The fun of being a journalist is that you may immerse yourself in just about any topic. My colleague Matt Winters of the Chinook Observer and I took advantage of that license on Feb. 7. With the assistance of the able Doug Wilson, Matt and I ventured into a treasure trove of archaeological artifacts of the Chinook civilization housed at Portland State University and the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve.
Wilson is chief archaeologist at Fort Vancouver and he teaches in PSU's anthropology department. He also supervises archaeological research at the Station Camp site near Chinook.
Last Friday began in the basement of PSU's Cramer Hall. The unmarked room we entered contains relics from the so-called Meier site near Scappoose.
Looking at a small amount of the thousands of artifacts in the basement room opened a window to the Chinooks and the larger array of towns that stretched from the Columbia River's mouth to the site of Bonneville Dam. It was called the Chinookan culture, because all of those peoples shared art forms, dwelling styles, anatomical adaptations and commerce.
Anthropologists extract an enormous amount of information from prosaic items such as stones that have been fashioned into tools or stones that have been decorated or treated artistically. Ken Ames, chairman of PSU's Department of Anthropology, guided our tour through the artifacts.
In the second room, Ames showed us some of the items from digs in the celebrated Cathlapotle site near Ridgefield. It was occupied in 1450 AD and abandoned in the early 1830s. Lewis and Clark noted Cathlapotle in their journals.
Taken together, these Chinookan sites represented the largest native settlements in the West. Ames said that a conservative estimate of the population of these sites, prior to contact with white civilization, is 32,000. This made them by far the most numerous tribe on the Northwest coast.
Americans are handicapped in their understanding of the native cultures that preceded the westward spread of America.
We limit ourselves by seeing these native cultures through the lens of our own purported superiority instead of trying to envision their world.
When arch-aeologists excavate a native town site they look directly into that culture. Some of their insights are profound. For instance, at Cathlapotle archaeologists found a piece of Chinese iron that dates to 500 years before Columbus' arrival in the New World. They also found a cache of copper rods from the fur trade era that are indeterminate in origin.
The Chinook people living at the Columbia's mouth and on the lower river had a vantage point on world civilization that few other of their contemporary groups enjoyed. They apparently saw Chinese vessels blown into the Columbia's mouth. They saw Robert Gray's arrival as well as a British expedition under George Vancouver. And they saw Lewis and Clark come from the east.
Over lunch in the Grant House at Fort Vancouver, archaeologist Doug Wilson painted a picture of the lower Columbia's cultural richness. "The lower Columbia was culturally and nationally diverse. There were Chinook, British, Hawaiians and Iroquois." These nationalities collected at Fort Vancouver - a hub of the fur trade that had earlier beckoned John Jacob Astor to establish a settlement at Astoria.
Like many in our region, I had never seen Fort Vancouver until January, when we had a book release event for "Fort Clatsop: Rebuilding an Icon." Our hostess on Feb. 7 was park Superintendent Tracy Fortmann.
The curator of Fort Vancouver's archaeological collection, Theresa Langford, showed us its vast store of artifacts. The revelation that is apparent in the artifacts of Fort Vancouver and the other two sites is that our region went from a Stone Age culture to today in 200 years.
Steve Forrester is editor of the Chinook Observer's sister newspaper, the Daily Astorian.