Chinookan Ethnohistory

(From the upcoming “Tribal Stories of Western Oregon”)

The Chinookan peoples inhabited the middle and lower Columbia River from just above The Dalles to the Pacific Ocean. In addition, they occupied several miles upriver of the tributaries to the Columbia, and had communities that extended up the Pacific coastline north of the Columbia. They were politically organized like most tribes in the area, with autonomous villages lead by one or more chiefs and headmen. The village leaders may have the loyalty of several smaller villages in their area, and controlled all the natural resources in their claimed territory.

On the lower Columbia area, from the Cascades to the Pacific were a number of larger tribes, Cascades, Clackamas, Multnomah, Skilloot, Clatsop, and Chinook at Bay Center. These major tribes were politically aligned with other major tribes in the region through kinship. Intermarriage between the peoples of all of these tribes and bands was part of the culture. Intermarriage maintained peaceful relations and good trade relations throughout the region.

The Chinookans guarded their territory from tribes of other cultures who coveted the vast fishing resources and trade opportunities of the Columbia. The neighboring tribes, like the Cowlitz, Klickitat, Kalapuyans, Tillamook and Clatskanie, all had trade relations with the Chinook tribes, and many were also married into the Chinookan families, a necessary way that they could gain access to the wealth of the Columbia.

The Chinookans are generally known for  their extensive trade region and their advanced maritime development. They had master carvers who constructed longhouses, and ceremonial artwork, as well as built large western style canoes. These canoes were constructed to be fast, carry many people, hold lots of cargo, and large enough to enter the Pacific Ocean for trade with coastal tribes or to hunt whales.

Some of the Chinookan tribes signed onto treaties which were eventually ratified by Congress. These tribes, Skilloot, Cascades, Clackamas, Multnomah, signed the Willamette Valley treaty with the intent to be removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. Between 1855 and 1856, many changes occurred in Oregon such that plans changed, resulting in some tribal peoples not being sent to the reservation. Some people opted to remain in their lands, some women intermarried with colonists and remained, while others (Cascades) were split up among different reservations in Oregon and Washington states. A good number of Chinookan tribes beyond Oak Point on the Columbia River, Chinook and Clatsop, their treaties were never ratified and their status as tribes remains unrecognized today.

Find other articles about the Chinookans on my blog, and please donate to help me buy coffee to continue this work.