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Who are the Chinook Indians?

Paul Woods
Paul Woods

Chinook is the name given to multiple groups of Native Americans who share a common history of speaking one of the three main Chinookian languages. Now numbering about 2,000 members, the nation of Chinook Indians is predominately based in Oregon and Washington in the northwest corner of the continental United States. The Chinooks history with Westerners dates back to 1805, being described by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but they had been known to traders in that region for more than a decade prior to that.

When first encountered by Lewis and Clark, the Chinook nation was thought to be much smaller than it actually was. Initially, the Chinooks were numbered at about 400. That did not take into account numerous groups of Chinooks spread about the Columbia River in what would become the northwest United States and southwest Canada.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The individual groups of Chinook Indians had separate names for each individual tribe. Unifying them into one group was the use of one of variants of the Chinook language. There are five bands: the Lower Chinook, Kathlamet, Clatsop, Wahkiakum, and Willapa. The name Chinook derives from the Anglicization of its place name, Tsinuk, and came to be the name applied to all Chinook Indians.

Chinook Indians were not nomads. Primarily fishers and hunters, Chinook men fished for salmon as a primary food source. Chinook women gathered plants and clams and took care of most of the domestic work, including child rearing. A mostly peaceful tribe, Chinook Indians would fight to protect their lands but preferred settling disputes with athletic contests.

The original languages of the Chinook Indians is thought to have been lost. Most members of the nation speak English. Chinook Jargon, also called Chinook Wawa, a combination of their language and several others that was used in conducting trade, is still spoken by some people today.

A coastal people, Chinook Indians tended to live near waterways. Their dwellings were long, narrow homes made of cedar and featuring peaked roofs. Often an extended family would live together in one of the homes, which could be more than 100 feet (30.48 meters) long. The primary mode of transportation for the Chinooks were long, dugout canoes.

The Chinook Indians formerly distinguished the features of some of their young by flattening their heads. They did this by using the flat cradle boards used to carry infants, pressing down with them on the crowns of some children's heads. This flattened appearance was considered to elevate them in the social hierarchy.

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Discussion Comments


What direction did the Chinook people traveled to get to Arapaho Country and how far do you think it was


Yes, they probably were healthy.


Some of the customs and the lifestyle of the Chinook Indians are interesting. The longhouses they lived in, often with the whole family, are similar to the kind of housing that some other tribes in the U.S. had. Yet these were a long distance apart. I wonder if there was ever any encounters between the Chinook and other tribes.

The custom of flattening the heads of some of their babies is surprising. I wonder how that custom ever came about?

And their idea to settle disputes by competing in sports is a very civilized way to take care of disagreements.

The study of Indian cultures is very interesting, I think.


I live in the Pacific Northwest and there are a lot of reminders of the Chinook Tribes. You see totem poles in Seattle and Portland. Many streets and towns are named after these tribes and their leaders.

They fished in the Columbia River, which separates Oregon and Washington. They had all the fish they could use and were probably very healthy.

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