Part 2 of 5

Of course, the really amusing —no, it wasn’t funny, so let’s call it arrogant— thing about the arrival of European and U.S. explorers and adventures making ownership claims to the Oragun River is that the banks were already populated by “Indian squatters,” who had a tradition of passing down for hundreds, or even thousands of years, a family heritage of possession of particularly productive salmon fishing hole.

     The total population of the Columbia River Native Americans before ships arrived carrying infectious European diseases is estimated by some scholars to be 30,000. Thanks to an abundance of salmon supplying their daily needs they were able to develop a society far beyond the Hollywood (read: incorrect) cliche´ of nomadic plains dwellers. In many ways living in a cedar plank house, dining on, besides dried salmon, camas roots, razor clams, roast duck, was an existence far above Oliver Twist’s London digs.

      In their abundant spare time the “salmon aristocracy” of the Pacific Northwest, who also had slaves willing to work for food from less fortunate tribes, freed up time for an art form just now being recognized for something beyond a “quaint native handicraft.” Scholar Lewis, who could spell better than Clark, but who had no appreciation for things native, actually praised the carved Chinook canoe in his journal as the “finest small watercraft he had ever seen.”

      The arrival of European explorers and adventures didn’t introduce trade to the Columbia. The Chinooks were already noted ‘businessmen.’ The Columbia River was an established route for Hydia Alaskan copper to be traded for a Bannock Idaho mountain sheep horn bow; for Killikmook sea shells for Crow buffalo jerky parfleches.

      Trade among peaceful people was how — before the Cowlitz nation lost so many people to measles that in some villages their were not enough left to bury the dead— that relative small groups of whites were even allowed to “explore” the opportunities of the Pacific Northwest business in the first place.

      Other than manufactured beads and wool blankets, and the very highly prized iron goods forged at the fort, the fur brigades brought to an already established “marketplace” was a trade jargon that combined Chinook, French, English, and other Indian nation tongues that helped unify natives who had not shared a lingua franca before. And a shared sense of humor. One example is that the jargon for mountain lion, was “hyas,” or Chinook for large, and “puss puss.”

      The funniest joke of all on the river was that the HBC were absolute suckers for a coarse fur the natives had little use for. Beaver pelts. As least the Russian ship traders wanted sea otters pelts. The English on the other hand were foolish enough to collect warehouses full of a “wealth” in materials to make felt for a top hat that put fickle fashion ahead of form and function.

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