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Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon and Columbia Rivers
Chapter VI


ALL the Indian tribes inhabiting the country about the mouth of the Columbia, and for a hundred miles round, may be classed in the following manner 1. Chinooks;-2. Clatsops;-3. Catlilamux; —4. Wakicunis; —5. Wacalamus; —6. Cattleputles;7. Clatacanias;-8. Killimux;-9. Moitnomas; and, 10. Chickelis; amounting collectively to about 2,000 warriors. But they are a commercial rather than a warlike people. Traffic in slaves and furs is their occupation. They are said to be decreasing in numbers. All these tribes appear to be descended from the same stock, live in rather friendly intercourse with, and resemble one another in language, dress, and habits. Their origin, like that of the other aborigines of the continent, is involved in fable, although they pretend to be derived from the muskrat. Polygamy is common among them, and a man may have as many wives as he pleases, but he is bound to maintain his own children. In war, every man belonging to the tribe is bound to follow his chief; and a coward is often punished with death. All property is sacred in the eye of the law, nor can any one touch it excepting the principal chief, or head Tye-yea, who is above the law, or rather he possesses an arbitrary power without any positive check, so that if he conceive a liking to anything belonging to his subjects, be it a wife or a daughter, he can take it without infringing the law; but he must, nevertheless, pay for what he takes—and their laws assign a nominal value to property of every kind.

The Chinooks are crafty and intriguing and have probably learned the arts of cheating, flattery, and dissimulation in the course of their traffic with the coasting traders: for, on our first arrival among them, we found guns, kettles, and various other articles of foreign manufacture in their possession, and they were up to all the shifts of bargaining. Nor are they less ingenious than inquisitive; the art they display in the making of canoes, of pagoda, and of fishing-tackle, and other useful instruments, deserves commendation. They show much skill in carved work, which they finish with the most delicate polish.

The men are generally stout, muscular, and strong, but not tall, and have nothing ferocious in their countenances. Their dress invariably consists of a loose garment, made of the skin of the wood-rat, neatly sewed together and painted, which they wrap round the body like a blanket; nor does the hardy savage, though constantly rustling through the woods, ever wear shirt, leggings, or shoes. The chief's robe is made of sea-otter skin and other valuable furs. All classes wear the cheapool, or hat, which is made of a tough strong kind of grass, and is of so close a texture as to be water-proof: The crown is of a conic form, terminating generally in a point at the top, and the rim so very broad as to screen the shoulders from the rain. The cheapool is chequered or diversified with the rude figures of different animals, particularly the dog and deer, not painted, but ingeniously interwoven. Their war garments are of two kinds, one is termed clemal, of elk-skin, dressed and worked to the thickness of nearly half an inch, and arrow-proof. The clemal nearly covers the whole body, with an opening left on the right side to allow the arm free action in combat. The other is a kind of vest, made of small round sticks of the size and shape of arrows, twelve inches long: they are laid side to side, and then sewed together, and fixed on the body like a waist coat. This is arrow-proof also. They carry a circular shield, about eighteen inches in diameter, which is likewise made of the elk-skin; but in addition to its thickness it is hardened by fire and painted, and is not only arrow-proof, but proof against the knife and the tomahawk also. Their implements of warfare are guns, bows and arrows, knife, bludgeon, and tomahawk, all of which they use with great dexterity. A Chinooke Indian armed cap-à-pie is a most unsightly and hideous being.

When not employed either in war or hunting, the men generally spend their time in gambling. The chief game, chal-e-chal, at which they stake their most valuable property, is played by six persons, with ten circular palettes of polished wood, in size and shape resembling dollars. A mat three feet broad and six feet long is spread on the ground, and the articles at stake laid at one end, then the parties seat themselves, three on each side of the mat, facing one another; this done, one of the players takes up the ten palettes, shuffling and shifting them in his hands, when at a signal given he separates them in his two fists, and throws them out on the mat towards his opponent, and according as the palettes roll, slide, or lie on the mat when thrown, the party wins or loses. This he does three times successively. In this manner each tries his skill in turn, till one of the parties wins. Whole days and nights are spent in this game without ceasing, and the Indians seldom grumble or repine even should they lose all that they possess. During the game the players keep chanting a loud and sonorous tune, accompanying the different gestures of the body just as the voyageurs keep time to the paddle.

