which are well represented on maps created in the 1850s.

The Kalapuya in the Eugene area would be subject to raids from the Molalla and Klamath for slaves and wives. The other tribes would come down from the Casacades on the Klamath trail and raid the villages, then attempt to escape into the Cascades again. The Yoncalla were subject to such raids and one is documented in Jesse Applegate’s book “The Yangoliers”. Chief Halo of the Yoncallas woke one day to such a raid. Men of the Yoncalla followed the kidnappers, and caught them in the Cascades, returning the girl to the tribe.

In 1856 all of the Kalapuya tribes were removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. There they settled in with some 27-35 tribes of western Oregon.




One thought on “Chifin Kalapuya Village

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal