“I really absorbed the fishing life and I could see the high boaters, and my dad would be working on the engines over here but I’d be ready to go fishing.” Chinook Indian and fisherman Daniel Stephan recalls growing up near Pillar Rock in a 2011 interview.
The rapid expansion of the Columbia River fishing industry in the late nineteenth century displaced many Chinook families from their accustomed fishing grounds. At times the tensions forming around the increasingly competitive industry took on a physical nature as Chinook Indians attempted to assert their rights to fish in events like the Sand Island raid of 1927 led by George Charlie. (Dupris et all, 119) In Pillar Rock and the nearby cannery town of Altoona patterns of adaptation and resistance often took on a far more nuanced character. That is not to say that Pillar Rock was devoid of violence; Chinook women in particular became subject to the abuse of cannery workers and fishermen. (Stephan and Miller, 2011) Nevertheless, the lines between opportunity and limitation were in constant negotiation as Chinookans continued to redefine and maintain a place for themselves within the community.
Though less pronounced in the historical record, Chinookans created economic opportunities for themselves within the fishing community, often in various support services. According to census records early Pillar Rock Packing Company co-founder and cannery boss John T.M. Harrington employed an “Indian” woman named Nellie to take care of household chores. (Washington Territory Census, 1871) Other women in the community took on similar housekeeping roles well into the twentieth century. Kinship became not only a way to form familial ties with Euro-Americans, but also offered an opportunity for the continuance of economic traditions. Martha Stephan became known for her abilities in hanging and mending nets, a valuable skill which she learned from her father. (Stephan and Miller, 2011) However, Chinook participation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth fishery was not limited to these support services. Chinook fishers continued to engage with the industry on a much smaller scale and managed to pass on their knowledge of the fishery to younger generations through oral tradition and maintaining particular sites.
Despite the exclusionary practices of cannery owners and racism of the fishery Chinook fishermen managed to retain a foothold in the industry in ways that would have major repercussions in later years. In the second half of the twentieth century Chinooks joined indigenous people across the state of Washington began agitating for fishing rights as outlined in original treaties. These efforts erupted in conflict both on the water and in the courts and continue to impact the state of indigenous fishing rights in the region. For the Chinook, these efforts remain intimately tied to their ongoing struggle for tribal restoration.