Lewis and Clark weren’t the first outsiders to encounter the Chinook people. As early as the mid-1700s, Spanish sailors washed ashore, and they were followed by enterprising sailors from China and Great Britain who traded copper and iron (and in one ill-advised case, jews’ harps and mouse traps) for sea-otter skins. The sailors passing through often enjoyed the Chinook women’s hospitality, as well. Meriwether Lewis reported encountering a Chinook woman with J. Bowmon scratched on her arm.
If their journals are evidence, Lewis and Clark were ungrateful guests during the winter of 1805-06 they spent at Fort Clatsop. The Chinooks paddled in to Point Ellice and brought the Corps food when their own boats could not manage the turbulent Columbia. Lewis and Clark praised the Chinooks’ skill and beautifully crafted canoes, then stole one on their way home. The Chinooks pointed to an area just south of the mouth of the river where elk were plentiful. The Corps set up camp where the tribe had suggested and in one winter wiped out the local elk population. The Chinooks valued the abundant salmon the river supported, but Lewis and Clark saw fresh salmon as unhealthy and instead preferred to eat dogs.
Lewis and Clark admired the conical hats the Chinooks wove of cedar bark and bear grass and wore to keep the rain off, but Lewis especially was put off by the tribe’s partial nudity. They found the Chinook women loose and the men inclined to pilfer and were astounded at the tribe’s ability to flourish in such a foul climate. Lewis and Clark’s men were more generous in their assessment of the tribe, especially of the women, and Lewis had to treat many of the Corps for venereal disease.
The Corps of Discovery was the vanguard of a steadily increasing flow of traders, both from sea and inland. Within a few years, white people established trading posts in Astoria and in Vancouver. They pushed the Chinooks deeper inland and brought with them disease, including smallpox, malaria, and measles, wiping out almost 90 percent of the tribe. Where Lewis and Clark and their men once drifted down the Columbia past the fires of hundreds of Chinookan villages, now all that was left were abandoned longhouses and hastily dug graves.
To survive, the Chinooks married into other tribes and lived in insulated pockets where they could still fish and carry out their traditions as much as possible. One of these pockets of Chinooks was, and still is, the town of Bay Center, Washington.
Bay Center is on the Washington coast, across from the tip of the North Beach peninsula. It is still a Chinook stronghold, although many of the younger generation have moved away. At its peak, over a third of Bay Center’s inhabitants were Chinook. Charles Cultee, the Clatsop whose stories Frank Boas transcribed in 1894 in the book Chinook Texts, was one of the Indians who lived in a cabin along the beach. Phillip Hawk’s father, John Hawks, was another. Phillip was the last Chinook born in the village. His family moved up the hill to Bay Center when he was 5 or 6 years old and enrolled him in school. That’s when he learned to speak English.
Phillip is in his mid-80s now, but still strong from fishing crab and oysters and from his daily walks along the beach and through the swamp of cattails near the old Chinook village site. Walking today, we pass the carcass of a bear. We pass where the orchards used to be. We pass posts that once held up boardwalks through the swamp. Finally we come to the old village site on Willapa Bay, plotted out long ago so that people could walk out of their houses be at work immediately harvesting oysters. These days the beach is covered with spartina, an invasive weed from China that was carried in the bilge water of passing ships. The spartina chokes out the sweetgrass used by Chinooks in making baskets. The sweet, small native oysters are nearly gone, too, muscled out by the vigorous Pacific oysters seeded by Japanese fishermen.
The village site is grown over by alder and underbrush. Phillip shows us the plots that belonged to his family, the Cultees, and the Chinook minister. Cabins without electricity or running water sat in each plot. By the 1930s, the Chinooks abandoned most of the cabins for land on the Quinault reservation or houses with electricity in Bay Center. The last Chinook to live in the village, an elderly bachelor and one of the few Indians who could drive a car in Bay Center at the time, abandoned his cabin in 1953. A run of honeysuckle over 70 years old trails through the underbrush and a few tufts of daffodils are nearby. We pass a community well, filled with rocks.
We also see the corner post of an old Shaker church. Many of the Indians at Bay Center were Shakers. Tony Johnson explains that Shakers believed people didn’t need Bibles, they could talk directly to God — a belief that dovetailed smoothly with American Indian tradition. Through shaking and ringing bells, the Indians received messages straight from heaven. One time in the 1930s, says Tony, a stranger came to town and things started disappearing. Phillip Hawk’s aunt Rosa lost her radio. She spent two days ringing her bell and communing with the spirits. Finally, she gathered a few people and gave them precise directions — go here, turn right, go there, look under the stump, and sure enough, there was Rosa’s radio and a cache of other stolen goods.
