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The Story of the Skookum's Tongue: A Willamette Valley Legend

After Tallapus (Coyote) fashioned a wondrous device to harvest salmon at the Willamette Falls, he made a foolish mistake and the fish-trap refused to work for all time. Only by their own labor could the Indians catch fish at the Falls. "However, in the course of time, the Indians became very prosperous and a large village was built on the west side of the [Willamette] River.

"But while they were thus prospering, a gigantic skookum that lived upon the Tualatin River began to commit fearful depredations. His abode was on a little flat about two miles from the Indian village but, so long was his tongue, that he was in the habit of reaching it forth and catching people as he chose. By this, of course, the village was almost depopulated and when, after a time, Tallapus returned, he was very angry to see that the benefits of his fishery had gone, not to the people, but to the wicked skookum.

"Tallapus therefore went forth to the monster and cried out to it, 'O, wicked skookum, long enough have you been eating these people.' And with one blow of his tomahawk cut off the offending tongue and buried it under the rocks upon the west side of the Falls; after which the people flourished." When, a long time later, a canal was dug to go around the Falls and connect the Tualatin River to Waluga [that is, Sucker or Oswego] Lake, "this was nothing more than laying bare the channel made for the tongue of the skookum."

From the "Reminiscences of Louis Labonte" in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, 1901

Alexander Ross, one of the earliest white fur traders in the region, visited the Falls in 1814:

"The banks of the river throughout are low and skirted in the distance by a chain of moderately high lands on each side, interspersed here and there with clumps of widespreading oaks, groves of pine, and a variety of other kinds of woods. Between these high lands lie what is called the valley of the Wallamitte, the frequented haunts of innumerable herds of elk and deer.... . In ascending the river the surrounding country is most delightful, and the first barrier to be meet with is about forty miles up from its mouth. Here the navigation is interrupted by a ledge of rocks, running across the river from side to side in the form of an irregular horseshoe, over which the whole body of water falls at one leap down a precipice of about forty feet, called the Falls. To this place and no farther, the salmon ascend, and during the summer months they are caught in great quantities. At this place therefore, all the Indians throughout the surrounding country assemble, gamble, and gormandize together."

Alexander Ross was mistaken; actually great numbers of salmon ascended past the Falls and made their way into west-flowing Willamette River tributaries. Perhaps Ross couldn't imagine such great numbers of fish, once said to be so numerous that a man could cross the River by walking on their backs.

At the Falls, at the village of a band of Clackamas called the Clowwewallas, large scaffolds of cedar planks and poles rested on piers sunk deep into the riverbed. Platforms projected far into the waterfall and were large enough for dozens of men at once to harvest the fish with dip-nets and spears. Once the fish were brought to shore, teams of women prepared the huge quantities of salmon for drying on racks in the sun or over smoky fires. Mixed with nuts or berries and made into cakes or preserved in tightly woven baskets, the salmon would provide for the tribe during the leaner winter months. Salmon at the Falls were plentiful enough to enrich the Clackamas beyond simple survival; other tribes came for trade fairs to purchase salmon or to pay tribute for the privilege of fishing in Clackamas territory.

The Clackamas people--the source of the name for both the County and the river that cuts diagonally across it--lived on the east bank of the Willamette as far as the Falls, above and below the Falls themselves on either bank, and in the valleys of the Clackamas and Sandy rivers. They belonged to the Upper Chinook language division. People of the Chinook culture dominated the region from near the mouth of the Columbia River eastward to the Dalles and included such groups as the Multnomahs (Willamette west bank from Sauvies Island) and the Wasco/Wishram (at Columbia River's Celilo Falls). Early American and European explorers noted large villages of Clackamas at the Clackamas Rapids and at Willamette Falls, both prime trading and fishing sites.

The rivers were at the heart of the Upper Chinook's way of life. Fishing equipment--the harpoons, gigs, gaffs, nets, and scaffolding--required the labor of the entire village and much technical expertise. Even after Americans settled at Oregon City, the local Indians continued to supply the fish. In 1856, after General Palmer ordered all Indians to be exiled from Oregon City, the Oregon Argus newspaper reported, "Since the Indians have been removed, not a salmon is to be had, though our river is literally swarming with them."

As expert boatmen, the Clackamas and other river Indians were also often employed by the early pioneers for river transport. A typical canoe was 25 to 30 feet long and fashioned from a single cedar log. Woodworkers would roughly hollow out a portion of the log with fire and then complete the canoe with stone adzes and fine carving. The flawlessly smooth, shovel-nosed canoes could haul hundreds of pounds of produce or a dozen men. Early pioneers reported that beached canoes in some seasons lined the east bank at Canemah (just above the Falls) for nearly a half mile.

