The Chinooks; Indians of the Lower Columbia

By Don MacGillivray

Oregon Native American tribes circa 1800

Imagine evergreen forests and meadow where wild game roam, streams teeming with fish, a mild climate, snow capped mountains and the Pacific Ocean. To Native Americans, the lower Willamette Valley was a garden.

In and around the Portland area several groups of Native Americans speaking the Chinook tongue lived along both sides of the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean to Celilo Falls east of The Dalles. They had a difficult language with guttural, clicking sounds and very few vowels.

A branch of the Chinooks, called the Multnomahs, lived on Sauvie Island and on the banks of nearby rivers. They were peaceful people whose livelihood revolved around salmon fishing, and trading furs, fish and handmade items. In winter they lived in cedar plank lodges that housed three or four families. In summer months, they would go where the food was plentiful and in season. Men wore luxurious robes of animal pelts that reached to the mid thigh. Women wore similar robes that came to their waist and skirts made of shredded cedar bark.

The chief had control over the village, but his power did not extend to other villages. On occasion, chiefs met in conference, but no binding decisions could be made. There were important class distinctions. Birth determined one’s social position within the tribe. Upper castes included shamans, warrior leaders, and successful traders.

At birth, the Chinook tribes would flatten the heads of their  infants when the infants were between the ages of three and twelve months. Two flattening boards were firmly secured to the child’s head at the appropriate angles. No pain or injury occurred in this procedure. A flat elongated head was an indication of beauty and high social status.

Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries disease struck the Northwest tribes with devastating results. Native American populations were reduced to only about twenty percent of their 1750 population due to out breaks of smallpox, measles, and malaria. Through this period the power and influence of tribal chiefs increased as the losses caused challenges. Very rough estimates of the population in eleven of the Chinooks tribes over time are: in 1780 there were about 20,000 natives, in 1805 the number was reduced to about 12,000; then in 1850 only 4,000 survived. By 1910 there were only 1,000 remaining.

The Chinooks depended entirely on the abundance of the land, air, and water for their livelihood. The area provided them with deer, elk, bear, and numerous smaller animals that could be used for food and clothing. Birds in their diet included geese and ducks among others. Natives were excellent fishermen and a major part of their diet included the five species of salmon that traveled down the Columbia River several times a year.

Native Americans of the Willamette Valley had an abundance of edible wild plants. The best known of these was the wappato. It is a variety of arrowroot available year round in the wetlands of Sauvie Island. Collected by women whose toes separated bulbs from the roots and then popped to the water’s surface and collected in their canoes. The wappato bulbs are about the size and shape of a hen’s egg and were either boiled or roasted.

Camas was another mainstay is of Natives. It was an edible bulb that grew in abundance in nearby meadows. Camas or Quanmash is from the lily family and its bulb is spherical similar to a small onion. When baked it has the flavor, color, and sweetness of a chestnut. Other commonly used plants were: yampah, skunk cabbage, the dog-tooth violet, Indian thistle, stinging nettle, Indian lettuce, mushrooms, and others. Fruits and berries were plentiful.

In winter, the Chinooks told stories around the fire in their lodges. It was both a form of spiritual education and entertainment. Stories were told about the creation of the world, the origin of fire and the great deluge. They believed nature was made up of spirits including: wind, water, plants, animals, air,, storms, salmon, sun, sky and many other things. All spirits had supernatural powers and human characteristics, both good and evil. Eelaborate festivals and feasts occurred with dancing and gift giving. These activities would extend to nearby villages and went on late into night.

Their legacy is that of a placid, thriving society that never fully revealed their complex culture and lifestyle that played an important part in the settling of early Oregon.. These days Native Americans have assimilated into Oregon’s communities or live on nearby reservations.

The Chinooks; Indians of the Lower Columbia

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