All day I hear stories of the Chinooks who lived in Bay Center: the boat maker whose wooden boats were tight and lithe; the boxer whose girlfriend wore a fur coat in all weathers and seasons; the Indians who drank whiskey behind the trees in Bush Park; the grandmother who talked to bears; the young Chinook hot-rodder who spun out in the swamp one night and the community, disapproving, let him spin and spin. The rusted pieces of his truck are halfway buried in the swamp even now.
The federal government only treats as Indian nations those tribes that are formally “recognized.” To become recognized, a tribe must submit exhaustive documentation. The tribe’s application and supporting documentation are reviewed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. If the application is approved, the decision is open for appeal for 90 days, after which the tribe is certified as recognized. Once recognized, a tribe can receive health care, fishing rights, access to federal grants, and in some cases, land.
The Chinook Nation is not federally recognized, which is a sore point with the Chinooks.
Council chairman Gary Johnson says that the tribe has always been recognized and shouldn’t have to apply for recognition. He points to the Halbert Decision of 1934 that granted land allotments to Chinooks and other tribal nations, and he notes that members of the tribe had received fishing rights for years. In 1967, the Bureau of Indian Affairs unilaterally delisted about 100 tribes, including the Chinooks, saying that they didn’t have reservations and therefore weren’t official tribes. (Later, the Sammish tribe claimed that the delisting was illegal and had its recognition re-instated.) In 1978, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established a Branch of Acknowledgement and Research to approve the recognition of tribes, and the Chinooks began a 23-year process to regain recognition.
At last, on January 3, 2001, the Chinook Nation was formally re-recognized. The tribe was elated. On the 89th day of the appeal period, the Quinault Tribe filed an appeal, saying that the Chinooks hadn’t followed the correct procedures in applying for recognition. Gary says that over half of the Quinault reservation’s allotments are held by Chinooks, and that federal recognition of the Chinooks was a threat to Quinault control of the reservation and its resources, including its casino. The appeals court reaffirmed the Chinooks’ recognition, but the appeal still had to be approved once again by the Department of the Interior.
By now, President George W. Bush had succeeded President Bill Clinton and appointed a new Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton. Rather than simply approving the judge’s confirmation of the tribe’s recognition, the Secretary subjected the appeal to a full review. The tribe was on pins and needles, but became optimistic when Gary Johnson and his wife were invited to a luncheon at the White House to commemorate tribal involvement with Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Two days later the tribe received word that their recognition was denied.
Cathlapotle is one of the richest archeological sites in the Pacific North-west. Staff at the Refuge are cagey about its exact location, to prevent looters from digging it up, and Fish and Wildlife Service archeologists are concentrated these days on other sites, such as nearby Bachelor Island, where the remains of a Chinookan village over 2,300 years old were recently discovered — a settlement pre-dating Julius Caesar.
In its heyday, though, Cathlapotle was some town: fourteen plankhouses, some more than 200 feet long. The houses were aligned in rows parallel with the river. Each house was divided into compartments separated by woven cedar hangings. Each compartment probably housed two families, meaning that a 200-foot long house could sleep 65 people. The door to each plank-house was an oval opening through the short end of the building. The family with the highest status lived furthest from the entrance, and slaves or lower status people lived near the door. The people of Cathlapotle made fires in sunken hearths running down the center of the house and dried fish from the house’s rafters.
I went there one day recently, guided by Fish and Wildlife archeologists and by Greg Robinson, the plasterer who is building the new plankhouse. We stand in a long trough in the weeds and swat at mosquitos. We are standing in what was once a plankhouse filled with men and woman and children and smoke and fish and laughter and talk. We are quiet. The air is sweet with the smell of the cottonwoods.
Construction is moving slowly on the new plankhouse. Federal environmental requirements stalled construction for a few months. The house will have to be handicapped-accessible. Refuge officials have told the tribe that they may not be able to build fires in the hearths, and the Chinooks may be forced to install a lighted sign saying THIS IS NOT AN EXIT over the main entrance, which is also the exit. The architect has quit the project in disgust.
The tribe stays with the project, though, helped especially by dozens of volunteers who come every week. Lots of them are retired loggers who skillfully carve posts and split logs three feet thick into even planks. On the day of the ceremony to set the first pole, a bunch of kids on a school field trip watch intently. As the post is lowered, a group of coyotes begins to howl, and the children quail.