Photo by Edward S. Curtis. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

“It is said that in mythic times it took only one day to travel the route from The Dalles to the mouth of the Columbia River. It took Coyote five days, so, as usual he made it that way for all the people to come.”

— Tony Johnson

Chinookan cedar canoes ranged from one person gathering canoes that could be carried from lake to lake to giant ocean going cargo canoes that could carry many tons. As the primary means of transportation for people and goods along the Columbia and its tributaries, canoes were critical in moving trade goods throughout the market networks of the region. While Chinook carvers built massive ocean-going canoes, most people would have used medium-sized canoes, as pictured above, primarily for daily travel as well as (sea mammal) hunting and fishing.

“As sacred to the Northwestern coastal tribal people as a member of the family.”

That is how Chinook Nation council member Kate Elliott described the historic importance of canoes to the Chinookan communities of the lower Columbia River in 2011. In the same way that horses came to define the tribes of the Great Plains, canoes played a central role in Chinookan social and economic life. This efficient mode of transportation contributed to high populations in the region, wide kinship networks, wealth, and the dissemination of Chinookan culture along the Columbia. Canoes transported people and goods from the present-day city of The Dalles to the sea, and along the Northwest Coast, a landscape criss-crossed with rivers and streams. They opened the ocean and its resources to the Chinook who braved its breakers. Canoes represented the skill, creativity, and ingenuity of their makers. And they held an elevated place in the household, so much so that Chinook families named their canoes and placed them in indigenous cemeteries. Sometimes hundreds of canoe burials populated a burial site, where these vessels, drilled with holes to house bodies were seen as working canoes in the land of the dead.

Audio: Dr. Kenneth Ames discusses historic populations along the Columbia River

This photograph of the Nemah River area of Willapa Bay illustrates just some of the waterways Chinookan canoes would traverse in the region. Image pchs 1996.92.1 courtesy of the Pacific County Historical Society