The tribes of the lower Columbia are some dozen tribes of the Chinookan speaking peoples. They were great fishermen and traders, middlemen in the greater Columbia River Trade Network. They wielded huge power in the region and were the wealthiest of tribes. During salmon runs, their towns would swell in population as people came from all over to fish and trade and gamble renewing friendships and associations. The trading sphere and its associations with intermarriages between tribes kept the area in peace for a long time.
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.
A few other tribes can call this their region too. The Clatskanie, an isolated athabaskan speaking tribe south of the Columbia, in the hills and mountains above the Chinookans, the Tualatins, and the Tillamooks. They did not have land on the Columbia but likely heavily traded with the Chinookans and in the historic era integrated with them.
The Klickitat tribes as well used the Columbia extensively. They lived north of the Columbia on the east side of the Cascades, but were great traders and moved around quite a bit in large bands. They also had no land bordering the Columbia, instead up the White Salmon river but were constant traders in the Columbia.
The Cowlitz tribe are considered by many a Columbia river tribe. They lived primarily in the Cowlitz valley and down the Cowlitz river to about 5 miles from the Columbia. During the historic era they came to occupy many of the partially abandoned Chinookan villages. The Chinookans lost many people in the malaria epidemic (1829-1835) and so could not fully occupy all of their traditional villages, these were taken over by Cowlitz, and Klickitat peoples. There developed blended communities in the original Chinookan villages.
The following is a scattering of essays about the Columbia River Region.