We Live Amongst 10,000 Years of History – A Review of “Chinook Resilience” by Jon Daehnke

In an alternate universe there is a broadcaster reading the evening news, turning to sports she says, “In football today the Jackson Niggers lost their division playoff to the Baltimore Chinks.” 

While some people in this universe find these names objectionable, no one really does much about it. After all, that has been their names for a long time, and plus, “I know a Black and/or Chinese person, and they don’t care, so it must not be racist.”

The Twilight Zone twist is this, we live in that alternate universe. It’s the Washington Redskins instead of the Jackson Niggers, but the sentiment, and the justification, is the same. An organization that generates millions of dollars in 2018, and is celebrated on every media platform, does so under an overtly racist name. It is a name that denigrates groups of people who have already suffered attempted genocide. This is one of the more blatant examples, but racism against Native Americans is, comparatively, common. It is the people whose ancestors have lived on this continent for 10,000 years or more, who had their entire way of life destroyed in under 200 years, whose children were kidnapped and stripped of their heritage, whose languages were forbidden by law, whose women were sterilized against their will, for whom racial epithets and cartoonish caricatures, in sports, on sit-coms, in commercials, are still socially acceptable. 

A fundamental aspect of this racism is the romanticization of Native cultures (assuming in the process that they are all identical). Think Disney’s “Pocahontas”. The ideas that Native Americans lived in perfect harmony with nature, knew no boundaries, and didn’t have the concept of ownership were intrinsic to the rationale that they were primitive, uncivilized people who were undeserving of the resources inherent to where they lived. This line of thinking was, in part, how colonization was justified. It’s also false.

The Chinook people populate the land to the North and South of the lower Columbia River, from the mouth to around The Dalles, and have for thousands of years. As Jon D. Daehnke describes in Chinook Resilience, “Five hundred years ago Chinookan villages line Iyagayt’l imat – now called the Columbia River…A voyage along the river at night would be lit by hundreds of fires burning brightly along the banks…Voyagers would be well aware that there were not alone on the landscape, as thousands of people lived along this stretch of the river, making it one of the most densely populated areas in North America at the time.”

He continues, “Furthermore, the people of the river were part of an established large-scale trade network that ran well into the interior of North America and north and south along the Pacific coast…theirs was a cosmopolitan existence.”

What Daehnke describes are cities. Cities that 500 years ago, before Vancouver or Juan De Fuca ever sailed up the coast, centuries before Lewis and Clark, had already been established for generations. While it was a multicultural and multilingual society, the Chinook themselves had such control over the trading forces of the Pacific Northwest that a form of their language was the official trading language from modern day Alaska down through the Oregon coast. This disturbs the idea of a transient and unstructured band of hunters and gatherers. The Chinook were part of a vast interconnected society, consisting of nation states throughout the continent, that operated largely on the principles of trade. What occurred throughout this continent was not the development of culture, but an attempt at the replacement of it. Chinook Resilience is the story of a culture that persevered. Daehnke structures the historical aspect of the book as a series of opportunities for the destruction of the Chinook heritage.

European settles began coming to the region in large numbers in the early 19th century. After thousands of years of building a culture along the lower Columbia, the Chinook saw the influx of Europeans as an opportunity, not a threat. “Relying on their long-standing expertise in trade and commerce, Chinookans were initially able to use the influx of new trading partners as a way to increase their already considerable wealth and maintain their positions of power on the river.” However, as the settlers began to establish permanent homes, the British and United States were fighting over the Northern border of the United States, and territory that had belonged to the Chinook for thousands of years was suddenly being claimed by these two other nations. Just as the Chinookans were working to maintain control over their territory, disease, malaria and others, struck. The Native Americans, having no natural immunity, perished in great numbers.

“Both the Hudson’s Bay Company and Lewis and Clark estimated a regional Native population of somewhere near 15,500 in the early decades of the 19th century. By 1841 thus number had been reduced to 1,932, a decline of nearly 90 percent.” With houses empty colonialists moved in, and in 1850 the Donation Land Claim Act was passed, with significant help from Thurston County’s namesake Samuel Thurston, and with that the United States government declared that a couple squatting in Native American territory for four years was sufficient for ownership. The Chinook were largely dead from diseases introduced by foreign invaders, and were now having their land usurped by the same people in their absence. 

In 1851, their numbers still greatly diminished, several nations of the Chinook signed a treaty with the United States government. This treaty was blocked, however, by Thurston as he objected to the fact that it allowed the Chinook to stay on their land and that the Chinook would be paid for the land they did relinquish. With no treaty, the Chinook signed several others but none were ratified, the Chinook were unrecognized by the federal government as a nation and so had no real title to their lands, which is their situation to this very day. 

In the late 19th century Chinook children were rounded up and sent to boarding schools, the goal of which was to “‘kill the Indian [to] save the child’ (a policy phrasing attributed to Carlisle Indian School founder Richard Pratt) and so Chinookan children were forbidden to speak their language, forced to dress in white clothing, and often prevented from seeing or visiting their families.” This was a policy that lasted 40 years, into the 1920s.

The Chinook have been brought almost to extinction by disease. They lost generations of youth to boarding schools. Currently, the people of the Chinook suffer in unusually high numbers from drug abuse, alcoholism, and poverty. They are working to bring their language, ubiquitous in this land only 150 years ago, back from the dead. They have been denied federal recognition over and over again, after briefly receiving it by the outgoing Clinton administration in 2001 it was reversed by the Bush administration in 2002. With an ancestry of 10,000 years in the same location, the Chinook are federally unofficial.

This is not a happy story, but, in the end, it is an optimistic one.

