Kloshe Nanitch | The Guardian of Altoona. Rare Chinook house stone figure believed to have stood outside a Chinook Indian longhouse. The figure probably represents a mythological character important in the Chinookan spiritual belief structure. Such carved figures, in stone or wood, were erected outside longhouses to protect the occupants from evil spirits and influences. Image courtesy of CultureWatch Northwest.

From Columbia Hills State Park east of The Dalles, downriver to Effigy Beach and out to the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of pictorial symbols (pictographs) and rock carvings (petroglyphs) testify to the ancient Chinookan artistic traditions of the Columbia River region’s original inhabitants. Although recognizably part of an overall Pacific Northwest Indigenous artistic tradition, Chinookan art belongs to a “southern coast” tradition whose style is distinct to the Lower Columbia River region. Lower Columbia River art is recognizable by distinctive design elements which have utilitarian, social, and religious meanings.

In the past, Chinookan communities appointed individuals to specific occupations, including artisans tasked with creating objects from wood, bone, stone, antler, and horn. These artisans created everyday objects like carved wooden spoons and bowls, or stone pipes and canoes embellished with artistic elements that gave them symbolic power and increased their value. The use of animal characteristics (zoomorphic) and human characteristics (anthropomorphic) reflect the Indigenous perspective of how a body is structured. Artists represent bodies  with geometrical shapes or patterns (geometricized) often with skeletal or x-ray type attributes.  Numbers that have importance to the Chinook, such as three and five, and mirror imagery (double imagery) are also prevalent.

Paint application on objects may indicate that the individual who made or commissioned the object had high social status. Black paint signifies the earth, while red represents the ancestors. Stand-alone objects that remained in place (in-situ) like carved stones, wealth posts, and burial canoes often served specific spiritual purposes and varied in scale depending on use, placement, and materials used.


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