As far back as anyone knows or can imagine, Chinook people have lived
at the mouth of the Columbia. As told in “The Legend of the Surf",
their beginnings there date back to a time when animals still talked to
the people. A version of this story was recorded by Silas B. Smith, grandson
of Chief Comowol and son of Celiast.
“In the long ago there dwelt an Indian on the Columbia River
at or near Point Adams with no companion other than his faithful dog.
This was in the time when all animals possessed the faculty of speech,
and ofttimes the dog and master would hold sweet communion together…"
The creation of the waterways and bays are part of their oral tradition,
reaching back into the mists of time. Their origin story is rooted in
place, unlike some tribes who carry stories of a great migration. In their
story, they identify Saddle Mountain as their place of origin.
Much that was precious was lost to the Chinooks within a century of the
arrival of Lewis and Clark. Uncountable numbers of people died from epidemics
and many of their stories were carried to the grave.
By the time anthropologist, Franz Boas, arrived in 1890, he learned that
most of the remaining Clatsops had adopted the Nehelem language and most
of the Lower Chinooks had adopted the Chehalis language. They had been
driven off of the river and were living in small settlements out of the
way of the busy life of Astoria and the fishing villages of new settlers.
At Bay Center, which is still a Chinook town today, Boas met Charles Cultee,
a native speaker of the Chinook language (not to be confused with Chinook
Mr. Cultee shared with Mr. Boas stories of mythic heroes, of the salmon,
the raven and the gull, the coyote and the crane, the skunk and the crow,
of robin and blue-jay and the panther. He also talked of beliefs, customs
and traditions as he knew them through the oral history of his people.
“The god who made the Columbia river, and all the fish in it,
they call Italupus. He taught their ancestors how to procure fire, make
nets, and catch fish. The first salmon caught are all tabooed, and they
dare not sell them; they must all be cut up and cooked the day they
are caught. A dog must never be permitted to eat the heart of a salmon;
and in order to prevent this, they cut the heart of the fish out before
they sell it.
“Italupus is supposed to nourish the salmon, and cause them to
be abundant during the whole summer, that they may lay up their store
of it for the winter" (Wilkes 1845:119).