Chinook village sites (USA) : Evidence from archaeological digs reveals Chinook wealth


Evidence from archaeological digs reveals Chinook wealth

Katie Wilson

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When you’re dealing with the bits and pieces civilizations leave behind, the stories you think you know are always changing.

Portland State University anthropology professor Kenneth Ames and archaeologist Doug Wilson of Fort Vancouver addressed the mysteries and myths around four separate Chinook village sites as a part of the Columbia Forum lecture series Wednesday night in Astoria.

“I’m always impressed we know as much as we do,” Ames said afterward. “We’re trying to understand what people did from things they left behind.”

Archaeologists work with ever-evolving systems and techniques, peeling back layers, cataloguing, organizing, cross-referencing, revisiting information again and again and again.

“We know a lot and we’re adding stuff every day,” Ames said. 

“Sometimes you’re finished,” he added, “but you’re never done.”

Ames has spent a number of years researching the “household archaeology” of the Chinook people who lived in the Wapato Valley, also known as the Portland Basin. The work has focused around two sites out toward Scappoose: Meier and Cathlapotle.

Wilson talked about his work at Station Camp, across the Columbia River, where Lewis and Clark stopped briefly and where, many, many years later, people uncovered the remains of a Chinook village and an abundance of fur-trade goods.

He also talked about the search for a village historical texts refer to as “Chenooke.”  

One of the myths both men addressed was that of population. 

This wasn’t an empty, purely wild land, they said. 

The Wapato Valley, for example, was a rich, highly-populated, highly-productive land, Ames said, with close to 19 villages and towns whose individual populations ranged from 100 people to 1,800 according to fur-trade estimates.

Across the river, the Chinook villages Wilson studies were rolling in wealth: beads, copper items, buttons, high-end houses.

At the Meier and Cathlapotle sites, where anyone else might see (and disregard) what look like muddy holes in the ground, Ames and other archaeologists see the imprints from baskets, or the posts that were a part of the traditional plank houses of the region.

Ames has found thousands of animal bones, thousands of seeds. The people there feasted on elk and deer. Salmon was also part of the diet, but not necessarily the mainstay we tend to think, Ames said. How does he know? He’s out there counting bones.

 A story Wilson addressed is another one people often take in stride: that alcohol (and alcoholism) was the downfall of the native population. 

By all historical accounts, the Chinook weren’t sure what to make of alcohol initially. The first time some of them became drunk, not understanding the effects of alcohol, they were frightened and hid in the woods until they were sober. 

But, according to first-hand accounts from explorers and traders, this changed.

One later report said the Chinook would do almost anything for whiskey. Wilson quoted from a 1938 account by missionary Samuel Parker who said that when they got a hold of whiskey, the Chinook became “more debased than the beasts of the earth.”

“The beautiful thing about archaeology is that it tells a story that is sometimes very different from the historical record,” Wilson said.

At the Washington sites, archaeologists found glass alcohol bottles: rum, brandy and wine, Wilson said. 

However, instead of evidence that would “indicate a bunch of drunks throwing bottles at perhaps a plank house wall, what we found was very different,” Wilson said. They found bottle bases and noticed there was abrasion all along the bottom of the bases.

“It seems quite clear that they were intentionally using these bottle bases as some sort of a tool,” Wilson said. 

They found other places where glass pieces had been used as the sort of scraper to process animal hides, he said.

“What we see is the Chinook taking new materials ... and reshaping the tools to their own function,” Wilson said. Far from being degraded by contact with Euro-American culture, “what we see is that the Chinook are very alive at this time. They’re very powerful at this time period and they’re manipulating Euro-American culture to be able to adapt to it.”