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Review

Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia

By Robert T. Boyd, Kenneth M. Ames, and Tony A. Johnson, Editors

March 6, 2014

Review By Andrew Martindale

The study of indigenous history is fundamentally interdisciplinary and benefits, as Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia illustrates, from consideration of different forms of data from a range of disciplinary and cultural perspectives. The challenge of such endeavours is to achieve an overall coherence in the context of divergent views. The solution that Boyd, Ames, and Johnson effect to this tension is juxtaposition: the creation of a mosaic in which individual disciplinary tiles are ordered to reveal a larger picture. This anthology presents indigenous and non-native views from a range of institutional and cultural perspectives organized into Chinookan and post-contact sections focusing on a number of empirical and thematic issues. Such an endeavour will be of interest to students of indigenous history in any context, but there are particular parallels to the Salish world. Chinookan history is complex for the richness and variety of indigenous expression, the heterogeneous network of what constitutes membership in Chinookan identity, the cosmopolitan and integrated connections throughout and beyond the region, and the long and complex history of colonialism that has intruded, often considerably, upon Chinook people.

There is something comfortingly traditional in the book’s balance of detailed individual analysis and its breadth of scope. Many of the chapters provide a wealth of fundamental empirical data on what is known about Chinookan history as well as rich analysis of the logic — and gaps — in its interpretation. It is the sort of book that will be both indispensible to any Chinookan scholar and the subject of envy by historians beyond. Although the aspiration is orthodox, and as a result expansive, this project is clearly an attempt to move beyond the constraints of the early culture-area overview, most visibly in the inclusion of Chinookan authors.

Tony Johnson’s introductory chapter outlines the long history of Chinookan tradition and its resilience in the face of colonial incursions. His twin proposition, that “an indigenous heartbeat continues” (4) despite the Chinookans’ being “driven off” (7) their territory by Europeans, is a story common to indigenous people (see Carlson 2001 and Sterritt et al. 1998 for similar examples from British Columbia). Part 1 (“The Chinookan World”) is a solid cohort of more orthodox archaeological and historical analyses. Ames, Sobel, and Losey’s archaeological summary frames Chinookan history against regional trends to locate what is known against the backdrop of archaeological gaps. Ellis maps the cultural geography, while Trieu Gahr’s ethnobotanical analysis and the history of fisheries by Butler and Martin are thorough compilations of rich ethnohistoric and archaeological results. Hadja, Ames, and Sobel, variously, provide comprehensive analyses of trade systems and household and social organization. Hymes and Seaburg weave structural and symbolic features of Chinookan oral literature recorded in the early twentieth century, and Boyd follows with an encyclopedic assessment of ceremonial trends. Johnson and McIsaac provide a refreshing examination of the meanings and values of artistic gesture and motif to Chinookan people, illustrating the continuity of tradition despite the changes of the colonial era. Part 2 (“After Euro-American Contact”) explores that impact via demography (Boyd), settler history (Lang), Chinook Wawa (Zenk and Johnson), and the Chinookan struggle for recognition from US authorities (Fisher and Jetté). Thorsgard and Williams narrate the disenfranchisement of Chinookan people from key areas of their territory and provide evidence from indigenous scholarship for their rights and titles. In what must be his last publication, Wayne Suttles (with Lang) presents the history of ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources.

Despite these laudable strengths, indeed perhaps because of the effort to broaden the disciplinary view of Chinookan history, the volume has unfilled gaps. It is in some ways three books in one: a series of analyses of Chinookan traditions from western archaeologists, geographers, and anthropologists; a suite of historic analyses in the context of colonialism; and a series of analyses by Chinookan authors about their own culture and history. These are not just differences of perspective but different forms of scholarship that are citationally distinct and investigate different subjects. The first is an exploration of ancient Chinookan behaviour, the second presents the western documentation of Chinookan practice, and the third provides a consideration of the importance of Chinook history and tradition in understanding contemporary issues. While this juxtaposition is welcome and allows for refreshing examples of the integration of major themes (for example, Fisher and Jetté look both within and outside Chinook documented history, Boyd explores paleoepidemiology and ceremonial curing, and Zenk and Johnson provides an analysis of Chinook Wawa that is as detailed as it is cool), there are also spaces and contradictions. Ellis argues for historical discontinuity; Johnson sees the opposite; Hymes and Seaburg do not examine history in their rich analysis; and many of the archaeological chapters point to but do not explore the links between past and present. Additionally, there is no real assessment of why these spaces in the mosaic form, or why disciplinary differences produce divergent views around a unified history. To some extent the lack of evaluation is a missed opportunity, although the criticism speaks to a larger disciplinary phenomenon. Interdisciplinarity is not simply coexistence, but suggests an attempt to reconcile contradictions between different ways of understanding. By this measure, Boyd et al. have covered considerable ground, though there is distance yet to travel.

 

REFERENCES

Carlson, Keith. 2001. A Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre.
Sterritt, Neil J., Susan Marsden, Robert Galois, Peter R. Grant, Richard Overstall. 1998.
Tribal Boundaries in the Nass Watershed. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia
Robert T. Boyd, Kenneth M. Ames, and Tony A. Johnson, editors
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. 448 pp. $50.00 cloth