Origins of the Shoalwater Bay People

When it comes to documenting the culture and history of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, James Swan has provided some of the most important primary sources about our people. At the age of about thirty-four Swan left Boston and traveled to the Pacific Northwest. During his stay Swan showed an empathy that was uncharacteristic for his society of the time. Swan lived among Shoalwater Bay the tribal communities, studied their lifestyle, recorded their stories, and learned their language.

Among the particularly valuable and rare additions to Swan’s history were seven Shoalwater Bay songs. James Swan included the musical notations and the words to the “Fishing Song,” and the “Boat Song.” In addition to the musical aspects of their culture, Swan was among the first to record how Chehalis and Chinook people of the Bay viewed their origins.

Though many different languages were spoken on the Bay, Shoalwater Bay people, both Chehalis and Chinook, believed themselves to have a shared origin as a people. The following version of the origin story was collected by Ella E. Clark.

The Origin of The Chinook and Chehalis People.

Long, long ago, when Old Man South Wind was traveling north, he met an old woman who was a giant. “Will you give me some food?” asked South wind. “I am very hungry.”

“I have no food,” answered the giantess, “but here is a net. You can catch some fish for yourself if you wish.”

So Old Man South Wind dragged the net down to the ocean and with it caught a little whale. Taking out his knife, he was about to cut the whale and take out the blubber. But the old giantess cried out, “Do not cut it with a knife, and do not cut it crossways. Take a sharp knife and split it down the back.”

But South Wind did not take to heart what the old woman was saying. He cut the fish crossways and began to take off some blubber. He was startled to see the fish change into a huge bird. It was so big that when it flew into the air, it hid the sun, and the noise of its wings shook the earth. It was Thunderbird.

Thunderbird flew to the north and lit on the top of Saddleback Mountain, near the mouth of the Columbia River. There it laid a nest full of eggs. The old giantess followed the bird until she found its nest. She broke one egg, but it was not good. So she threw it down the mountainside. Before the egg reached the valley, it became an Indian.

The old giantess broke some other eggs and then threw them down the mountainside. They too became Indians. Each of the Thunderbird’s eggs became an Indian.

That is how the Chinook were created. And that is why Indians never cut the first salmon across the back. They know that if they should cut the fish the wrong way, the salmon would cease to run. Always, even to this day, they slit the first salmon down the back, lengthwise.