Chinook: Facts, History & Religion

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  • 0:00 Who Were the Chinook?
  • 0:25 Chinook Society
  • 2:55 The Chinook and…
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

The Chinook are a group of North American Indians from Washington and Oregon. Learn how the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean shaped their society, what ceremonies were important to them, and what happened when they met American explorers Lewis and Clark.

Who Were the Chinook?

The Chinook are a group of North American Indians from the Northwest Coast who spoke Chinookan. They lived in what is now Washington and Oregon, mainly around the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. Their society focused on water-type activities, they took ceremonies seriously, they were mainly peaceful, and they had contact with the American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.


Chinook Society

Since the Chinook lived near the Columbia River and the ocean, they were especially skilled at things that dealt with water. They were superb canoe builders, navigators, and fishermen. The river was a rich source of salmon, which was the basis of the region's economy, and the Chinook had plenty of the dried fish to use for trade and as a type of currency. They were also famous as traders, using the waterways to make routes and to make contact with many other Indian tribes. Not only did the Chinook trade dried fish, they also traded slaves, canoes, and ornamental shells.

The tribe's basic social unit was their villages. Most villages consisted of close relatives and were headed by a senior member. An extremely strong and wealthy chief might control several villages. Inside the village, the Chinook lived in large wooden plank houses and slept on reed mats over raised boards.

Slavery was very common among the Chinook. For this reason, those that were ranked higher socially within the Chinook tribe practiced the custom of flattening their children's heads at birth. The Chinook would use a board to apply pressure to a baby's head, and this would eventually flatten the head. Flat-headed Chinook were the upper class of their society and having a flat head gave them assurance that they would not become slaves themselves.


In Chinook religion, there were certain rituals and rites that they focused on. First, there was the very important first-salmon rite, a ritual in which each group welcomed the annual salmon run. Another important religious ritual was the individual vision quest. This ordeal was undertaken by all male and some female youths in order to acquire a guardian spirit that would give them hunting, fishing, healing, and other helpful powers. These guardian spirits also gave the youth good luck and taught them songs and dances. The Chinook had singing ceremonies in order to have public demonstrations of these gifts.

Another important ceremony for the Chinook was potlatches. This was the ceremonial giving of property to others in the tribe. In general, the Chinook did not enjoy participation in war and preferred to resolve conflict through rituals and ceremonies. This gave their rituals great importance. As a society, they were not interested in totemic art or secret societies, which were common practices by their neighbors. They also had few artifacts, texts, art, or drawings. The scant cultural remains have made knowing Chinook history very difficult for scholars.

The Chinook and American Explorers

The American explorers Lewis and Clark first made contact with the Chinook in 1805. They were first told about the Chinook by the Nez Perce Indians after they, along with their team, crossed the Rocky Mountains and first came across the Columbia River. Since the Chinook were experienced traders, they were already accustomed to European goods and already knew some white traders. This made the first encounters between Lewis and Clark and the Chinook quite peaceful.


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