Chinook (Native Americans of the Northwest Coast)

Chinook (Shin vuk or Chin vuk), one of a group of Chinookan peoples whose branches included Lower Chinookan (or Chinook proper) and Upper Chinookan. The name came from a Chehalis word for the inhabitants of and a particular village site on Baker Bay.

Location Traditionally, the Chinookan peoples lived along the Pacific Coast around the Columbia River Delta and upstream on both sides for about 150 miles. Lower Chinookans included the Shoalwater Chinook (Shoalwater or Willapa Bay and the north bank of the Columbia from Cape Disappointment to Gray’s Bay) and the Clatsop (south bank of the Columbia, from Young’s Bay to Point Adams). Upper Chinookans included the Cathlamet (Grays Bay to Kalama), the Multnomah (Kalama to about Portland and up the Columbia just past Government Island), and the Clackamas (southwest of Portland and roughly along the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers). Today, most Chinooks live in southwestern Washington and scattered around the Pacific Northwest.

Population In 1780, roughly 22,000 Chinookans lived in their territory, a figure that declined to less than 100 in the late nineteenth century. Chinook tribal membership stood at more than 2,000 in 1983.

Language The Chinookan family of Penutian languages was composed of Lower Chinookan (Chinook proper) and Upper Chinookan, which included the languages of Cathlamet, Multnomah, and Kiksht. In the context of historic Northwest Coast trade, "Chinook," or Oregon Trade Language (consisting of elements of Chinookan, Nootkan, French, and English), was considered a trade lingua franca from Alaska to California.

Historical Information

History Although Chinookans may have spotted Spanish ships off the Columbia River delta, it was early Anglo explorers who first encountered and spread smallpox to the Chinook in 1792. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark lived among and wrote about the Clatsops in 1805.

The fur trade began in earnest during the next decade; Astoria was founded in 1811. During the early days of the fur trade, at least, the Indians played key roles. The acquisition of goods such as musket and powder, copper and brass kettles, cloth, tobacco, and other items increased the relative prestige of downriver groups so much that they tried to monopolize trade to the exclusion of their upriver rivals. Native culture began gradually to change, owing mainly to acquisition of manufactured items and to enduring contact between Indians and Anglos.

Shortly after the initial contacts, Indians began to experience severe population declines due to disease. Alcohol-related disease and deaths took a further toll. They abandoned many village sites and consolidated others, particularly around trading sites. The number of potlatches may have increased during this time, as villages had to rerank themselves within the context of the new trading society. By the 1850s, most survivors were being forced, under treaties that were never ratified, to cede their land in exchange for fishing rights. Survivors drifted to area reservations (Chehalis, Siletz, Grande Ronde, Shoalwater) or remained in their homelands.

By the twentieth century, the (Lower) Chinook had so effectively merged with the Lower Chehalis and the Shoalwater Salish that their language essentially passed out of use. Other groups also lost their identities through merger and consolidation. In 1899, the Chinooks, Clatsops, Cathlamets, and Wahkiakums (Upper Chinookans) presented a land claim to the U.S. government. They were awarded $20,000 (for almost 214,000 acres) in 1912. In 1925, the tribe established a business council to pursue its elusive treaty rights. A 1931 U.S. Supreme Court case (Halbert v. U.S.) held that Chinooks and other tribes had formal rights on the Quinault Reservation. Within a few years they had become that reservation’s largest landholders. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), however, blocked their bid to organize a government under the Indian Reorganization Act.

In 1951, the nonreservation Chinookans combined to form the Chinook Nation and press their land claims with the newly created (1946) Indian Claims Commission. Soon, however, and without any official action, the BIA began to treat them as a terminated tribe. In 1971, this group, reconstituted in 1953 as the Chinook Indian Tribe, Inc., received an award of almost $50,000, but no land. Their petition for federal recognition, filed in 1979, is still pending.

Religion All Chinookan males and some females sought guardian spirit powers on prepubescent quests alone at night. Special songs and dances accompanied the receipt of such powers. An elaborate ceremonialism, based on the acquisition and display of spirit powers, took place during winter, the sacred period of spiritual renewal. Shamans might rent their powers to inflict harm (bodily injury or soul loss) or to cure someone. Chinookans also observed the first salmon rite.

Government Aboriginally, the Chinookans lived in more than 30 villages. Each village had a hereditary chief, but through the deployment of the proper alliances and methods a chief could exercise his authority over a wider area. The chief arbitrated quarrels, supervised subsistence activities, and provided for his village in time of need. His privileges included taking food, goods, or women at will. The chief was assisted by an orator who spoke directly to the lower-ranked people.

Customs Chinookan society was clearly stratified; status rankings included slave, commoner, and chief. High status went to those who had and could display wealth (food, clothing, slaves, canoes, high-ranked spouses), such as chiefs, warriors, shamans, and traders, as well as those with hereditary privileges. Slaves were bought, sold, or captured as property. Fishing areas were usually controlled by specific descent groups, although other subsistence areas were not so clearly controlled. Ties between villages were maintained by trade and alliances through wives. Imported dentalium shell was used for money and ornamentation. Later, beads from China were also highly prized.