Such canoes were also made specifically for use as coffins. The deceased would be dressed in finery for the funeral ceremony and lashed into the canoe with tools, weapons, and beaded decorations. One early Oregon City historian wrote that "Overlooking the falls on both sides, canoes containing bodies of the dead were lodged on scaffolds in the trees, or hung like cocoons to every jutting shelf or rock at Canemah and at West Linn. Perched like swallows' nests against the wall..." When time had reduced the corpse to a skeleton, the bones would be boxed or buried in a fenced in cemetery with other ancestors of the tribe. These cemeteries, often decorated with elaborate carvings and so large that they appeared to be miniature villages, were located on river banks or river islands.

Typical of Upper Chinook settlements, the Clackamas villages were substantial and permanent. Each cedar plank lodge could house 20 to 30 people and a village population could be in the hundreds. Alexander Ross noted six such long-houses at the Clackamas Rapids in 1814. In 1843, Elisha Applegate described just one of the dwellings (then abandoned and moss-covered) at the mouth of the Clackamas River as 300 feet long, large enough to be partitioned into individual homes; a porch ran the whole length of the south side and there was a separate entrance for each family.

Missionary Samuel Parker was invited in 1835 to spend the night in a smaller lodge on the Willamette's west bank just below the Falls: "Believing it would please the chief, I went with him to his dwelling....Their houses are built of logs split into thick planks. The walls of the chief's house were seven feet high, the roofs are more steeply elevated than is common in the United States. They have no chimney to carry off smoke, but a hole is left open above the fireplace...The fireplace of the chief's apartment was sunk a foot below the surface of the earth, eight feet square, secured by a frame around, and mats spread on the floor for the family to sit upon. Their dormitories are upon the side of the apartment, raised four feet above the floor, with movable ladders for ascent; and under them they stow their dried fish, roots, berries, and other effects."

The great salmon runs both required and allowed a large settled population; the limited time for harvest required a great many hands for labor and the prized fishing sites needed warriors for protection from invaders. Except for the most prime fishing villages, however, the Clackamas would temporarily abandon their cedar lodges to gather seasonal food supplies such as roots, berries, and waterfowl.

The fishing villages also became regional trading centers. The Upper Chinook--without migrating themselves--acquired shells, beads, blankets, and seafood from the coast; obsidian, game and plant foods from the southern interior; plus horses, furs, and pipestone from beyond the Cascade Mountains. A huge Indian trading network stretched from Northern California to Alaska, from the Pacific Coast to beyond the Bitterroot Mountains. European goods--especially the extremely useful metal tools and utensils--passed quickly into this network; these items found their way to Indians who had never before seen whites.

Status in Clackamas society was based mostly on wealth with a small hereditary ruling class, a majority of less wealthy commoners, and, far below in status, a great number of slaves. Slaves were the most important indicator of wealth among the Chinooks and the prime object of trade. Slaves were often sacrificed and buried with important chiefs. Debt or crime could put a person into slavery for a fixed term; such slavery was not hereditary and freedom could be purchased. But the most common, and valued, slaves were captives from other tribes. Rather than make war themselves to capture slaves, the Chinook river chiefs could rely on other tribes such as the Molalla and Klamath to raid distant populations (chiefly in northern California) and supply the slave trade.

Gambling--a passion among the Clackamas--was a common cause of debt; a man could literally gamble away his freedom. The Clackamas were also fond of athletic contests such as diving off the riverside cliffs and horseracing. A well-used Indian racetrack [on the Rinearson land claim at Gladstone] was a local landmark and the site of the parade grounds for Oregon's first State Fair. A nearby maple tree was a gathering place for ceremonies such as weddings. Days of ritual and celebration preceded the weddings which often marked an alliance with another tribe after months of negotiations over bride price.

Like the neighboring Kalapuya and Upper Chinooks, both men and women wore leather leggings and tunics, with the tunics of the women cut wider in the sleeves and longer in the skirt. Pounded cedar bark made a type of cloth for short skirts or sleeping mats. Elaborate beadwork, quill, feather, and shell decorations adorned the clothing of the wealthy. Because dentalia sea shells served as money, a person could literally wear their wealth in the form of a necklace. The beautifully decorated, but practical, beaded leggings continued to be worn long after Indian women adopted European-style dresses.

The most outstanding feature of appearance however--remarked upon by nearly every American and European visitor--was the flattened head. With some horror, John Townsend described the procedure in 1835:

"It is even considered among them a degradation to possess a round head, and one whose caput has happened to be neglected in his infancy, can never become even a subordinate chief in his tribe, and is treated with indifference and disdain, as one who is unworthy a place amongst them.

