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Chinook Quest Opens New Era

by Courtenay Thompson, Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, January 7, 2001

Recognition restores pride to the tribe that played a dominant Northwest role

Two hundred years ago, the banks of the free-flowing Columbia River and the lower Willamette were lit by thousands of campfires, stretching from the Pacific Ocean 200 miles to the roaring cascades near the present-day town of The Dalles.

Each point of light above the dark flowing river marked a home or a village where hand-hewn cedar-plank houses up to 400 years old and 200 feet long sheltered people called the Chinook. These Chinook villages -- independent yet sharing dialects of a common Chinookan language -- dotted the Willamette as well, past present-day downtown Portland as far up as the salmon- and eel-rich fishing grounds at Willamette Falls.

Scholars say that before Western settlers arrived in the early 1800s, these stretches of rivers were home to perhaps the most densely populated settlements in western North America. The wealthy people and their culture were at the heart of the most significant trading network in the West.

"What a sight that would have been," said Cliff Snider, a Southeast Portland man who descends from the group of Chinook who lived near the mouth of the Columbia on the Washington side of the river.

Last week, the U.S. government formally recognized his tribe, the Chinook Indian Tribe. It was nearly 150 years since Washington Territory Gov. Isaac Stevens angrily stormed out of an 1855 treaty council with the Chinook after tribal members refused to leave their Columbia River homeland.

They already had been nearly destroyed by epidemics of smallpox and malaria; Dr. John McLoughlin had estimated as many as 90 percent of Chinooks near Fort Vancouver died in the 1830s epidemics of "fever and ague."

Yet their descendants have persisted.

Some settled at the Grand Ronde reservation. Others -- the upriver Wascos -- are part of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs; the Wishrams on the Yakama reservation.

But with no treaty or agreement with the federal government, the descendants of the lower river Chinook on the north side of the Columbia -- sometimes called Chinook proper -- had existed in a bureaucratic limbo, without a reservation or the rights afforded other federally recognized tribes.

The action Wednesday by U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Gover, who in his words was righting a historical injustice, has brought the historical Chinook tribe into the national spotlight.

Chinook recognition also comes at a time when the upcoming commemoration of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial has placed attention on the Northwest tribe that greeted the explorers at the end of their journey to the Pacific Ocean, a tribe whose skills at trading helped weave them into the international fur trade at the early part of the 19th century.

"They were a crucial linchpin in western North America in transactions and trade, a highly significant group," said Kenneth M. Ames, professor of anthropology at Portland State University.

Strategic situated
The Lower Chinook were strategically positioned at the mouth of the river, with access to tribes up and down the coast, as well as the Chinook living upriver at Celilo, the Northwest trading center that drew Native Americans from as far away as the Great Plains to trade salmon, bone, obsidian, shells, grasses, roots and slaves.

That worked to their advantage after whites moved into the area.

"They were in a position to control a lot of the traffic," said Yvonne Hajda, an independent enthnohistorical researcher in Portland. "So that when the fur traders arrived they could take advantage of their location and capitalize on the Columbia."

They, as did their upriver Chinook-speaking neighbors, also could control access to the rich Columbia fisheries. Tony Johnson, a Chinook language specialist who heads the tribe's cultural committee, says Northwest Native Americans used Chinook jargon, an adaptation of the Chinook language, as a trade language long before Westerners arrived and began speaking it to communicate with the Native Americans.

Their society was highly stratified, with a wealthy upper class that owned slaves traded through a regional market from places such as southern Oregon and northern California.

A tribe of wealth
The Chinook shared and displayed their wealth, which was counted in milky white, curved dentalia shells traded in from the coast off Vancouver Island. With heads flattened by cradleboards, sturdy leather armor and canoes that could haul tons of goods, the Chinook were by all measures powerful in a landscape marked by riches: sturgeon, smelt, salmon, clams, wapato potato, cranberries and huckleberries.

Rick Rubin, a Portland author who wrote "Naked Against the Rain" on the Lower Chinook, said tribes from around the region would flatten their heads of their girls to increase the chances they would marry into the wealthy Chinook tribe.

In 1792, Capt. Robert Gray and his ship, Columbia Rediviva, first encountered the Chinook at the mouth of the Columbia, setting in motion two centuries of rapid, and soon devastating change, for the Chinook and other Northwest tribes.

