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Who are the Chinook Indians?

The Chinook Indians are a group of Native American tribes renowned for their masterful fishing techniques and rich cultural heritage along the Columbia River. Their legacy of trade, language, and ceremonial gatherings paints a vivid tapestry of indigenous history. Discover how the Chinook's traditions continue to resonate in the Pacific Northwest. What will you uncover about their enduring spirit?
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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are the Chinook Indians?

The Chinook Indians are a group of Native American tribes that have traditionally lived along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. They are renowned for their skilled fishing, canoe making, and trading abilities. The Chinook peoples played a significant role in the early trade networks of the Pacific Northwest, and their influence extended far beyond their homeland through commerce and intertribal relationships.

What is the historical significance of the Chinook Indians?

The Chinook Indians hold historical significance for their role as intermediaries in trade among indigenous groups and later with European and American traders. They facilitated the exchange of goods such as furs, salmon, and crafted items. The Chinook also became well-known to early explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, during their expedition. Their strategic location along the Columbia River made them pivotal in the cultural and economic exchanges of the region.

What are some traditional practices of the Chinook Indians?

Traditional practices of the Chinook Indians include expert fishing, particularly for salmon, which was central to their diet and culture. They also crafted large, seaworthy canoes that were essential for transportation and trade. The Chinook were known for their potlatch ceremonies, elaborate events where wealth was redistributed and social status was affirmed through gift-giving and feasting. These practices were integral to their social structure and way of life.

How do the Chinook Indians maintain their cultural heritage today?

Today, the Chinook Indians maintain their cultural heritage through various means, including the revitalization of their language and traditional ceremonies. They continue to practice fishing rights secured by treaties and engage in cultural events that celebrate their history and traditions. Efforts to gain federal recognition are also part of their current endeavors to preserve and strengthen their identity and rights as a distinct people.

What is the current status of the Chinook Indian Nation?

As of my knowledge cutoff in 2023, the Chinook Indian Nation, which consists of five tribes—the Lower Chinook, Clatsop, Willapa, Wahkiakum, and Cathlamet—has been seeking federal recognition. Although they were recognized in 2001, the decision was reversed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2002. The Chinook continue to advocate for recognition to affirm their sovereignty and access to benefits that come with official status.

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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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