Having noticed some of the characteristic manners and customs of the men, I shall now indulge the reader's curiosity with a few remarks on the habits and accomplishments of the fair sex. The women are generally of the middle size, but very stout and flabby, with short necks and shapeless limbs; yet they are well-featured, with something of a smile on the countenance, fair complexion, light hair, and prominent eyes. In addition to the rat-garment used by the men, the women wear a kind of fringed petticoat' suspended from the waist down to the knees, made of the inner rind of the cedar bark, and twisted into threads, which hang loose like a weaver's thrums, and keep flapping and twisting about with every motion of the body, giving them a waddle or duck gait. This garment might deserve praise for its simplicity, or rather for its oddity, but it does not screen nature 'from the prying eye; yet it is remarkably convenient on many occasions.. In a calm the sails lie close to the mast, metaphorically speaking, but when the wind blows the bare poles are seen.

Instead of the cedar petticoat, the women of some tribes prefer a breech cloth, similar to the pow of the, Owhyhee females, and is nothing more than a piece of dressed deer-skin, six inches broad and four feet long, which, after passing between the thighs, is tied round the waist. Words can hardly express the disgusting unsightliness of this singular female dress. The women, when not employed in their domestic labour, are generally occupied in curing fish, collecting roots, and making mats and baskets; the latter, of various sizes and different shapes, are made of the roots of certain shrubs, which are flexible and strong, and they are capable of containing any liquid. In this branch of industry they excel among Indian tribes. The neatness and good taste displayed in the Chinooke baskets are peculiar to that article, which is eagerly sought after as a curiosity.

The women here are not generally subject to that drudgery common among most other Indian tribes. Slaves do all the laborious work; and a Chinooke matron is constantly attended by two, three, or more slaves, who are on all occasions obsequious to her will. In trade and barter the women are as actively employed as the men, and it is as common to see the wife, followed by a train of slaves, trading at the factory, as her husband. Slaves are the fruits of war and of trade among the tribes along the seacoast far to the north, and are regularly bought and sold in the same manner as any other article of property; but I never knew a single instance of a Chinooke, or one of the neighbouring tribes, ever selling his wife, or daughter, or any other member of his family.

Chastity is not considered a virtue by the Chinooke women, and their amorous propensities know no bound& All classes, from the highest to the lowest, indulge in coarse sensuality and shameless profligacy. Even the chief would boast of obtaining a paltry toy or trifle in return for the prostitution of his virgin daughter.

The females are excessively fond of singing and adorning their persons with the fantastic trinkets peculiar to savages; and on these occasions the slaves are generally rigged out the best, in order to attract attention and procure admirers. All classes marry very young; and every woman, whether free born or a slave, is purchased by her husband.

Children are suckled at the breast till their second or third year, and the mother, in consequence, becomes an old hag at the age of thirty-five.

The women have also their own amusements. Their chief game, called omintook, is played by two only, with four beaver teeth, curiously marked and numbered on one side, which they throw like dice. The two women being seated on the ground, face to face, like the men at chal-e-chal,. one of them takes up the teeth, keeps shaking them in her hands for some time, then throws them down on the mat, counts the numbers uppermost, and repeating the sum thrice, hands the teeth over to the other party, who proceeds in like manner. The highest number wins. At this game, trinkets of various descriptions and value are staked. On a fine day, it is amusing to see a whole camp or village, both men and women, here and there in numerous little bands, gambling, jeering, and laughing at one another, while groups of children keep in constant motion, either, in the water or practising the bow and arrow, and even the aged take a lively interest in what is passing, and there appears a degree of happiness among them, which civilized men, wearied with care and anxious pursuits, perhaps seldom enjoy.