In chronicling the hardships faced by the Chinook since European colonization Daehnke writes with the air of a seemingly objective anthropologist. He does not claim to be so, in fact he connects the practice of anthropology with colonialism early in the book, but he simply states the facts as they relate to his thesis, which is that the Chinook faced many challenges and yet continue to exist. In the final two chapters of his book, before his brief concluding remarks, Daehnke is focused on the excavation of the Cathlapotle plankhouse and its re-creation near by, and the reintroduction of canoes to the Chinook culture, respectively. In these chapters Daehnke lowers the veil of objectivity. This is to his credit, for objectivity in the study of human beings isn’t a real possibility, and a subject such as resilience deserves a subjective voice. 

Lewis and Clark rowed through Catlapotle in 1805, many hundreds of years after it had been settled by the Chinook. At the time Lewis and Clark estimated the population of the town around 900 people. About 50 years later it was abandoned, its residents lost to disease and displacement. In the 1990s the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland State University, “in consultation and collaboration with the Chinook Indian Nation” began the process of excavating it. Among its principle discoveries was the site of an ancient plankhouse. A plankhouse was a multi-family building designed not only for sleeping and storage but for dances, ceremonies, the drying and curing of food, and much more. They were deemed unsavory by the United States, as they were pushing for Native Americans to adopt the single family residence model, and so many were destroyed. The plankhouse discovered by this archeological effort seemed to be around 500 years old when it ceased being used in the 1800s. 

With the bicentennial of The Corps of Discovery mission, which had briefly visited Cathlapotle, on the horizon it is proposed that a new plankhouse be constructed. The Chinook see this as a positive development, a way to demonstrate their continued existence, but, as Daehnke points out, it is not without issues.

“Like most tribal nations along the Lewis and Clark trail, the Chinook Indian nation was concerned about its representation in the Lewis and Clark story, the undue weight given to a temporally brief expedition rather than the hundreds of generations of occupation by Native peoples, and an accurate portrayal of the devastation that this expedition ultimately represents.”

In the final chapter, “The Return of the Canoes and the Decolonization of Heritage” this story of the Chinook indulges itself in a happy ending. Daehnke describes in detail the craftsmanship of the Chinook canoes, of the mastery of their handling, how impressed Europeans were by the Chinooks ability to control them in high seas and rough waters. These canoes, like so much else, had disappeared. In part because of advances in technology, which the Chinooks took advantage of as well, but the absence of the canoes also represented a spiritual loss. Canoes were painstakingly crafted and decorated, they were the highest form of currency (to the degree that Lewis and Clark were unable to buy one from anyone, and so resorted to stealing one instead). They were considered living beings, members of the family. So their disappearance was more significant than just the result of outboard motors. 

In the 1970s Tom Heidlebaugh and his colleagues refurbished an old canoe to visit Native historical sites around La Push. In the 1980s Bill Reid carved a a fifty foot long canoe based on the measurements of a Haida canoe in a museum collection and paddled it to the World’s Fair in Vancouver, BC. Then, in 1989, the Paddle to Seattle, organized between the nations around Hoh and La Push, as well the Tulalip, Lummi, Heiltsuk, and Suquamish, brought a flotilla of canoes to Golden Gardens State Park. These same groups agreed to meet again in four years, and in 1993 23 canoes, and around two thousand people, gathered in Bella Bella. Four years later they met again in La Push, and after that it became a yearly tradition that has become known as Tribal Journeys. 

The loss of canoes was indicative of the lost culture of the Chinook, and so Daehnke uses their return in the late 20th century as an indication of the revitalization of that culture.  Daehnke points to the healing aspects of participating in Tribal Journeys, particularly in regards to drug and alcohol addiction. Finally, according to Daehnke, Tribal Journeys represents decolonization. 

“One of the goals of colonization was to strip away all of those things that made people Indian-a viewpoint embodied in the famous dictum, ‘Kill the Indian, and save the man.’ Whether it was through the institution of of boarding schools and efforts to remove Native children from their families, the attempted separation of tribal communities from their lands and languages, or direct efforts at eradicating Native populations, colonialism worked to kill the Indian. Tony Johnson (chair of the Chinook Culture Committee and later elected tribal chair) argues however, that Tribal Journeys and the return of the canoes provide a path to decolonization, a way to remind people of the Indigeneity and resilience: ‘Nowadays, one thing we say is “Feed you Indian.” I mean, canoe journeys, Tribal Journeys, being in the canoes, the Salmon Ceremony, things we do-they feed your Indian. You have to find ways to do that.’”

Daehnke points out early on issues with anthropology as regards a living culture, particularly when it is anthropology conducted by the member of one culture on another. The story of the Chinook is not his story, and so his telling of it is necessarily distinct from the story itself. It’s an important point, but not an all encompassing one. The story Daehnke tells is of a culture that faced direct attacks by a racist and oppressive government. A culture systematically prevented from economic development. A culture decimated by disease and addiction. A culture that is still openly mocked and belittled in mainstream society. Mostly, however, it is the well-told and information rich story of a culture that has persevered. 

“Today the Chinook nation has approximately three thousand enrolled citizens…” The Chinook, and hundreds of other indigenous nations around the country, are bringing back their languages, their rituals, their ceremonies. They are taking back their rights, with or without government permission or recognition. The story Daehnke has told is of a people who withstood tragic circumstances and, though diminished, and though there is incredible work ahead, have prevailed in important ways. This is the Chinooks’ story, not Daehnke’s, and it cannot be told in its entirety by a person who it does not belong to, but Daehnke has provided it a voice. It is the story of how the resilience of a people has led to their perseverance. it is a story that suggests that in any nation, under any government, if decent citizens continue to be resilient, then decency will persevere. It’s a story we all need to hear these days. 


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