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Outside the Ethnographic Box: Native Trade Networks

Its important for people today to understand how extensively the tribes in the region traded and traveled. Native peoples generally traveled in annual routes about their homelands and traveled river highways, and overland trails to far away tribes to form partnerships, arrange marriages and access resources they did not have in their region.

First, its  important to understand how attitudes and understandings about native trade have been heavily shaped by the history of anthropology. In the early days of anthropology, many anthropologists assumed that tribes remained in small areas adjacent to their villages. That they did not travel much or trade extensively. This was a common understanding and taught in various ways in universities. As such, this early theory dis-empowered native peoples and histories for generations. Natives were not seen as advancing much beyond the stone age, and written about as savages “wandering” about the land. Anthropologists today may defend that theory stating that the previous generations of anthropologists simply had a poor word choice, yet the impression and randomness of wandering has done its damage by leaving lasting impressions on generations of people. Then, notions about native people having no concept of land ownership adds to their characterizations, as well as ideas like, Natives had no words for the future, did not have  counting systems, did not have organized governments and laws, and the like, really added quite a bit of incorrect “knowledge” to people’s understandings of Native people. Native people (all of the tribes) absolutely had counting systems, seasonal calendars, well developed systems of governance, and well defended systems of land and resource ownership.

Masted ships in the Northwest, part of the fur trade

Masted ships in the Northwest, part of the fur trade

When presented with evidence of extensive trade, like the existence of Indian trade jargons, many scholars theorized that Indians could not have developed such a trade jargon or the trade network it implied. They instead have held that the birth of the trade languages was solely with white contact. This to me is an example of a bias Eurocentric viewpoint, where many early scholars assume that native peoples could not have developed beyond their immediate area without the advent of European colonization. However dismissive the theory is to Native agency, the theory, still holds weight today in many linguistic circles.

Languages take centuries to develop, and languages like Chinook Jargon, which incorporates words from many Indian and non-native languages, much have taken a good amount of time to develop. Clearly fur and whale traders in the region would spread the jargon further that ever in the 19th century, but the jargon was first created for the extensive native trade networks. Many native leaders made a practice of learning the languages of their neighbors, and using the jargon as well. Some of the original chiefs at the Grand Ronde Reservation are documented as speaking about 10 languages, many of the neighboring dialects, as well as Chinook Jargon and later French and English when they needed to. (At the Grand Ronde Reservation, Chinook Jargon became a first language in the households and it creolized and now considered a full language we call Chinuk Wawa, meaning talking chinook.)

James Swan, two canoes and a paddle

James Swan, two canoes and a paddle

The Columbia River and Coastal zones from the Northwest Coast to California, from the Plains to the Pacific was just such a trade network. The Columbia was the highway of the trade, which really allowed the trade to develop and expand. This network was in existence well before Columbus was conceived, and probably has been in operation for thousands of years. There are actually two trade languages which were used in the network, the other being Indian sign language.

George Catlin, Buffalo Hunt

George Catlin, Buffalo Hunt

In the east-west trade corridor, the Nez Perce (Niimipu) Cayuse, Umatilla and Palouse  would  travel into the American Plains and hunt bison. The Nez Perce would return to their Wallowa homelands to fish for salmon on the Columbia and tributaries, and the other tribes did the same in their homelands. Their seasonal rounds are perhaps the largest ever recorded with travel two times annually over the Rockies on foot. Later, sometime in the 17th century when the horse was traded into American Indian tribes by the Spanish, the horse made it easier and faster to travel this route. This brought the products of the Plains into the Columbia River trade network, so while Bison were not west of the Rockies for centuries, perhaps several thousand years (they went extinct here) their hides and other parts would enter the trade network.


Columbia River Canoe

Similarly, tribes from Vancouver Island would gather dentalium shells by the thousands from the bottom of the ocean. They would rake the shells from the Ocean floor and trade these shells as decorative and wealth goods into the regional trade networks. The trade down the Coast to California, into the Columbia to as far as the Dakotas carried the mollusk far. Many tribes in the region would string the dentalium into arms-length strings and they would be used as Indian money.

Elkhorn purse to store the dentalium money

Elkhorn purse to store the dentalium money

Measuring the Dentalia money string

Measuring the Dentalia money string

Tribes in Northern California would carve elkhorn purses to carry their money. Tribes in the Dakota region would adorn their regalia with thousands of shells in elegant and decorative and ceremonial fashions. Evidence of dentalium trade to the Great Lakes and perhaps as far as Mexico exist. The question of whether all the dentalium came from Vancouver Island area is important as dentalium worldwide lives in many areas, in various varieties. the limiting factor is whether the local native people knew how to harvest the mollusk in their area if it exists.

Dentallium gathering

Dentallium gathering

Olivella shells and white clam disk shells from California have been found in Oregon. The shaped olivella were sanded traded up the networks into southern Oregon. So trade in the reverse was also common. One direction that trade items  traveled was from The Dalles, Celilo. Celilo may have been the largest hub of trade in the Northwest. There the rocky cascades of the Columbia created a perfect fishing area to capture many thousands of salmon each year in several seasonal runs. Wasco and Wishram Indians would set wooden scaffolds out over the cascading waters and use long dip nets to capture salmon.  Families owned fishing site rights and would normally not allow others to use their site without some payment.  The economy around salmon was so vibrant that this resource activity may have rivaled many intensified agricultural areas for the production of protein to  sustain a large population of humans. From Celilo are an extensive number and diversity of tribes and villages radiating all along the rivers.

