Monday, September 5, 2011


When Captain Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Discovery members emerged from the magnificent Columbia River gorge and looked upon the waters of the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805, they were met by groups of indigenous people broadly identified as the Salish. With ancestral roots leading back as far as the age of glaciers, the northern bands such as the Clatsup spoke a form of Chinookian language, while the Coast Salish (Tillamook and Nehalem for instance) spoke a different tongue, and enjoyed a cultural history which tied them to a coastal environment unique among North American Native peoples.
            Because I have had a nearly life-long interest in the folkways of northeastern coastal tribes, such as the Penobscot, Narragansett and Wampanoag, it has been fascinating to study the expected similarities, but often unanticipated differences between Native American cultures having so much in common, though separated by 3000 miles of intervening continent. At the center of the cultural dichotomy – in addition to the undeniable advantage of a more-friendly climate - are the two profoundly-important gifts of nature enjoyed by the inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest.  First is the Chinook salmon, and second, forests of cedar trees.
            As the Lewis and Clark expedition were laboriously constructing log shelters to get ready for the coming winter, their new neighbors were sleeping on raised platforms in weather-tight long-houses built from split and planed cedar boards and kept warm by internal heating; in some cases with as many as forty people sharing a spacious and sub-divided living space.  From those same cedar forests came material for weaving mats, clothing and a form of basketry unrivaled in the “American Indian” world to this day. Just as important was the fact that in nearly every community, there lived at least one or two craftsmen who were skilled in building sea-worthy canoes from hollowed-out cedar trees, utilizing the ingenious insertion of stiffening thwarts to steam-shaped interiors to produce craft of surprising beam and capacity.
            Three main types of salmon – Chinook, Chum and Silver - filled the harbors, bays and rivers of the Northwest coast, their annual migrations seen by the people as a gift from the Great Spirit, surrounded by myth and religious ceremony. Harvested by nets, weirs and traps, and preserved by drying and smoking, huge quantities of this natural health food was a year-round bounty, while salmon and sturgeon roe was esteemed as a gourmet delight. Another gift from the sea was the annual run of spawning eulachon, a Pacific smelt so filled with oil it was also known as the “candlefish”; when dried it would burn like a candle. This small, anadromous fish was an important source of cooking, lighting and heating fuel, and a major trade item with inland people. Steelhead, trout, halibut and other fish were plentiful, and women and children dug clams, mussels and other mollusks from tidal flats.
            While the Tillamook, Clatsup and Nehalem did not ordinarily hunt seals, sea lions or whales, they seized upon such sea “gifts” when they became stranded by tides or washed up dead on accessable beaches. In fact, on January 6, 1806, it was just such an event which brought Lewis and Clark and their Indian guides to what is known today as Cannon Beach; a whale had come ashore near Ecola Creek, promising the expedition members some needed food and oil supplies. (Ecola means “whale”).
            The forests of that moist and cloud-covered land offered a wide variety of berries which the people dried for winter use, while the digging of plentiful roots and medicinal plants was a daily enterprise for young and old.  Deer and elk added red meat to the larder, and birds of all kinds – including the eggs they deposited in large numbers in the rocky seaside crags – were part of the rich cornucopia from which the Salish drew a twelve-month sustenance.
            As was so often the case with Native American people whose populations had found a balance with the environment in which they lived, it would be their vulnerability to the diseases of the European world they welcomed which would ultimately reduce their numbers to a handful. To this date, the Clatsup and Tillamook bands have never been given official tribal recognition by the U.S. Government.  Sadly, the last speaker of the Tillamook language died in 1972.

Caption for Photo above:
It was a report of a beached whale that brought Lewis and Clark and their Native American guides to Ecola Point in January, 1806. Today, an Oregon state park offer spectacular views of the area’s famous “hay stacks”.


Hand-carved from a cedar log by direct descendants of Clatsup Chief Coboway who befriended the explorers, a ceremonial dugout canoe frames a view of Astoria Bay at Oregon’s northwest corner.

A new generation of forest growth takes root atop a Nehalem totem near Oregon’s historic Tillamook Bay.

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