The Lewis and Clark expedition was both impressed and not all together happy with the Chinook, said Stephen Dow Beckham, the chairman of the history department at Lewis & Clark College who worked 22 years to help the tribe win recognition.

The Chinook gave them food but stole some things as well.

"They were astounded at the quality of their canoes and their skill at wielding them in that big estuary," Beckham said.

One leader, Chief Concomly, became very involved in the fur trade, his wealth and power growing as his women family members intermarried in some cases with the newcomers.

The toll of disease
But between 1800 and 1850, disease decimated the Chinook. During the treaty era of the 1850s, the ancestors of today's Chinook Indian Tribe signed a treaty with the federal government, but the U.S. Senate refused to ratify it. In 1855, they refused to sign a treaty that would have moved them to the Quinault reservation to the north.

Despite the fact the Chinook were left without a reservation, many stayed in their former homeland, generally defined as Washington's Pacific County, an area stretching from the mouth of the Columbia to Willapa Bay, Beckham said. They intermarried with French Canadian trappers and other settlers, but they maintained close social ties through the years.

Chinook tribal members, along with those of eight other Western Washington tribes, were given allotments on the Quinault Reservation. They pursued two land claims against the federal government, built two churches, were sent to federal boarding schools for Native Americans, and adopted a 20th-century constitution and bylaws. They pressed for prosecution when their cemetery was raided in the 1950s. They also fought to regain and rebury the skull of Concomly, which had been stolen and sent to a museum in London earlier in the century as a scientific curiosity.

But Beckham said that without a treaty or land, they fell victim to the 1950s federal policy of termination, when Congress moved to end its relationship with tribes. Legislation terminated most Oregon tribes, including the Chinook on the Oregon side of the Columbia. Similar legislation to terminate Western Washington tribes, including the Chinook, failed.

Seeking recognition
Yet the Chinook tribe found itself shut out of federal benefits. It wasn't until the 1970s, when Beckham and Dennis Whittlesey, an attorney, became involved in a fishing rights case involving the Wahkiakum Chinook, that the effort to restore the tribe took hold.

Tribal leaders once again petitioned the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to be recognized as a tribe eligible for federal money and certain rights afforded tribes.

They were rejected in 1997, but Beckham and Whittlesey renewed a massive effort to present documentation proving the tribe met all the federal criteria for restoration: that the tribe had continued to exist, through history, as a viable political and social unit as a Native American tribe.

Beckham pulled together 1,307 exhibits -- some hundreds of pages long -- as well as genealogies, Bureau of Indian Affairs documents, photographs and enrollment lists. One tribal member went day by day through 40 years of local newspaper clippings, documenting social visits and interactions among tribal members and with the larger community.

Beckham said the Bureau of Indian Affairs is "not in the business of recognizing a descendants' group; it's looking for measures of tribalness, of continuity."

Ames, the PSU anthropologist, called the government's decision to recognize the Chinook "fantastic."

"They were one of the most significant people on the northwest coast," he said. "It gives formal recognition that they do still exist."

2,000 members
Today the tribe has 2,000 enrolled members. Among them is Snider, 74, who says he is the great-great-great-great-grandson of Chief Concomly and the honorary chief of today's Chinook Indian Tribe. He's a retired teacher of 31 years, mostly at Clackamas High School (named, incidentally, for the Chinook who lived near Portland) and a former linebacker, end and quarterback for Oregon State College, which he helped take to the Pineapple Bowl in 1948.

At 6-foot-2, he jokingly says he's a little tall to be a Chinook, who were historically of small stature, with powerful upper bodies to paddle the distinctive black and red cedar canoes at the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River.

His gun cabinet is topped with golf trophies, the side slung with a leather bag containing a ceremonial pipe.

His mother, who attended the federal boarding school at Chemawa, told him as a child not to tell anyone he was Indian. But after fellow athletes in high school found out he was part Indian, they started calling him chief.

It wasn't until he was in his 50s that he discovered he descended directly from the most famous chief among the lower Chinook.

Snider, who has been active in planning for the upcoming commemoration of the Lewis and Clark expedition, says he hopes recognition will bring health care and educational benefits to tribal members, economic opportunity and the chance to come together once again in their homeland, in the eyes of the community, as Chinook.

"We're feeling pretty high right now," Snider said.

Courtenay Thompson
Chinook Quest Opens New Era
The Oregonian, January 7, 2001

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