Trade Blank by Don Day

Trade Blank by Don Day

The Molalla, lived in the Cascades and would travel to Celilo and trade for the salmon with products they had gotten from southern reaches, like California. The salmon they traded for was the wind dried salmon prepared by women in large scaffolds. The Salmon fillets would dry in the wind and once prepared would keep for a long time, some say many years, if stored correctly. The Molalla and tribes like the Klickitat, who were hunters mainly, added to the network forest and mountain products. Elk skins and parts, obsidian trade blanks from Cascade quarries, and basketry from the Klamath Lake region.

Klamath indians, Wocus gatherers and canoes

Klamath indians, Wocus gatherers and canoes

Trade into the Willamette valley would first have to pass through the chief traders of the Clatsops near Astoria, and the Sauvie Island, Wappato Island Indians (some say these were Multnomahs). The principal trading areas for the Willamette was at Willamette Falls, where, similar to Celilo, and the Cascades of the Columbia , the tribes clustered about the falls to seasonally capture and wind dry salmon in extensive quantities. The tribes in these contexts also offered services to travelers, laborers to portage the falls and guides and scouts for traveling parties. There are extensive records of these services being accessed by British and American travelers, but this would have been a common service offered to tribal travelers unfamiliar with the regions they were traveling through. All such services were available for a price.

Abalone, courtesy of Central Coast biodiversity. org

Abalone, courtesy of Central Coast biodiversity. org

Ocean products entered the network from the ocean front Chinookan tribes, the Salish and others who lived in the region. Tillamookan peoples of the north Oregon coast would bring whale and ocean products into the Columbia network and return to their villages with unique, perhaps exotic, products from the Columbia trading centers. Ocean front communities would also have ocean drift goods to trade; the flotsam from a shipwrecks, bits of metals, ceramics, porcelains, glass, coppers, and beeswax would be found on beaches. These would be useful wealth items of an exotic nature to enter the trade network.

Chief Comcomly, Paul Kane Drawing

Chief Kiesno, Multnomah  Paul Kane Drawing

The factor that made much of the trade network operate, besides language, was kinship relations. Tribes in the region practiced exogamous marriage, where it was important, necessary, and tribal law to marry outside of the tribe. Such marriages may be arranged at trade centers once suitable partners were found, between members of high-born families. It was important to marry your sons and daughters and perhaps sisters to important partners in other tribes to get good trade relations between tribes. Then by all tribes being intermarried, this would tend to keep the peace between tribes. Chinookan chiefs like Comcomley and Kiesno were masters of this practice and were extensively intermarried within other important tribes. Kiesno was able to call for allegiance a number of tribes on the Columbia and into the Willamette Valley and did so to protect his territory in his day.

Chief Comcomly or Concomly (1765 – 1830) was a Native American chief of the Chinookan people.

Chief Comcomly or Concomly (1765 – 1830) was a Native American chief of the Chinookan people.

Comcomly was a master at marrying his daughters to fur traders in the 19th century fur trade on the Columbia. By doing so he acquired favorable trading rights with Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Fur Traders.  Thus exogamous marriage linked all tribes in the region together in some fashion. The Cascades and the Clackamas were well interrelated in this fashion and while they were autonomous tribal regions and villages, they could count on each other for support, for trade relations, and for access to favored fishing sites when they needed. They were so closely related that they were both called Tumwater Indians in the 1850s and spoke the same dialect of Chinook language.


Many products were traded around the network. The master cedar carvers of the Chinookan tribes on the Columbia would carve large western canoes (Chinook Canoes) designed for large waterways and for hunting whales. These canoes were highly prized and tribal leaders and chiefs would want to acquire one. They were highly valued trade items. Woven products like basketry, tule and cattail mats would be traded extensively. Dogs and horses were subject to be eaten by hungry travelers (ie: Lewis and Clark expedition).

Likely Salmon club (not a war club as labelled) Portland Art Museum, Nuu-chah-nulth artist (Nuu-chah-nulth), War club, before 1917, whale bone, Museum Purchase: Indian Collection Subscription Fund, Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Indian Art, , 48.3.317

Likely Salmon club (not a war club as labelled) Portland Art Museum, Nuu-chah-nulth artist (Nuu-chah-nulth), War club, before 1917, whale bone,  Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Indian Art, , 48.3.317

Ceremonial Stone or bone clubs were normally used to pacify the salmon once caught. A whalebone club at OMSI originated from the upper northwest (because of the carved artwork on it) and was found historically among the local tribes on the Columbia. It was common that these ceremonial artifacts would be part of the extensive trade networks of the region. Many products from far way were traded into the Columbia, and products from here were traded elsewhere. Its important to get out of the box of thinking that the tribes here did not travel much outside their areas. Native people knew of peoples far away and passed on their names to early anthropologists. Many tribes would travel hundreds of miles to access primary trading partners. The rivers were literally highways of trade and intercourse.

The region was alive with trade from the upper northwest to California, from the Plains to the Pacific. The Native political economy was very broad and involved hundreds of tribes. The trade networks extended  from the Canadian Rockies to the Klamath basin. Early scientific notions about Indians still appear in our society but many of them are stubborn and inaccurate representations of Native culture and history and lifeways. Critical analysis of such statements are necessary always.

Categories: columbia river Oregon indians Uncategorized Willamette Valley

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Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD

PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.

I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.

3 replies

  1. Thanks for listing many of the trade items in the PacNW; but any such list without mention of the extensive trade in slaves is incomplete. The Chinook, in particular, were major slave traders, often dealing with slaves brought from the Haida. It was common to ship slaves long distances so that they’d be far from home and less likely to try and escape.

    It’s also worth noting that when Lewis and Clark hit the continental divide, they were met by Columbia River Indians wearing parts of British sailor uniforms.


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