These people live by hunting and fishing; but the greater part of their food is derived from the waters. The Columbia salmon, of which there are two species, are perhaps as fine as any in the world, and are caught in the utmost abundance during the summer season: so that, were a foreign market to present itself; the natives alone might furnish 1,000 tons annually. The largest caught in my time weighed forty-seven pounds. Sturgeon also are very abundant, and of uncommon size, yet tender and well flavoured, many of them weighing upwards of 700 pounds, and one caught and brought to us, measured 13 feet 9 inches in length, and weighed 1,130 pounds. There is a small fish resembling the smelt or herring, known by the name of ulichan, which enters the river in immense shoals, in the spring of the year. The ulichans are generally an article of trade with the distant tribes, as they are caught only at the entrance of large rivers. To prepare them for a distant market, they are laid side to side, head and tail alternately, and then a thread run through both extremities links them together, in which state they are dried, smoked, and sold by the fathom, hence they have obtained the name of fathom-fish. Roots and berries likewise form no inconsiderable portion of the native's food. Strawberries are ripe in January. The wapatoe, a perennial root, of the size, shape, and taste of the common potato, is a favourite article of food at all times of the year. This esculent is highly esteemed by the whites; many other roots and berries are to be had, all of which grow spontaneously in the low marshy ground. Fish, roots, and berries, can therefore be had in perfection, all along the coast, every month in the year. But not a fish of any kind is taken out of the ocean.

The circulating medium in use among these people is a small white shell called higua, about two inches long, of a convex form, and hollow in the heart, resembling in appearance the small end of a smoking pipe. The higua is thin, light, and durable, and may be found of all lengths, between three inches down to one-fourth of an inch, and increases or decreases in value according to the number required to make a fathom, by which measure they are invariably sold. Thirty to a fathom are held equal in value to three fathoms of forty, to four of fifty, and so on. So high are the higua prized, that I have seen six of 2½ inches long refused for a new gun. But of late, since the whites came among them, the beaver skin called enna, has been added to the currency; so that, by these two articles, which form the medium of trade, or property is valued, and all exchange fixed and determined. An Indian, in buying an article, iu variably asks the question, Queentshich higua? or, Queentshich enna? That is, how many higna? or, how many beaver skins is it?

All Indians are more or less superstitious, and we need scarcely be surprised at that trait in their cla racter, when even civilized men respect so many prejudices. Every great chief has one or more pagoda or wooden deities in his house, to which, in all great councils of peace or war he presents the solemn pipe, and this is the only religious temple known among them.

They acknowledge a good and a bad spirit, the former named Econé, the latter Ecutoch. The Etaminuas, or priests, are supposed to possess a secret power of conversing with the Econ, and of destroying the influence of the Ecutoch: they are employed in all eases of sickness to intercede for the dying, that these may have a safe passage to the land of departed spirits. Besides the Etaminua, there is another class called Keelallee, or doctors, and it is usual for women, as well as men, to assume the character of a Keelalle, whose office it is to administer medicine and cure diseases. But the antic gestures, rude and absurd ceremonies gone through by them in visiting the sick, are equally useless and ridiculous, humming, howling, singing, and rattling of sticks, as if miracles were to be performed by mere noise; yet if we forget these useless gesticulations, which may be called the ornamental part, we must allow them to be a serviceable and skilful class of people. Their knowledge of roots and herbs enables them to meet the most difficult cases, and to perform cures, particularly in all external complaints.

The property of a deceased person is generally destroyed, and the near relations cut their hair, disfigure and lacerate their bodies; nor is this all, at the funeral ceremony strangers are here, as among some oriental nations, paid to join in the lamentation. All, excepting slaves, are laid in canoes or wooden sepulchres, and conveyed to some consecrated rock or thicket assigned for the dead; but slaves are otherwise disposed of; that is, if he or she dies in summer, the body is carelessly buried; but if in winter, a stone is tied about the neck, and the body thrown into the river, and none but slaves ever touch a slave after death.

When the salmon make their first appearance in the river, they are never allowed to be cut crosswise, nor boiled, but roasted; nor are they allowed to be sold without the heart being first taken out, nor to be kept over night; but must be all consumed or eaten the day they are taken out of the water; all these rules are observed for about ten days. These superstitious customs perplexed us at first not a little, because they absolutely refused to sell us any unless we complied with their notions, which of course we consented to do. All the natives along the coast navigate in canoes, and so expert are they that the stormiest weather or roughest water never prevents them from cruising on their favourite element. The Chinook and other war canoes are made like the Birinan barge, out of a solid tree, and are from forty to fifty feet long, with a human face or a white-headed eagle, as large as life, carved on the prow, and raised high in front.

