On Shoalwater Bay our neighbors were more akin to family members (due to heavy intermixture) than separate groups or compartmentalized nations. Within this family centered context, the lands and territory of today’s Shoalwater Bay Tribe is located within an ancient region that many diverse peoples called their home; most prominent were the Chehalis and Chinookan groups.
The Shoalwater Bay region represents a point of intense contact between the Chinook and Chehalis, giving rise to two unique traditions of intermixture, cooperation, and political reality. Early Native points of view, under intense pressure and the need for survival through recognition, were often heavily influenced by intense contact with Western conceptions about land, borders, cultures, laws, and nations.
It is a reality that has led to some uncertainty as to exactly who we are as Shoalwater Bay people in terms of culture, history, and territory. And within this context two broad traditions have developed to explain who we are as a people, where we lived, and our connections to neighboring peoples.
Up to the present many Shoalwater Bay Tribal Members have tended to view our heritage as primarily starkly bi-cultural, a mixture of Chehalis and Chinook, with some valuing one group of ancestors, languages, and history over the other; and, at times, under-valuing, in-part, aspects of our heritage and background. This is understandable considering the intense interaction, trade, and intermarriage that has existed within the Shoalwater Bay area for hundreds if not thousands of years in the past.
At the same time, Shoalwater Bay residents were historically recognized as “the people of the enclosed bay.” Considering the very unique nature of the Shoalwater Bay area, there is no reason to rule out the real possibility that the Shoalwater Bay contained unique groups of people; independent tribes that maintained the same kinds of cultural and historical sovereignty in line with what is claimed by other Native American groups.
Many sovereign peoples throughout the region, with multi-cultural populations, maintained similar levels of intermarriage, strong business and trade connections, even speaking similar dialects of the neighboring tribes, and are today recognized as unique and sovereign. The Shoalwater Bay Tribe has, of course, asserted this reality in a political sense, yet we have wrestled with other questions about the specific nature of our ancestry, language, history, culture, and borders.
A Few Contemporary Accounts about the Territories of Chinook and Chehalis
An important historical entry concerning this territory, among others, comes from E. A. Starling—the Indian Agent for the Puget’s Sound district. Starling wrote his annual report of September 1, 1852 to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory, Anson Dart.
Starling mentions the Chehalis and Cowlitz Indians. “Of the tribes inhabiting the country between the Columbia river and Puget’s sound, there are but two tribes, excluding the various bands of the Chinooks.” The Chehalis territory, Starling writes, was located around the “Chehalis river and vicinity.”
One of the earliest and authoritative descriptions of Chinook territory comes from Anson Dart in 1851, he writes,
“The Chinooks are divided into five other small bands occupying both sides of the Columbia, from the mouth about sixty miles up . . . They all speak a language called the Chinook which is not spoken by any white person, and also the common jargon of the country. The whole country bordering on the Columbia, as far up as the Dalles, was formerly occupied by this tribe.”