... at the distance of three miles above the inlet of the N. side behind the lower point of an island we arrived at the village of the Cath-lah-poh-tle wich consists of 14 large wooden houses ... the floors of most of their houses are on a level with the surface of the earth tho’ some of them are sunk two or 3 feet beneath. the internal arrangement ... is the same with those of the nations below. they are also fond of sculpture. various figures are carved and painted on the peices which support the center of the roof, about their doors and beads [beds]…
— Captain Meriweather Lewis, March 29, 1806
Lewis was writing about Cathlapotle, a Chinookan village on what is now the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on the Washington side of the Columbia River, about 14 miles north of Portland. Two hundred years ago, Cathlapotle was one of the largest Indian villages on the Columbia, with nearly a thousand people living in the plankhouses that Lewis described. Cathlapotle was also a popular site trading site for wapato, canoes, and other goods upstream. Lewis and Clark noted the village first on their journey to the Pacific Ocean, and then camped a few miles outside of it on their return trip four and a half months later, just before Clark wandered south to the bluff where the University was born in 1901.
Two centuries after the Corps of Discovery passed Cathlapotle, a sign reading HOME OF THE U-HAUL TRUCK welcomes visitors to Ridgefield. In the Wildlife Reserve, past a dike with blue herons standing guard, is the South Shop Building, where a group of volunteers splits cedar logs into planks that will be used to build a new Chinookan plankhouse at Cathlapotle.
The project manager for the plankhouse is a Chinook Indian named Greg Robinson, a plasterer by trade. He explains how he and his colleagues came to be building the sort of house that his ancestors built for thousands of years in Oregon and Washington. It’s a joint project, planned by staff from the Refuge, scholars from Portland State University, and Chinook people in the area. Made of cedar, it will be 90 feet long and 40 feet wide, resting on a 3 foot deep trench. The center will be one long room, with bunks along the side and two hearths down the middle. As with traditional plankhouses, one end will be the “wealth” end, with detailed carving and painting. Visitors will enter through a round hole on the other end of the plankhouse and step down into the room.
One morning, Greg tells me, he was at work in his trailer office on the site when the wind rose in the ash trees outside. The trailer began to shudder and Greg crawled under his desk. When the wind finished ripping the tops off the trees, it lifted the trailer into the air and spun it around. Lights shattered, spewing glass, and Greg watched as a half-full water cooler bottle rose from his desk, floated across the room, and landed, unspilt, in a chair. A rack of elk antlers pierced the trailer’s floor, and the coyote fetish that Greg wore around his neck split in half. The wind deposited Greg and his trailer fifty feet away. The tornado then jumped the river and sped up the valley.
Some people took this as a bad omen.
The Chinook Nation is a confederation of the five westernmost tribes of Chinookan people: the Lower Chinook, the Clatsop, the Willapa, the Wahkia-kum, and the Kathlamet. Chinookan tribes once stretched from the Pacific Ocean up to the Dalles, and include tribes that are now part of other recognized groups, such as the Wasco, one of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs.
The Chinook Nation has about 2,300 enrolled members and is governed by a council of nine members. The council members are all volunteers. The Chinooks do have a chief, Cliff Snyder, but for the Chinooks, “chief” is an honorary title without governing power, and Chief Snyder hasn’t been to a tribal council meeting in years.
The tribal office is in the Old Chinook School on the main drag of Chinook, Washington, across the Columbia River from Astoria. The tribal office is unmarked; in fact, the sign in front of the school announces dog obedience classes. The building’s white wooden sides are peeling, and two dead rhododendrons flank the front door. The windows on the back of the building are boarded up with plywood, and blackberries grow up to the second floor. Inside the building, a cedar canoe stretches out in the main hall. A handwritten “out of order” sign is posted on the door of one bathroom. In the other bathroom, two of the stalls have “out of order” signs on them, and the other says “use at your own risk”. It turns out that the toilet’s flushability varies with the tide.