If we may judge from appearances, these people are subject to but few diseases. Consumption and the venereal disease are the complaints most common amongst them; from their knowledge in simples, they generally, succeed in curing the latter even in its worst stages.

In winter they live in villages, but in summer rove about from place to place. Their houses are oblong, and built of broad, split cedar-planks, something in the European style, and covered with the bark of the same tree. They are sufficiently large and commodious to contain all the members of a numerous family, slaves included. At the top or ridge pole, an opening gives free passage to the smoke; they have one or more, according to the number of families in each. But I never saw more than four fires, or above eighty persons—slaves and all—in the largest house.

Towards the spring of the year, or as soon as the rainy season is over, all the Indians on the coast break up their winter quarters, and form large square sheds, for the purpose of drying and curing their fish, roots, and berries. Within this huge enclosure they then live in hordes, like so many cattle in a fold; but these sheds are only, for temporary purposes; and it must have been on some such occasion that Meares found Wickananish in his "household of 800 persons." They, migrate towards the interior sometimes for months together; war and traffic in slaves often call them to a distance; and this may account for the absence of inhabitants about Port Discovery and Desolation Sound when Vancouver was there. But another cause, and perhaps the best that can be assigned, for their abandoning their winter domicilea as soon as the warm weather sets in, is the immense swarms of fleas that breed in them during that season. You might as well encounter a bee-hive, as approach one of these deserted villages.
Among other fantastic usages, many of the tribes on the coast of the Pacific, and particularly those about Columbia, flatten the heads of their children. No sooner, therefore, is a child born, whether male or female, than its head is put into a press, or mould of boards, in order to flatten it. From the eyebrows, the head of a Chinook inclines backward to the crown; the back part inclining forward, but in a lees degree. There is thus a ridge raised from ear to ear, giving the head the form of a wedge; and the more acute the angle, the greater the beauty. The flatness of the head is considered the distinguishing mark of being free born. All slaves are forbidden to bear this aristocratic distinction. Yet I have seen one or two instances to the contrary, where a favourite slave was permitted to flatten the head of a first-born child. No such custom is practised in any part of the interior. But all nations, civilized as well as savage, have their peculiar prejudices. The law of the land compels a South-Sea Islander to pull out a tooth; a northern Indian cuts a joint of his finger; national usage obliges a Chinese lady to deform her feet; an English lady, under the influence of fashion, compresses her waist; while a Chinook lady deforms her head. But Solomon hath said, "That which is crooked cannot be made straight."

As tracts suitable for agricultural purposes, may be mentioned several fertile and rich flats on the Columbia, although the country generally presents but a rocky, light, and sandy soil. On the south side, the river is joined, about eighty miles above Astoria, by the Wallamitte, a fine clear stream, 300 miles long, which, with its tributary rivulets, fertilizes one of the finest valleys west of the Rocky Mountains. The Wallamitte was always called by the whites, "I the garden of the Columbia." For forty miles the river is navigable for boats of the largest size, to the falls, but there it is barred across by a ledge of rocks, over which the whole body of water descends —a height of 30 feet—in one smooth green sheet. The climate of this valley is salubrious and dry, differing materially from that of the sew-coast; and the heat is sufficiently intense to ripen every kind of grain in a short time.

Descending from the Wallamitte to Puget's Sound, north of the Columbia, where there is a large and convenient sea-port, or harbour, we find here a tract ranking next, perhaps, in an agricultural point of view. The plain is well watered by several fine rivers, and is far more extensive than the valley of the Wallamitte, nor is the soil much inferior; but there is a vast difference in the climate; rain falls near the coast almost incessantly from the beginning of November till April, and the country in other respects is gloomy and forbidding.

But, however inviting may be the soil, the remote distance and savage aspect of the boundless wilderness along the Pacific seem to defer the colonization of such a region to a period far beyond the present generation; and yet, if we consider the rapid progress of civilization in other new and equally remote countries, we might still indulge the hope of seeing this, at no distant time, one of the most flourishing countries on the globe.

The language spoken by these people is guttural, very difficult for a foreigner to learn, and equally hard to pronounce. To speak the Chinook dialect, you must be a Chinook.


 


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