Robinson, Greg. Chinook Nation. Volume 1, 3rd Edition.
Report by Sarah Robison-Mathes
The article by Greg Robinson investigates the early encounters between
Europeans and the Chinook Indians of the Pacific Northwest. He compares the idyllic
image of the Lewis and Clark and their corps that is invoked by celebrations of the
expedition, and what it meant for the expansion of the early United States of America,
with the Chinook tribes and what European intrusion meant for them. The European
incursion into the Pacific Northwest resulted in the marginalization and exploitation of
Robison begins by introducing the reader to European colonists that have just entered
the Pacific Northwest. He describes it as a bountiful land with the potential to be very
profitable for the settlers, and he also identifies it as “Chinook Country.” Within the first
paragraph Robinson establishes that the land was already inhabited by the Chinook
people, a complex culture with a rich history. It’s important that he makes this
distinction. The early European explorers, such as those of the Lewis and Clark
expedition, didn’t trek an uninhabited land. They encountered other cultures that very
much affected the way the Pacific Northwest was shaped as Europeans appropriated
the land and resources.
It’s also important to note the way that indigenous cultures aided Lewis and Clark’s
expedition to the Pacific Northwest, which Robinson describes. He mentions that some
historians argue that the expedition would not have experienced success. It was pivotal
that the expedition, as well as later travelers, had assistance from the native tribes that
were already experienced with the land and its resources.
Even with that aid, Robinson describes the arrival of Lewis and Clark’s corps as less
than triumphant. They had been traveling by foot and canoe for many months, and
entered the Northwest during the long rainy season. Their stores were diminished, their
supplies were greatly worn, and their health was faltering in the cold, wet weather.
Robinson illustrates it best when he says, “They had arrived at the goal of their journey,
but instead of glory, they found misery.” The journey had been extremely taxing and the
land itself was unaccommodating to these strangers.
It was largely the explorers’ unfamiliarity with the land that made their expedition such a
hardship. They were accustomed to hunting big game for food, such as elk and buffalo.
These animals were less plentiful in the Northwest. The expedition had used up most of
their food supplies, and they were at a loss when it came to gathering and hunting the
food of the Pacific Northwest.
At that juncture, their interactions with the native Chinook tribes strongly affected how
the corps weathered that winter. The Chinook offered the expedition supplies and food
as a goodwill gesture, but were mostly uninterested in the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The summer trade ships had left as the corps arrived, and the Chinook were already
stocked with goods. The expedition’s trade goods were few in and in poor condition,
and they had little to offer the Chinook.
The expedition corps also continued to insist on hunting large game although they lack
the skills to preserve the leftover meat, and a large amount of it spoiled. Their disputes
with the Chinook also numbered among the discomforts. Robinson notes that “They
were continually frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to trade valuables from the
Chinook for trinkets,” essentially saying that the corps attempted to trade objects of little
use to the Chinook. Their frustrations eventually culminated in the theft of a valuable
canoe of the Chinook. Given that the Chinook’s prowess was greatly due to their
expertly crafted canoes and skill of travel, this was a great insult. Robinson intimates
that this disagreeable encounter between the two cultures was an ill omen for the future
interactions between Chinook and settlers.
The dominance over the land by the Chinook was immensely diminished over the next
two hundred years. The Chinook people were exploited as settlers and traders moved
into the Pacific Northwest, driven by their desire for land and resources. Treaties were
arranged, and then duly ignored. Many tribes were displaced from their homes, and
their populations depleted by disease.
Robinson makes clear his disdain for the “Hollywood style hype” that is tacked on to the
Lewis and Clark expedition, especially considering the grim exploitation of the Chinook
people that occurred as a result. He goes on to question the dialogue between Native
Americans now and the commemoration of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The
expedition for many marks the “beginning of the end” for many Native Americans, and
while American citizens celebrate the intrepid explorers that conquered the Pacific
Northwest, the Chinook people are still a landless people that continue to be exploited
by the government that foisted itself upon them.
Robinson rewinds to before European colonization again, and illustrates the relationship
that the Chinook had with the land. He says they “operated in a harmonic balance.”
Though the balance swayed, it maintained its integrity and the Chinook tribes lived with
the even rhythm of the natural world.
When Europeans arrived in the Pacific balance, that balance was greatly disrupted.
Animal populations were decimated as various European factions fought for an
advantage over the land and its resources. The Chinook considered the Europeans to
be new trading partners, much as they considered other tribes. They did not consider
the way that the Europeans would infiltrate the Northwest, building forts and fighting on
lands that belonged to the Chinook. Biological warfare was also used to uproot the
Chinook and displace them as they ran from diseases like smallpox.
In order to make a life within the European structure, the Chinook were forced to work
and trade with the Europeans, send their children to school, and buy land for a home
that was rightfully already theirs. Fishermen adapted to European regulations. Families
relocated for jobs. The Chinook people continue to struggle for reparation and
recognition but this struggle becomes largely futile in the world of politics.
Although the exploitation of the Chinook people is overlooked, the remaining Chinook
people continue to carry Chinook traditions and culture with them. Robinson recalls
some of the ways that baskets and nets were woven, or how cedar bark was gathered
for use throughout the season. He also invokes some of the language of the Chinook for
animals and plants of the Northwest.
Also crucial to the Chinook culture was the adherence to rules and traditions. For
example, the treatment of a stranded whale was to be handled with extreme care. A
failure to follow these rules might cause other stranded whales to drift away. Infractions
on traditions might cause sickness, bad luck, or death. The number five was also very
important to Chinook traditions and myths. Many mythical characters came in groups of
five, and wishes were to be repeated five times, making five easy to identify as a
significant Chinook numeral.
The Chinook people were displaced and marginalized by the European settlers as they
battled for resources. Those that didn’t die of European plagues were forced to conform
to the European government and infrastructures, as well as European culture. Despite
that, to this day many of the Chinook continue to carry their customs and culture with