Chinookan Indians

Chinookan Family, Chinookan People. An important linguistic family, including those tribes formerly living on Columbia River, from The Dalles to its mouth (except a small strip occupied by the Athapascan Tlatskanai), and on the lower Willamette as far as the present site of Oregon City, Oregon. The family also extended a short distance along the coast on each side of t he mouth of the Columbia, from Shoal Water Bay on the north to Tillamook Head on the south. The family is named from the Chinook, the most important tribe. With the exception of a few traders near the mouth of the Columbia, Lewis and Clark were the first whites to visit these tribes, and their description still constitutes the main authority as to their early condition.

The Chinookan villages were situated along the banks of the Columbia, near the mouths of its tributaries, and for the greater part on the north side. The houses were of wood and very large, being occupied on the communal principle by 3 or 4 families and often containing 20 or more individuals. Their villages were thus fairly permanent, though there was much moving about in summer, owing to the nature of the food supply, which consisted chiefly of salmon, with the roots and berries indigenous to the region. The falls and Cascades of the Columbia and the falls of the Willamette were the chief points of gathering in the salmon season. The people were also noted traders, not only among themselves, but with the surrounding tribes of other stocks, and trips from the mouth of the Columbia to the Cascades for the purpose of barter were of frequent occurrence. They were extremely skilful in handling their canoes, which were well made, hollowed out of single logs, and often of great size. In disposition they are described as treacherous and deceitful, especially when their cupidity was aroused, and the making of portages at the Cascades and The Dalles by the early traders and settlers was always accompanied with much trouble and danger. Slaves were common among them and were usually obtained by barter from surrounding tribes, though occasionally in successful raids made for that purpose. Little is known of their particular social customs and beliefs, but there was no clan or gentile organization, and the village was the chief social unit. These villages varied greatly in size, but often consisted of only a few houses. There was always a headman or chief, who, by reason of personal qualities, alight extend his influence over several neighboring villages, but in general each settlement was independent. Their most noteworthy historical character was Comcomly.

Physically the Chinookan people differed somewhat from the other coast tribes. They were taller, their faces wider and characterized by narrow and high noses; in this respect they resembled the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. The custom of artificially deforming the head by frouto-occipital pressure was universal among them, a skull of natural forte being regarded as a disgrace and permitted only to slaves. This custom later lost its force to some extent among the tribes of the upper Columbia.

Chinook Language

Linguistically they were divided into 2 groups:

(1) Lower Chinook, comprising two slightly different dialects, the Chinook proper and the Clatsop;

(2) Upper Chinook which included all the rest of the tribes, though with numerous slight dialectic differences. As a stock language the Chinookan is sharply differentiated from that of surrounding families. Its most striking feature is the high degree of pronominal incorporation, the phonetic slightness of verbal and pronominal steles, the occurrence of 3 genders, and the predominance of onomatopoetic processes. The dialects of Lower Chinook are now practically extinct. Upper Chinook is still spoken by considerable numbers.
The region occupied by Chinookan tribes seems to have been well populated in early times, Lewis and Clark estimating the total number at somewhat more than 16,000. In 1829, however, there occurred an epidemic of what was called ague fever, of unknown nature, which in a single summer swept away four-fifths of the entire native population. Whole villages disappeared, and others were so reduced that in some instances several were consolidated. The epidemic was most disastrous below the Cascades. In 1846 Hale estimated the number below the Cascades at 500, and between the Cascades and The Dalles at 800. In 1854 Gibbs gave the population of the former region as 120 and of the latter as 236. These were scattered along the river in several bands, all more or less mixed with neighboring stocks. In 1885 Powell estimated the total number at from 500 to 600, for the greater part on Warm Springs, Yakima, and Grande Ronde reservations, Oregon. The fusion on the reservations has been so great that no accurate estimate is now possible, but it is probable that 300 would cover all those who could properly be assigned to this family.

Chinook Tribes and Villages

Most of the original Chinookan bands and divisions had no special tribal names, being designated simply as “those living at such a place.” This fact, especially after the general disturbance caused by the epidemic of 1829, makes it impossible to identify all the tribes and villages mentioned by writers. The following list includes the different tribes, divisions, and the villages not listed under the separate tribes:

  • Cathlacomatup
  • Cathlacumup
  • Cathlakaheckit
    Cathlakaheckit Indians. A Chinookan tribe living at the cascades of Columbia River in 1812, when their number was estimated at 900.
  • Cathlamet
  • Cathlanahquiah
    Cathlanahquiah Indians (‘people of the river, Nagoaix‘ ). A Chinookan tribe living in 1806, according to Lewis and Clark, on the south west side of Wappatoo, now Sauvies Island, Multnomah County, Oregon, and numbering 400 souls.
  • Cathlapotle
    Cathlapotle Indians (‘people of Lewis [Nā’p!ōlx’] river.’ A Chinookan tribe formerly living on the lower part of Lewis River and on the south west side of Columbia River, in Clarke County, Wash. In 1806 Lewis and Clark estimated their number at 900 in 14 large wooden houses. Their main village was Nahpooitle.
  • Cathlathlalas
    Cathlathlalas Indians. A Chinookan tribe living on both sides of Columbia River, just below the cascades, in 1812. Their number was placed at 500.
  • Chakwayalham
  • Charcowa
  • Chilluckittequaw
  • Chinook
  • Chippanchickchick(?)
  • Clackama
  • Clahclellah
  • Clahnayuah
  • Claninnatas
  • Clatacut
  • Clatsop
  • Clowwewalla
  • Cooniac
  • Cushook
  • Dalles Indians
  • Ithkyemamits
  • Kasenos
  • Katlagulak
  • Katlaminimin
  • Killaxthokle
  • Klemiaksac
  • Knowilamowan
  • Ktlaeshatlkik
  • Kwulkwul
  • Lakstak
  • Lower Chinook
  • Multnomah
  • Namoit
  • Nayakaukaue
  • Nechacokee
  • Necootimeigh
  • Neerchokioon
  • Nemalquinner
  • Nenoothlect,
  • Scaltalpe
  • Shahala
  • Shoto
  • Skilloot
  • Smackshop
  • Teiakhochoe
  • Thlakalama
  • Tlakatlala
  • Tlakluit
  • Tlalegak
  • Tlashgenemaki
  • Tlegulak
  • Upper Chinook
  • Wahe
  • Wahkiacum
  • Wakanasisi
  • Wappatoo
  • Wasco
  • Watlala
  • Willopah
  • Wiltkwilluk
  • Yehuh


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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