Fort Clatsop
Administrative History
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The Lower Chinook

The name Chinookan applies to the linguistic group made up of the different tribes or villages from the mouth of the Columbia up river to The Dalles. Within this group, the Chinookan are divided into the Lower and Upper Chinookan, each containing different villages and some dialect variations. The name Chinook was derived by European and American traders from the Salish name for a specific village on Baker Bay. As European and American traders moved through the area, all the villages on the north side of the Columbia that shared the same language, from Grays Bay, about 15 miles inland, to north end of Willapa Bay, became known as the Chinook proper. [1] The Clatsops, who probably shared the same Chinookan dialect as the Chinook proper, lived on the south side of the Columbia, from Cape Adams to Tongue Point and south along the coast to Tillamook Head. The Chinook proper and the Clatsops are the two primary members of the Lower Chinookan peoples.

The Lower Chinookan were fishers, gatherers, hunters, and traders. Their diet included salmon and other fish, various berries and roots including the wapato root and the salal berry, elk, deer, waterfowl, small mammals like beaver and rabbits, and occasional whales and sea lions. [2] Fishing was done with seine nets, spears, rakes, and hooks. Hunting methods included traps, snares, spears, bows and arrows, and with the arrival of European trade ships off the Pacific Coast during the 1700's, muskets. Hunting and gathering also supplied materials for clothing and essential Chinookan household items, such as baskets, hats, mats, and utensils carved from bone and wood. Clothing was fairly sparse, generally consisting of grass skirts or mats and robes made from animal skins and furs.

The Lower Chinookans lived in villages of semi-permanent houses, moving to established fishing camps during the peak fish runs. They lived in oblong houses built from cedar log frames with cedar planking for walls and roofs. Although the number of houses per village varied, each house usually home to a patrilocal extended family of around 20 individuals. The village was the primary social unit and was linked to other villages by ties of trade and kinship. The Lower Chinookan were expert canoe builders, carving as many as six different functional styles from cedar logs. [3] The canoe was their main mode of transportation and, owing to their strong reliance on the ocean and river for their subsistence, were highly valued pieces of property. Lewis and Clark, who had hoped to procure a canoe from their neighbors, fretted on many occasions about the high prices the Clatsops asked for their canoes.

Within Chinookan society, there was division by class and rank, as well as by free and slave status. Usually obtained through trade, slave status was hereditary. Each village had a headman or chief and leadership rights were hereditary. Chiefs generally had control of only their own village, although an influential chief could gain influence over other villages. Status and influence were maintained by wealth and free Chinookans could elevate or lower their status in society through its accumulation or loss. The most famous trait of Chinookan culture was the practice of flattening a person's forehead during infancy. This was done by placing a baby or developing child into a cradle and strapping a board to the cradle and child, which applied pressure to the front of the forming skull. Slaves were not allowed this feature. Marriage was polygynous and marriage alliances were used to obtain both status and commercial ties to other villages. At death, the Chinooks placed a person's remains in an elevated canoe, the Clatsops in an elevated carved box and an individual's rank or class defined how elaborate the "burial." Slaves were not given a ceremonial burial.

The Pacific Northwest Indian groups were members of a highly developed, geographically extensive trade system and the Lower Chinookans were an integral part of that system. Dentalium shells from Vancouver Island were a primary currency item among the Chinook and their trade partners. [4] Trips up the Columbia to trade markets were common. By the time European and American traders arrived, including Lewis and Clark, this trade system was well entrenched and the different Indian groups tried to incorporate these new trade partners into the existing system.

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Last Updated: 20-Jan-2004