Early Northwest Native People

The "Ilchee" Statue

The Columbia River has served as an artery of life for thousands of years. Native groups lived and traded along the river for 10,000 years, adapting to a rich natural world. Seasons determined their fishing, hunting and gathering activities.

Their lives centered on villages sharing kinship and common linguistic patterns. A rich oral tradition reflected value systems and taught basic beliefs. Respect for the land and a practical understanding of the environment passed from one generation to the next.

Chinookans along the lower Columbia were expert traders. Women played an active role in the trading process. Early Scot trader Alexander Ross noted, "The women are as actively employed as the men."

Native Americans lived in permanent villages connected by marriage and language. They brought their surplus goods to exchange at the major trade center in The Dalles.




Other historic facts include:
  • A great native fishery and trade center existed at the Dalles for 10,000 years. Highly developed trade and transportation networks linked these people to other regional native groups.
  • Indians of the lower Columbia were highly sophisticated in commerce. Chinook and Clatsop territory lay at the crossroads of major aboriginal trade routes extending coastally and inland.
  • Salmon played an important role in the native economy. Indians had many ways of catching fish, including using platforms and dip nets. Preserving the fish by drying enabled these traders to exchange surplus catch for useful goods.
  • Indians caught enough salmon, sturgeon and candlefish and harvested enough roots, berries and other plants to produce surplus for trading.
  • As middlemen, Chinook and Clatsop traded - often at a substantial markup - footstuffs, dressed hides, canoes, and slaves from inland villages.
  • Using only stones and wedges, Chinooks built split-timber long houses for winter dwellings and hollowed out large cedar logs into graceful canoes. While away from their homes, Chinookans lived in temporary lodges made of pelts covered with rushes.
  • Chinook tribes built many types of canoes for different purposes. Some measured 40 - 50 feet long and could carry 30 people.
  • Indians referred to the area around Vancouver variously as "Sketcutxat" or "Katchutequa" ("the plain") and the Columbia River as "Nch'i-Wana (literally, "the big river").
  • Diseases brought by white traders drastically reduced aboriginal populations. Within 100 years of the first recorded contact in 1775, epidemics carried away more than 80 percent of the region's native people. By the time Lewis and Clark came down the river in 1805, one half were gone from small pox. Waves of malaria, measles and influenza during the 19th century emptied many villages along the Columbia River.
  • Chinooks, estimated to have numbered 80,000 at the turn of the 19th century, had dwindled 50 years later, by one account, "to a few dozen refugees, landless, slaveless and swindled out of a treaty."
  • By the 1840's, Fort Vancouver was the most important settlement and largest population center on the west coast of North America. Its ethnically diverse population (French-Canadians, Iroquois, Scots, English, Americans, Orkney Islanders, local natives and Hawaiians) spoke "Chinook Jargon," a trade language which enabled communication among many people.