The Chinook People in Kalama

Hello from the History Department.

Along with many examples of Native artwork and sculpture at the Kalama Harbor Lodge, there is a guest room named for the indigenous Chinook people, who thrived in the region “since time immemorial.” Sharing their history is a just one way to honor those who came first.

As we know today, when settlers from back east began to arrive here in the early 1800s, they brought with them devastating illnesses that decimated the Pacific Northwest native population. The U.S. government also negotiated land settlement treaties with the tribes that were subsequently not honored. This is a difficult narrative to tell with integrity from a modern white perspective; therefore, the write-up was compiled using direct sources including the Chinook Nation website,, and other creditable references.


Welcome to what was historically called gaɬákʼalama, the Chinook name for their small village where the Columbia and the Kalama Rivers meet, just downstream from where the Kalama Harbor Lodge is located today. The modern Chinook Indian Nation consists of the Clatsop and Kathlamet of what is now Oregon and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum and Willapa of Washington State. These five historically important Tribes have existed since time immemorial in their aboriginal territory at the mouth of the Columbia River.

The indigenous Chinook were hunters, gatherers and fishers – they had no need to farm, not when the region was abundant with salmon, acorns, camas, wapato, huckleberries, elk and deer. They traded from their canoes up and down the Columbia, Willamette and Snake Rivers – in fact, the beach near where our nearby Ahles Point Cabin stands was a large trading site. Back then, native people, trappers and traders from all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond came here not only to sell and exchange goods, but to meet people, tell stories and enjoy a drink or meal together – much like we do at today Ahles Point.

In 1792, American sea captain Robert Gray landed near where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. There he met with the coastal Chinook to trade blankets, copper, nails, axes, and knives in exchange for furs. Not long after, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark documented the travels of their Corps of Discovery westward to the Pacific Ocean. During the early spring of 1806, Meriwether Lewis recorded this passage about the area known today as Kalama, where they stopped briefly on their journey:

Above the [Native] village at which we breakfasted we passed the entrance of this river; we saw several fishing camps of the Skillutes on both sides of the Columbia, and were attended all the evening by parties of the natives in their canoes who visited us for the purpose of trading their fish and roots; we purchased as many as we wished on very moderate terms.

In 1811, real estate mogul and businessman John Jacob Astor established the town of Astoria as a trading post; the European and American population throughout the Pacific Northwest quickly began to rise. Along with this new prosperity came new cultures, goods and, tragically, diseases that disproportionately afflicted the Natives. Between 1800 and 1830, a majority of the indigenous Pacific Northwest people, whose immune systems were unable to fight the new viruses, died of smallpox, malaria and other European-borne illnesses.

In 1851, the federal government (represented by Anson Dart, the first superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory) negotiated treaties with 19 tribes in western Oregon and southwestern Washington, including the Chinook on the Columbia River. The tribes signed each in good faith, but Congress ratified none of them. As a result, none of the land on the coast that was taken from the Native people and opened to settlement was legally obtained by ratified treaty.

The Chinook believed that they had negotiated their rights “to stay within our aboriginal territory, maintain access to resources and importantly remain in close proximity with the bones of our ancestors.” However, according to Chinook history, “That winter we suffered immensely waiting for the goods and money promised to us, but we stayed.” Despite their persistence, by the time pioneers began arriving on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, the Chinook people were in the minority and unable to oppose the settlers’ land claims. In the early 1950s, the Chinook Nation’s constitution, based on the tenets of the original 1851 treaty, was written by the tribal leaders of the Clatsop and Kathlamet of what is now Oregon and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum and Willapa of Washington State.

In May 2019, the Chinook Tribe purchased 10 acres of property near what is today called Tansy Point, OR (at the mouth of the Columbia, near Astoria), close to the spot where in 1851 members of all five Chinookan tribes gathered to negotiate with Anson Dart and the federal government. That treaty negotiation is the only known instance when all tribal ancestors were gathered in one place; it holds both historical and cultural significance to the Chinook.

“We are putting in grants for building structures out there, like a plankhouse and a utility structure,” said Rachel Cushman, current secretary and treasurer for the tribe. “Hopefully, we can do some environmental restoration work as well (and) not just have it be another building site, but stream restoration and habitat restoration.”

As of 2020, the Chinook Nation is still not federally recognized. The tribe was briefly recognized in 2001, but had its status revoked 18 months later. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to watch Promised Land (2016), an award-winning documentary that follows the Chinook and the Duwamish tribes as they fight for the restoration of treaty rights they’ve long been denied.

Image credit: Chinook Lodge, Oregon, 1841, engraving by A. T. Agate, University of Washington Libraries, Reproduction Number NA3994

1 Comment

  1. Janis Allen on December 5, 2019 at 11:40 am

    I love this history stuff. I attend regularly at Edgefield.

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