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What is the Chinook Tribe?

By Brenda Scott
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Chinook Tribe is a group of Native Americans originally found in the Pacific Northwest. Their territory ranged from current-day British Columbia, Canada to eastern Washington State, and their villages were placed along the Columbia River. Their bands were loosely referred to as Upper and Lower Chinook, depending upon where they lived along the river. European traders began to interact with these Indians in the late sixteenth century, and in 1805 Lewis and Clark recorded their visit with the Chinook Tribe.

Members of the Chinook Tribe lived in small related bands led by a temporary leader, usually a respected elder. They built longhouses that ranged from 60 ft (18.29 m) to 100 feet (30.48 m) long and 40 feet (12.19 m) wide with cedar planks and bark roofs. Each building housed an extended family and was divided into smaller rooms with woven mats hung from the ceiling for immediate family groups. Sleeping platforms like bunks were built along the walls.

The Chinook's location at the mouth of the river gave them an opportunity to develop an excellent trading network, and they did business with tribes in their region and all of the way into the Great Plains. They also relied upon hunting and fishing, mostly salmon. Every spring the salmon swim upriver to return to their birthplace and spawn. This event, called a salmon run, was celebrated by the First Salmon rite.

The Chinook Tribe believed that the universe was created by a central god named Nenkanie. They were animists who worshiped animal gods like the raven, eagle, whale, bear and beaver. Adolescent boys as well as some girls were encouraged to go on a vision quest in which they would go into the wilderness alone to seek out their personal spirit guide. They believed these guides would help them to hunt or trade or to give them special gifts, such as the gift of healing.

Like many of the Northeastern tribes, the Chinook Tribe practiced potlatch, a ceremony in which a family would give away some or all of its wealth to other people in the tribe. This was a method of gaining status as well as a way to mark a significant event such as a birth, wedding, or the building of a new home. A potlatch was accompanied by a large feast and celebration that could last up to three days. Even if a family gave away all of its possessions, they did not remain destitute for long and would often receive most of their belongings back in future potlatches hosted by other families.

A native of the Chinook Tribe was easily identified by his flat forehead. When a baby is born the skull is soft and can be shaped with pressure. The Chinook considered a flat forehead a beauty feature, so they would tie a small board to the head of their babies to flatten the forehead. The Chinook were a peaceful people who preferred to settle disputes through contests, and they were not very successful in battle. If a peaceful contest could not settle the dispute, they were known to hire assassins from neighboring tribes to take care of their opponents.

It is estimated that the Chinook Tribe had almost 20,000 members in the seventeenth century, but their numbers were greatly diminished through disease. The tribe eventually lost almost ninety percent of its population. The remaining Chinook live with other Native American people groups on the Warm Springs, Yakima, Chehalis, Quinnaut and Grand Rondel Reservations in Washington and Oregon.

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Discussion Comments
By Tilixam — On Feb 19, 2021

The writer of this article is confusing the Chinook Indian Tribe with the Chinook language and with Chinookan peoples in general. For accurate information visit the Chinook Indian Nation's website!

By DinoLeash — On Oct 23, 2010

@cmsmith10: I attended a Cherokee Indian wedding and this was their prayer. "God in heaven above please protect the ones we love.

We honor all you created as we pledge our hearts and lives together.

We honor Mother Earth and ask for our marriage to be abundant and grow stronger through the seasons.

We honor fire - and ask that our union be warm and glowing with love in our hearts.

We honor wind - and ask we sail through life safe and calm as in our father's arms.

We honor water - to clean and soothe our marriage– that it may never thirst for love.

All the forces of the universe you created, we pray for harmony and true happiness, as we forever grow young together. Amen."

By cmsmith10 — On Oct 23, 2010

Does anyone know a Native American Indian wedding prayer?

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