Clatsop Indian Flag
North Oregon Coast: The Clatsop Indians
The areas that we now know as Astoria, Gearhart, Seaside, and Cannon Beach, Oregon, were first inhabited by the Clatsop Indians. The Clatsop is an ancient tribe, whose ancestors had lived for thousands of years before the white man “discovered” the region. The white man’s chronology says that the Clatsop Indians migrated from Asia, crossing the Bering Straits land bridge. They thrived on both sides of the Columbia River delta, exploring and settling land south to the northwest corner of present-day Oregon.
Clatsop territory originally encompassed some 1,100 square miles: its northern border, the Columbia River, extended upstream to the Tongue Point area, there forming an eastern border through the Coast Range wilderness to a border at the south running west to Tillamook Head; its western border, the Pacific Ocean, reached north to the mouth of the Columbia. Although the tribes did not stay exclusively in these areas, for the Clatsop this homeland offered the native people dense forests of fir, pine, spruce and cedar, as well as fertile coastal plains, creating an abundance of game, berries, and edible roots. Its waters — the Columbia, streams and lakes, ocean tidelands — teemed with life including many species of salmon, sturgeon, freshwater fish, and shellfish.
The Necanicum River, draining the southern part of the Clatsop region, nurtured groves of fir, spruce and pine, as well as a rich ground cover of plants and bushes including salal, kinnikinnik, wapato and camas (lily). The area was interspersed with meadows and berry thickets. Here, where the Necanicum empties into the Pacific, massive boulders and rocks identify the terminal moraine of ancient Necanicum Glacier that covered the area in the last ice age. The Missoula floods carved out the geology and formed the canyon of the Columbia and Necanicum River we see today. The river, via its delta, merges with the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Clatsop Indian Woman
Fourteen Clatsop villages are known to have existed in the region. One village, Quatat, stood at the mouth of the Necanicum; two others, Ne-ah-coxie and Ne-co-tat, were nearby. Indian artifacts and skeletal remains continue to be unearthed in and around Seaside. Building excavations have brought up draw knives, gouges, implements, wampum, and other trading and personal effects. A portion of Seaside west of the Necanicum was once an ancient Indian burial ground. Like their cousins, the Chinook Indians north of the Columbia, the Clatsops were “canoe people” who buried their dead in canoes loaded with personal effects needed in the next life. The canoes were braced atop four upright split timbers that had been sunk a few feet in the ground.
Skulls identify these people as Clatsop Flatheads — so called because of their sloping foreheads, a result of their practice of binding the infant across its brow with a strong piece of bark or wood that was tied firmly at both ends to the cradle board. This provided ease of transport by the mother, as well as a flattening effect of the frontal skull.
Clatsop drawing of head flattening board
Importance of Salmon
As fish-eaters, the Clatsops believed that the salmon were a divine gift from the wolf-spirit Talapus. The wolf-spirit created the great fish to save their people from extinction at a legendary time of near disaster. To this day the Clatsop adhere to strict tradition in honoring Talapus: the salmon are cut only lengthwise from mouth to tail, never crosswise against the spine; its bones always were returned to the waters for renewal. A “spring salmon run” ceremony commemorates the gift of the salmon, which is so high in nutrition it remains a staple in Clatsop diets. In their oral history, if anyone failed to obey the sacred edicts from the wolf-spirit, disobedience resulted in harsh punishment, including burial alive. During he Clatsop yearly calendar they also sanctified many other spirits: spirits of the forest animals and of the great-great storms that lashed their land and flooded their creeks.
A non-nomadic people, the Clatsops were classic hunters and gatherers. They designed and built low-roofed, partitioned lodges of cedar planks, creating strong, semi-permanent dwellings. Their canoes were also made of cedar logs, first hollowed out by fire, then shaped and finished with stone or bone tools. Food bowls and utility vessels were fashioned from stone, wood, bone and shell. Mats and baskets for gathering and storage were woven of hide, vine, grass, roots and bark.
Rewriting Oregon Imagery
The Astoria Column has a mural depicting the Indians reacting to the arrival of the white explorers. The mural dramatization, which shows the naked and loin-clothed natives fleeing from the approaching canoes, is not flattering to the Clatsop tribe and should be viewed as an artifact of Oregon mythology rather than factual history. In the future perhaps a more fitting tribute of the choosing of the tribe elders can be carved into the Column.
The Clatsop people had interacted with white men long before their first recorded visits. Whites had come as traders, trappers, woodsman, as well as survivors of shipwrecks. Although the discovery and settlement of the Columbia River ultimately scattered and decimated (disease and battles) the Native Americans, they are ingrained in the region’s development.
Clatsop Student at Western Oregon University
The Clatsop Legacy
Today the Clatsop is an honored and protected tribe, which has kept its traditions alive through the extraordinary work of the tribe elders. The Oregon county, which takes the Clatsop name, is proud of the contributions made by the Clatsop Indians, and especially for the reverence which they bring to the rivers, the ocean and the natural resources, which are the hallmarks of these noble people.
The story of the Clatsop Indians continues to be told to this day and it should be heard in oral history as well as recorded history from the mouths of the natives themselves. Looking beyond the history textbooks, as with all Native American Indian tribes, is the only way to know and understand their culture and their intrinsic value to the region. The Pacific Northwest is not a place for anthropological experiments. It is the home of the tribes who have been here for hundreds of generations. Many still claim they are the Clatsop are rightful occupants of the land and the newcomers are merely interlopers. They are owed the respect of longevity and grace.
The whites in Oregon owe a debt of gratitude to the Clatsop Indians for being exemplary stewards of the land and the rivers. They have helped the rest of us in the region to be more conscious of the impact that all immigrants and settlers have had on the land they have seized as private property. The Clatsop tribal members deserve a seat at the table, as they built the table to begin with and their voices must be heard in perpetuity.
Just ended my second visit in two years in Seaside OR. I’m looking for more museums and learning opportunities about native tribes for myself and my kids. I find myself more interest in native history of an area more than the history of a town or damn that was built.
Camas is not an onion, same lily family but not onion at all.
Thank you for the clarification, David. The camassia bulb is a lily.
Wonderful essay on the Clatsop Indians! I grew up in Astoria, OR but do not remember learning these specifics about the Clatsop people. Thank you for the refresher and additional knowledge!
recently learned that Camas are now not part of the Lily family!
My husband and I have had the fortune to spend 4 months living on the banks of the estuary, near one of the ancient Clatsop villages.
We give thanks to the original people of this land and all life here that they continue to tend. We bring greetings as allies from our home on the original land of the Onondaga Nation, Firekeepers of the great Haudenosaunee Confederacy.