Board Rooms

Near Portland, Oregon, archaeologists and Indians have built an authentic Chinookan plankhouse like those Lewis and Clark saw

Cathlapotle Plankhouse
Cathlapotle Plankhouse Wikimedia Commons

It's still early sunday morning, but the air is filled with the whine of chain saws. At the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, in southwestern Washington State, men wearing jeans, T-shirts and flannel work shirts are cutting cedar logs into planks, hand-carving figures into others, and using cranes to move the giant logs around. The volunteers are building a traditional Chinookan plankhouse about two miles from a village that Lewis and Clark visited on their epic journey 200 years ago. The seven-acre village, called Cathlapotle by early fur traders, is gone now, but thanks to its protected location, it is one of the most well-preserved American Indian village sites in the Northwest. But when Lewis and Clark first saw it, in November 1805, it was one of the largest of about 50 Chinookan villages that stood along a 160-mile stretch of the Columbia River, from the gorge to the river's mouth. "I counted 14 houses," Clark wrote in his notoriously casually spelled diary. "Seven canoes of Indians came out from this large village to view and trade with us, they appeared orderly and well disposed, they accompanied us a few miles and returned back."

Lewis and Clark estimated that as many as 900 people lived in Cathlapotle and 19,000 more in the surrounding Columbia River Valley. The two men weren't the first non-Natives to visit the area: Spanish explorers and then British and American fur traders sailed up the coast in the late 1700s, bringing epidemics of smallpox that took a toll on the Native population. But the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first to reach the village from the East, and it opened up a flood of migration that brought yet more disease (including a major malaria epidemic in the late 1820s and early 1830s).

Lewis and Clark returned to the village in March 1806, spending an afternoon there. From their visits, they recorded detailed descriptions of the people and terrain, and maps of the river valley. In 1991, archaeologists in search of the site followed the maps to this refuge, about 25 miles from Portland, Oregon. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Portland State University researchers started digging on the river's cottonwood-covered banks, they hit an archaeological jackpot.

"The site was so rich that we would not have had the resources to store all the material," says the project's lead archaeologist, Kenneth Ames, of Portland State University. "We would have just drowned in stuff." Though digging stopped in 1996, scientists and students at Portland State are still counting, sorting and trying to make sense of the hundreds of thousands of artifacts they found, including iron daggers, copper pendants and beads, stone tools, acorns and animal bones.

Most exciting, the researchers say, is what the excavation has revealed about plankhouses, which formed the center of social, spiritual and economic life for the Chinookan Indians. Subtle bumps in a cottonwood grove near the river still outline at least six of the houses. To understand what the houses looked like, scientists dug a series of trenches that sliced through the remains of two houses; although the walls and posts had disappeared long ago, the dark stains left in the ground by their rotting showed where they once stood. Some buildings were as big as 200 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 22 feet tall; according to Lewis and Clark's notes, 100 people or more lived in a single house.

The presence of multiple hearths in the building was revealed by sheets of ash containing fire-hardened clay bowls. The wealth of seeds and elk and fish bones shows that food was abundant. "We have as many smelt bones as stars in the sky," Ames says. Storage cellars—indicated by dense caches of objects in the dirt below some of the buildings—held the village's surplus.

When, nearly 15 years ago, archaeologists first had the idea to construct a Chinookan cedar plankhouse based on the excavation data, they envisioned a building as historically accurate as possible, down to the construction methods. But whereas putting up a plankhouse once involved the sweat and muscle of 500-plus people using bone, antler, stone, shell and iron implements, this time around more than 100 men and women supplemented traditional tools with chain saws, cranes and pickup trucks to get the job done. Nearby national forests and landowners donated cedar logs, but to get planks that were big enough for the walls and roof, the organizers had to buy and ship cedar logs from Canada. (Project members say they hope to plant trees locally to replace what they used.)

Like most construction projects, this one had unexpected turns. The project was stalled for a couple of months last year by claims from the neighboring Cowlitz tribe that Cathlapotle belonged to it. The work resumed after Fish and Wildlife Service officials determined through review of historical and archaeological records that the village was indeed Chinookan. And there were other departures from the traditional: ramps, emergency exit lighting and swinging doors, to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and building codes; and a mechanized ventilation system (in addition to the traditional movable planks in the roof), to clear the building of smoke. "I didn't think the plankhouse would have the spiritual feel we originally hoped it would," says tribal council member Sam Robinson, "but when we opened it up and blessed it, there was great pride in it."

Today, the Chinook are a band of about 2,500 people that have spent decades fighting for federal recognition as a tribe, to no avail. To them, the structure is a monument to their history that connects modern Chinook with their past. They're planning to gather there for drumming, storytelling and demonstrations of traditional crafts like basket-making and carving. "I think it's going to bring more awareness that we're still out there," Robinson says. It opened to the public this past March.

Some of the volunteers drove two hours each day to get to the site. "It's dumbfounding to me, all the people busting their chops out here," says tribal member Tony Johnson, 34, who teaches children the Chinook language, Chinuk-wawa, and spent many weekends carving the central house posts for the project. Adam McIsaac, a non-Native, makes his living carving Northwest Indian-style art. "This project is the greatest thing that ever happened to me," says McIsaac, 32. "It's great to give something back to the culture and to carry on the traditions that once proliferated right here where we're standing." In the midst of three years of national celebration of Lewis and Clark's journey, the plankhouse is yet another reminder of the rich, established culture that the explorers encountered on their way.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.