Tonight is the monthly Chinook Cultural Committee’s meeting. Gary Johnson, the Tribal Chairman, is there, as is his son Tony, the committee’s chairman. Greg Robinson is vice chairman. They are seated around an old office table. Lining the room are boxes of hotdog buns, napkins, and empty coolers, for a barbecue coming up.
Gary grew up in Bay Center, Washington, in an extended family that he likens to a village of longhouses, with three families living side by side. He grew up hearing chinuk wawa, as he says, from his great aunts and uncles. (Chinuk wawa is a variant of Chinook proper, used to communicate with non-Indians and Indians from other tribes.) His father lived on the Quinault reservation, and his dad and uncles were in an all-Indian crew of the Civilian Conservation Corps working at Warm Springs and other Indian reservations. Gary studied psychology and mediation in college and became a football coach, teacher, and counselor at the high school in South Bend, Washington. For years, he says, he blended into the white world to the extent that he could; but after Tony’s birth, he enrolled his sons in the Chinook tribe and began attending council meetings regularly.
Tonight’s guest at the meeting asks permission to include the tribe in a documentary she is making about the Indians at the mouth of the Columbia River. The documentary will accompany the Lewis and Clark exhibition at the Oregon Historical Society and is sponsored by the Council of Tribal Advisors. The Council of Tribal Ad-visors includes the Clatsop-Nehalem tribe, which is enough for the Chinooks to refuse participation in the film.
Gary explains. The Clatsops are one of the five tribes comprising the Chinook Nation. A former member of the Chinook Tribal Council seceded from the tribe and decided to start his own tribe a few years ago, claiming that the Clatsops should be allied with the Nehalems, who are from an area just south of the Clatsop homeland near Astoria. The Chinooks view his secession as a betrayal. Most people who have studied the matter see the combination of Clatsops and Nehalems as a forced fit at best, and say that the Nehalem tribe is more closely related to the Tillamooks.
Tony Johnson is adamant in his refusal to have anything to do with a project including the Clatsop-Nehalems. He expresses himself more passionately than his dad, likes to break suddenly into chinuk wawa and leave his non-Indian audience in the dark (“he has fun with that,” says Gary), and has a reputation as tough and unbending — a reputation not gentled by his occasional reminders that the Chinooks are still warriors. On the other hand this is a man who runs a Chinook language immersion day care center (where children call him Teacher Tony), carries photos of his two foster daughters, and has taken being Chinook as a calling, spending much time with tribal elders, learning their stories and language.
The next guests at the Chinook Cultural Committee meeting are doing an archeological dig at Station Camp, in preparation for construction, and are turning up Chinook artifacts. They file in, hats in hand, looking for empty chairs. Tony cheerfully tells them, in chinuk wawa, to sit on the coolers.
Behind the tribal office is the school’s old gym, where the tribe holds rummage sales to fund operations. The gym is dark and smells damp, and the floor lists toward the door. Inside, tables are set up by price — the dollar table of tools, dinner plates, and records; the 25-cent table with old mugs. Piles of clothing skirt the perimeter of the gym. I briefly consider some crocheted lap blankets smelling of cigarette smoke and end up buying a stack of 78s by Yorgi Yorgesson, a Swedish humorist with hits such as “Yingle Bells” and “Mrs. Yohnson, Turn Me Loose!”
If the Chinooks are lucky, the rummage sale will earn a couple of thousand dollars to put toward the tribe’s lean operating budget.
Meanwhile, the staff of the Confluence Project are raising $22 million to fund art installations by Maya Lin along the Columbia River. The goal of the Lin installations is to explore Native American culture and stewardship of natural resources along the route of the Corps of Discovery. How these installations will look, no one is really sure, since, as staff say, “Maya likes to work in narrative.” Apparently most of her narrative is constructed in her studio in New York, since the Chinooks say she hasn’t stopped by to talk to them. The first installation scheduled to be unveiled is a Chinook fish cleaning station.
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