All life-cycle events, at least among high-status families as well as those of chiefly succession, were marked by wealth display, gift giving, feasting, singing, and dancing. The purpose of the potlatch, a word meaning "giving" in Chinookan, was to reaffirm the lineage system as well as individual and descent group rank and social status, by conferring legitimacy on an occasion. Chinookans observed numerous taboos around girls’ puberty (including seclusion for five months) and menstruation. Nonslave infants’ heads were flattened at birth for aesthetic reasons. Corpses were placed in cattail mats; burial with possessions took place in canoes. A slave was sometimes killed to serve as a servant in the afterlife. Mourners cut their hair and never again spoke the name of the dead. Lacrosse was a popular game.

Dwellings Permanent winter dwellings were rectangular, gable-roofed, cedar plank houses, excavated and framed with cedar logs, with an average length of 50 feet. Decorations were of geometric, animal, and human designs. Floors were mat covered or planked, with an excavated central fireplace and a smoke hole above. Elevated bed platforms ran along the walls. Winter villages generally comprised around 20 houses. A light framework supported shelters of cattail-mat sides and cedar-bark roofs at summer fishing, hunting, or root-gathering camps.

Diet Fish—all five salmon species plus sturgeon, steelhead trout, eulachon, and herring—was the dietary staple. Chinookans fished with nets, especially seine nets, as well as scoops and spears. Fish were usually smoke dried. Rituals attended the season’s first salmon run. Other marine foods included stranded whales (which also provided blubber and oil) and other mammals as well as shellfish. Men hunted deer, elk, bear, and other large game, as well as smaller game and fowl, with snares, deadfalls, traps, spears, and bow and arrow. Women gathered roots, especially the wapato tuber, and berries.

Key Technology Raw materials included wood, bone, shell, cedar bark, spruce roots, bear grass, cattail rushes, antler, and horn. These materials were carved, woven, and otherwise shaped. Especially significant were carved bent wooden boxes, dugout canoes, and twined bear grass baskets. Long poles with bunches of deer hooves served as musical instrument.

Trade Their strategic location at the mouth of the Columbia, as well as their business skills, enabled the Chinookans to dominate trade as far away as Puget Sound and areas to the west and south. The Dalles, a giant waterfall and rapids on the Columbia, was the site of a great aboriginal trade fair. Participants brought pelts, mountain sheep horn, baskets, woven rabbit-skin robes (interior tribes); slaves (Klamath and Modoc); salmon, bear grass, blubber, canoes, and berries (Chinook); and dentalia (Nootkas). Connections to this trade fair stretched ultimately as far as the Great Plains. As mentioned earlier, the existence of "Chinook jargon," the regional trade language, was testament to the central role the Chinook played in trade. Imported dentalium shells were a standard medium of exchange.

After contact, the Chinook were involved in a triangular trade in which they traded elk-hide cuirasses and other items to non-natives, who traded them to other native people for sea otter pelts, which they in turn traded in China for items such as silk and tea. Meanwhile, the Chinook traded guns, powder, and steel tools obtained from the non-natives to other Indians for fabulous profit. This trade pattern greatly increased the status of Chinook women, who played a more active trading role than men. When land-based trade in items such as beaver and other furs replaced the maritime trade, women continued their dominant roles.

Notable Arts Significant art objects included carved wooden boxes and house framework, totem poles, wrap-twined baskets, and carved and decorated mountain sheep horn bowls that were first steamed, boiled, and molded into shape.

Transportation Six types of canoes were carved from a single cedar or fir log. An elaborate manufacturing process included harrowing, carving, and painting the logs and then studding them with shells. Large canoes could hold up to 30 people.

Dress Men went naked whenever possible. Women wore at least a skirt of cedar bark or strips of silk-grass. Some wore a deerskin breechclout. In cold weather people wore robes of various furs. Some groups wore a conical rainproof cedar hat as well as tule-mat rain capes. Personal ornaments were made of shell, feathers, and beads.

War and Weapons When diplomacy failed, a regional system of reparations took effect; the system included payment, enslavement, execution, or formalized warfare. War might also serve to establish the relative rankings among villages. Following a war, the losers paid reparations to the victors.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Many Chinookans live on the Chehalis Reservation, Grey’s Harbor and Thurstron Counties, Washington. The reservation (1864; 2,076 acres) had a 1990 population of 307 Indians. The Chehalis Reservation is governed by a generally elected community council, which in turn elects a business committee. Chinookans also live on the Shoalwater Reservation (1866;335 acres), Pacific County, Washington. In 1990, 66 Indians lived on this reservation, which is governed by an elected tribal council. Chinook descendants also live on the Grand Ronde and Siletz Reservations (see Upper Umpqua).

Economy Chinook Indian Bingo operates on the Long Beach Peninsula. Chinooks are also active in the commercial forestry and fishing industries.

Legal Status In 1979, the Tchinouk Indians of Klamath Falls, Oregon, and the Chinook Indian Tribe of Chinook, Washington, appealed for federal recognition, based on the unratified 1851 treaty and their unofficial termination in 1955. The government rejected the Tchinouk petition in 1986; the Chinooks’ was denied in early 1998.

Daily Life Chinooks are largely integrated into the mainstream. The language is not spoken. Still, tribal members are planning a museum and cultural center to keep alive their heritage and spirit. They have taken an active role in local organizations such as the Quinault Allotees Association and the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington. Some people still speak the so-called Chinook jargon.

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