The flattening of the head is practiced by at least ten or twelve distinct tribes of the lower country, the Klikatats, Kalapooyahs, and Multnomahs, of the Willamette, and its vicinity; the Chinooks, Klatsaps, Klatstonis, Kowalitsks, Katlammets, Killemooks, and Chekalis of the lower Columbia and its tributaries, and probably by others both north and south. The tribe called Flatheads, or Salish, who reside near the sources of the Oregon, have long since abolished this custom.

The mode by which the flattening is effected, varies considerably with the different tribes. The Willamette Indians place the infant, soon after birth, upon a board, to the edges of which are attached little loops of hempen cord or leather, and other similar cords are passed across and back, in a zigzag manner, through these loops, enclosing the child, and binding it firmly down. To the upper edge of this board, in which is a depression to receive the back part of the head, another smaller one is attached by hinges of leather, and made to lie obliquely upon the forehead, the force of the pressure being regulated by several strings attached to its edge, which are passed through holes in the board upon which the infant is lying, and secured there. "

The Kalapuya and other Pacific Northwest tribes--as well as various cultures throughout the world--also practiced head-shaping in infancy. In the Northwest, the flat head indicated status as free rather than slave. Chinook women marrying outside their culture into other tribes or to white fur traders--although reluctant to drop the practice and so mark their children as "slaves"--eventually ended the custom as the numbers of Chinooks decreased.

Upper Chinooks and Oregon's coastal tribes had the earliest contact with European and American explorers and traders and were the most devastated by years of plagues that followed 1780's. Diseases previously unheard of in the Northwest--especially smallpox--may have been introduced through inland trade even before the first contact with European voyagers. Lewis and Clark noted a partially deserted village on Sauvies Island and a woman with smallpox scars in 1806. At this time, Clackamas had not encountered Europeans in their homelands and the Lewis and Clark expedition estimated their number at 1,500. Traditionally, the population was probably considerably more, perhaps 2,500. By 1855, only 88 members of the Clackamas were left in Oregon.

Disaster arrived in 1829 aboard the ship Owyhee, the first oceangoing vessel to sail up the Willamette. The Owyhee's captain, New Englander John Dominis, anchored at the Clackamas Rapids with plans to found a fishery. Some accounts say that Dominis became irate during negotiations over the price of salmon and threatened the Clackamas. Other accounts say that the Clackamas people simply jealously guarded their rich fishery at the Rapids from any intruder. In any case, Clackamas swimmers cut the Owyhee's anchor rope and Dominis gave up his hopes for a fishery.

But he sailed away too late for the sake of the Clackamas people. Aboard his ship were many sick sailors, ailing from a fever (influenza or malaria) which the people of the Willamette Valley called the "cold sick." The illness had spread from the crew to shore and rapidly raged through the Clackamas villages.

The Clackamas associated the beginning of the disease with a channel marker placed by an Indian employee of Dominis. The Indian quickly sickened and died and a rumor began that the infection was a deliberate attack by the American captain. Later, this story became confounded with the (true) story about Astorian Duncan McDougall who threatened to release small pox against the Indians from a small, blue vial in his pocket. Dominis, who had become angry during the negotiations with the Clackamas--and whose ship brought a deadly disease--became confused in local accounts with "Chief Small Pox" McDougall.

In a single winter, 1829-1830, at least nine tenths of the Clackamas people perished and the Clackamas ceased to exist as a cohesive tribe. The Clackamas people were so reduced in number that their traditional rivals, the upriver Kalapuyas, maintained a village below the Falls on former Clackamas territory. Within a few years, most of the Kalapuyas would also be lost to disease and dispersal.

In the fall of 1851, some of the surviving Clackamas signed a general treaty ceding Willamette Valley land with Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs Anson Dart. Dart's plans--which included small local reservations--were never ratified by Congress. On January 10, 1855, the remaining 88 people who identified themselves as Clackamas, signed a treaty that ceded all lands (including Oregon and Milwaukie cities as well as the lower Willamette, Sandy, and Clackamas valleys) in exchange for a ten-year annuity of $2,500.

After the treaty was ratified March 3, 1855 the Clackamas were to relocate to Grand Ronde Reservation while retaining some rights in their former homeland. In the midst of violence and starvation during the Yakima War in the summer of 1855, Clackamas County area Indians were suddenly rounded up and forced to the Reservation. The annuity--$500 in cash and the rest in goods-- was never paid. The Clackamas, who numbered only 55 on the Reservation in 1871, blended into the general population of Grand Ronde by the second decade of the twentieth century.


Content provided by Patricia Kohnen