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 Chinookans (Shoalwater or Willapa Bay and the north bank of the Columbia from Cape Disappointment to Gray's Bay) and the Clatsops (south bank of the Columbia, from Young's Bay to Point Adams). Upper Chinookans included the Cathlamets (Grays Bay to Kalama), the Multnomahs (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 Chinookans live in southwestern Washington and locales around the Pacific Northwest.
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.
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 (the ritualistic preparation and consumption of the season's first catch).
Aboriginally, the Chinookans lived in more than thirty 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.
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. Non-slave 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.
Permanent winter dwellings were rectangular, gable-roofed, cedar plank houses, excavated and framed with cedar logs, with an average length of fifty 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 twenty houses. A light framework supported shelters of cattail mat sides and cedar-bark roofs at summer fishing, hunting, or root gathering camps.
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 (Klamaths and Modocs); salmon, bear grass, blubber, canoes, and berries (Chinookans); and dentalia (Nootkas). Connections to this trade fair stretched ultimately as far as the Great Plains. The existence of Chinook jargon, the regional trade language, was testament to the central role the Chinookans played in trade. Imported dentalium shells were a standard medium of exchange.
After contact, the Chinookans 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 Chinookans traded guns, powder, and steel tools obtained from the non-Natives to other Indians for a 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.
Although Chinookans may have spotted Spanish ships off the Columbia River delta, early Anglo explorers first encountered and spread smallpox among them 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 the 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. The Chinookans 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 in 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 home-lands.
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 Chinookans, 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 Chinookans 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.