Chinook women really have a very important role in our society and while most of the time, men were headmen, that is actually not entirely true. Women could also hold the position of head-person. In one of our main villages here, in fact—the village of Comcomly, the head person that was very famous in Lewis and Clark’s time– his mother was the head person there, and that’s who he inherited that right from. Chinooks inherit rights from our parents and you inherit rights equally from your mother and father. Much of our culture that we have inherited is the result of some very strong women.

— (Tony Johnson interview: 2002)

The Chinook were status-oriented, with specific protocols, clear taboos, and a distinct hierarchy that included high-level leaders, commoners, and slaves. Powerful individual leaders were identified through heredity and merit, but the Chinook did not align themselves as a “tribe” under a single “chief.” Rather, individual leaders, or headmen and women, earned respect based on a combination of social position and individual ability.

Artifacts at Middle Village include European goods found inside Chinook plankhouses. The goods were used alongside traditional ritual items such as the pipe stems visible on the lower left and the carved bowl on the middle right. Images courtesy of National Park Service, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

The archaeological riches found at Middle Village and the accompanying historical record suggest Chief Comcomly, a well-known headman of the Lower Columbia, may have lived here. Whomever the excavated tea caddy and porcelain (above) belonged to, the unearthed house at Middle Village clearly reflects the wealth and position of its occupants.

Comcomly, Chinook leader at Qwats’amts is the headman who non-Native traders recognized as having been most powerful of the region’s Chinookan headmen.  With his strategic position at the river’s mouth , it is likely that Comcomly wielded power throughout the Lower Columbia region. Yet, maritime fur traders and explorers like Lewis and Clark misunderstood Native social organization. Where they saw people in villages as part of a unified group of “Chinook,” the Tsinuk lived in extended kinship groups led by those with hereditary rights. These first and secondary “chiefs” often acted jointly, making important decisions based on their own areas of expertise and knowledge.

Part of a headman’s job was to determine the equitable distribution of resources. Using the Euro-American term “chief,” Charles Cultee explained the role of the village leader in a whale hunt to anthropologist Franz Boas in 1894:

“Those who found the whale do not cut it; they wait for the chief. All the people reach the whale. Then the chief takes a stick and measures the whale from the head to the tail. Then he tells the people: ‘You will cut here; you will cut there.’ It is distributed among those people. The common people cut from the tail end. When it is all cut, it is carried to the town into the houses. When the whale is measured, the chief tells the people to make the [measuring] sticks two spans and one hand width long, if the whale is large; [two spans wide if the whale is smaller]. The people are told: ‘You cut here,’ and they cut the whale. Everything is done this way A cut two spans and one hand width large is exchanged for one blanket, or for a string of dentalia five shells longer than a fathom. When a cut two spans large is sold it is exchanged for a ground-hog blanket.”