Nichaqwali Watlala peoples at Blue Lake

The Nichaqwali people, a Cascades/Watlala Chinookan band, lived at the juncture of several cultural groups that lived in the larger region of the lower Columbia and who interacted along the Columbia River and at what is now called Blue Lake. The village itself sits within the territories of two major ethnographic tribes on the Columbia, the Cascades (Watlata) and the Clackamas.  The village was documented by Lewis and Clark who traveled on the Columbia River in 1805-1806.

April 2, 1806-  The party was camped at the Quicksand River [Sandy] encampment. and on the embarkment of Clark to go to the Multnomah [Willamette] river his party would pass 2 villages of people, the small village of Ne-cha-co-lee people [named so by his Pilot, who lived there], which was on the south side of Diamond Island [Government Island]. “At 3 pm they landed at Ne-er-che-ki-oo tribe of the Shahala Nation [Watlala-Cascades] at a large double house [2 pitch roof?] … at this place we had seen 24 additional straw huts [Mat Houses or summer seasonal houses?]  as we passed down last fall [ V.3, p193], and whom as I have before mentioned residing at the Great Rapids of the Columbia [Cascades].” On the bank at different places, I observed small canoes [river canoes or special small canoes for gathering?] which the women make use of to gather wappato & roots in the Slashes [tule and cattail stands?]. Those canoes are from 10 to 14 feet long and from 18 to 23 inches wide in the widest part tapering from the center to both ends in this form and about 9 inches deep and so light that a woman may with one hand haul them with ease, and they are sufficient to carry a woman and some loading. I think 100 of these canoes were piled up and scattered in different directions about the woods, in the vicinity of this house. The Pilot informed me that those canoes were the property of the inhabitants of the Grand Rapids [Cascades] who used them occasionally to gather roots.” (Thwaites, Lewis and Clark Journals, volume 4: 234-237)

Clark’s Map of the Great Raids of the Columbia, from Thwaites volume 4

It’s likely that the Blue Lake people were those of the village of Ne-cha-co-lee , and that they are related through kinships to the Ne-er-che-ki-oo tribe and that they are all part of the Cascades Watlala peoples.  Clark and his party engaged in some trade at the village before exploring the Multnomah [Willamette], and they at first refused to trade with him then he gained Wapato by scaring the tribe with a chemical fire trick. The Natives appeared to give him wapato to get him to leave and stop scaring them.

Section of Clark Map showing village of Ne-cha-co-lee at Blue Lake, a lake that the party did not see.

Lewis and Clark’s connection made in their account between the Ne-er-che-ki-oo tribe and the Cascades-Watlala is significant. In other accounts the Cascades are said to use one of the islands as their winter encampment, perhaps Government Island, and they had significant kinship connections with the Clackamas. Their stashing of numerous canoes here and the wealth of wapato in the sloughs and lakes in the area suggest that the Ne-er-che-ki-oo tribal village was a seasonal habitation for the Cascades to gather Wapato.

Ne-er-che-ki-oo tribal village- noticed by the expedition in 1806. Beineke Digital Collection

All accounts point to the disruption of this tribe with first smallpox in around 1780, corresponding to a time period following Captain Robert Gray’s landing on the Columbia at the coast in 1790. But the most destriction was in the 1830s with the disease called fever and ague, identified as malaria by Robert Boyd (The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence 1999). Their full demise may be attributed to Malaria because of few or no accounts of the tribe surface for later periods. Like other tribes, they likely were reduced by 90% and the smaller remnant survivors had to move into the main village for safety and companionship. This main village area would be the Great Rapids, ie: the Cascades and/or the Clackamas villages at Willamette Falls.


1946 map Oregonian

Immediately after the epidemics, the Columbia River became somewhat empty of Native peoples and other more inland Native groups began moving in and taking over abandoned villages seeking trade and salmon. Tribes and bands of the Klickitat and Cowlitz are documented as moving into Chinookan villages and establishing themselves in this time period. For Blue Lake, there is documented evidence that a Klickitat native Chief John moved to Blue Lake and established himself. Scholars of the region suggest that records about Chief John exist in local heritage archives. This historic settlement deepens the native context quite a bit. Not only are there pre-historic and historic cultural resources at the Blue Lake sites, but there is likely historic evidence of Klickitat colonization at the site.

1907 Blue Lake

In addition to the ethnographic evidence that has yet to be fully researched and documented, there are local historical accounts of the presence of the Nichaqwali people’s village and burial mounds. In a 1907 Oregonian newspaper article, there are mentioned Indian burial mounds (and photos) at Blue Lake. The article imparts local histories from settlers who lived near the village the remainder of their lives after they settled near Blue Lake and claimed pioneer Donation Land Claims. Their perspectives pass on valuable information about these peoples and the location of these major resources. If there is found to be a burial ground at Blue Lake, then there are federal Laws like NAGPRA that would immediately come into effect in order to preserve the site as a Native burial ground.  The possibility of this alone suggests that more efforts need to be expended to find the extent of the village and the burial ground in order to preserve the cultural information according to the Cultural Resource Management laws of the United States and the State of Oregon.

1907 Blue Lake- image is likely the narrow strip of land, [ridge] between Blue and Fairview lakes as described in the 1946 article as lands containing canoe burials
Ethnographic accounts of burials- Several of the farmers living at Blue Lake, remember the tales of their grandparents, who told of finding a great number of skeletons when they were clearing their land. One resident claims that his grandfather spent a week carrying bones off his fields and burning them. “The corpses, instead of being buried in the ground, were placed in a canoe, as this was the common practice among all the Columbian Tribes…. the main burial ground was situated on the ridge separating Blue Lake from Fairview lake… Unfortunately, the earth here has been tilled for many years, and all surface artifacts and human debris, … either has been destroyed or carried away.”

The artifacts from the vicinity suggest the use of fishing nets (net weights), grinding of vegetables (bowl) and grains and hunting (arrowheads), 1946 Oregonian article

These actions by early settlers served to fully destroy the presence of these peoples. The village and their remains perished under the plow and within the bonfires as the settler inscribed the land with their own footprints. Today, much of the land is now under housing development literally on top of the native cemetery.

Blue and Fariview lakes today

In 2005 and 2006 the Grand Ronde Tribe commemorated and memorialized their cultural connection to the Nichaqwali people’s village of Neerchokli with ceremony and carved monuments at Blue Lake (see various Smoke Signals articles). The tribe maintains a cultural connection to the site of this village and there are tribal members who trace their genealogy to people from this village. Members of the tribe that relates to the Multnomah, Clackamas, and Cascades peoples have a direct genealogical connection to this village as all of the peoples in this region of the Columbia River intermarried.

Grand Ronde Cedar Power Poles monument

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