“… winter storms … often times hit the bluff, the water … and big fir, spruce trees fell off of the bluff and it was the old Indian women who came up the beach and my dad [Rufus Rhoades] …they lived down on the beach in a cabin or it was a tent house at first until they got the big ranch house built, and he said the old Indian women came up the beach Tutamukan hyan which just means jabbering and talking in Chinook and they would strip the great big roots off of the spruce trees and those were the roots they took and made waterproof baskets with….
But that was how and why they were coming up the beach was to get the spruce roots to make waterproof baskets.”
— Anna May Strong, Chinook Elder, born 1928 in Bay Center, Washington
Basketry has been a significant art, craft, and necessity along the Columbia River for centuries. Historically, baskets made possible the planning, processing, and preservation of food. Crafted to provide storage for travel and trade, baskets held salmon, shellfish, clams, dried meat, berries, and even liquids. In fact, the Chinook sometimes used tightly woven baskets for cooking, as described by James Swan in 1857:
Their method of cooking is by simply roasting or boiling. This latter process was formerly done in baskets by means of hot stones. The article, whether fish or flesh, was put in the basket, then covered with water, and a supply of hot stones kept up till the whole was cooked. I have seen them perform this process, as they fancy their salmon tastes better when cooked this way.
Euro-American explorers and settlers noted the fine craftsmanship of Chinook baskets. James Swan described highly ornamented and ”handsome” baskets. Forty years earlier, around 1810 Alexander Ross observed:
“The women, when not employed in their domestic labor, 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.”
Archaeology provides additional clues about the importance of basketry to the Chinook. Because organic materials, like the cedar bark used for making baskets, rot in soil, they are not common in the archaeological record. But sometimes underground water preserves organic material , such as when archaeologists found the remains of a cedar bark basket, The “Sunken Village” basket, on Oregon’s Sauvie Island in 2006.
Contemporary weavers are also important sources of information about basketry. Chinookan women typically passed basket weaving knowledge from generation to generation. Bessie Pickernell, Mildred Lagergren, and Ellen Fuller have passed on important basketry knowledge to Chinook peoples in the twentieth century. Oral instruction handed down through the generations helped them and contemporary artists like Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco Chinookan) to reproduce ancient techniques, and thus shape their own cultural statements. They, in turn, have passed that knowledge to other Chinookan peoples and to multiple institutions responsible for preserving history.
- Mercer, Bill. People of the River: Native Arts of the Oregon Territory. Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, 2005.
- Moulton, Gary, ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1803-1806. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
- Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Columbia River: Being A Narrative of the Expedition Fitted out by John Jacob Astor to Establish the Pacific Fur Company, with an Account of Some of the Indian Tribes on the Coast of the Pacific. London: Smith, Elder and Company, 65, Cornhill,1849 .
- Strong, Anna May. Interview by Margaret Payne, Katy Barber, and Melissa Swank. January 29, 2012. Raymond, Washington. Transcribed by Katy Barber, July 13, 2012
- Swan, James. The Northwest Coast; or Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1857.