Archaeological site reveals clues to past and future lives on the Columbia RiverThe discovery and scientific exploration of what was probably a seasonal village of the Chinook people is exciting and at the same time highly poignant.
Every layer peeled back from the soil of this ancient flood plain is like reading a page of a precious book that had long been considered lost forever. Interpreting all that has been uncovered in these past few weeks will require years of work and thought.
More is known about the history of far less important Indian tribes than the Chinooks, who were for thousands of years the wealthy and powerful masters of this key river gateway into the interior Northwest.
In part, this is because their homes and many of the artifacts of their long civilization were made from perishable wood in a climate that recycles organic matter at a relentless pace. In part, it is because the Chinooks were at the forefront of tribes who traded with white people, and thus were among the first to fall victim to unfamiliar imported diseases, from smallpox to alcoholism. Displaced from their homes, surviving Chinook people and their one-time slaves were left to make their way in an indifferent and at times hostile new world. Much was lost before people like anthropologist Franz Boas even began thinking about recording details about this fascinating culture.
It is strangely ironic that one of the most important discoveries at the site - traces of a structure made from cedar planks - survived thanks to a concrete pad laid down by white settlers who supplanted the Chinooks in the early 19th century. Rarely do those who focus on their Chinook ancestry have any reason to be appreciative toward the newcomers on the Columbia estuary.
Without creation of the new Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Park, this important site might have gone unnoticed for decades or centuries longer, at risk of destruction by man or nature at any time. It has long been suspected there might be worthwhile discoveries to be made along this stretch of long-occupied shoreline. But without the money and attention that came with the new park, it would be just one of thousands of historic areas in the Northwest that languish untouched due lack of funds. Few comprehend the severely limiting role money plays in archaeology.
Everything we learn about the Chinook people will help all of us more fully savor these lands and waters they ruled for so long. For those with Chinook blood, this will be a key element in revitalizing their present and future, while adding to their understanding of the glories and struggles of the past.
As the national park takes shape, these layers of rich history will add immeasurably to the depth and meaning of this place where Lewis and Clark celebrated success.