Long before Europeans came to this hemisphere, native peoples thrived for thousands of years in the region of present-day Oregon. A leading theory concerning their origins maintains that their ancestors came over from Asia on a land or ice bridge spanning what is now the Bering Strait. Along with archaeological evidence, shipwrecks of Asian craft on the Pacific coast also support the theory that Native Americans had Eastern Hemisphere contact. This contention has been further substantiated by facial features and dental patterns common to both peoples, as well as isolated correspondences in ritual, music, and dialect.
Despite common ancestry, the people on the rain-soaked coast and in the Willamette Valley lived quite differently from those on the drier eastern flank of the Cascade Mountains. Those west of the Cascades enjoyed abundant salmon, shellfish, berries, and game. Broad rivers facilitated travel, and thick stands of the finest softwood timber in the world ensured that there was never a dearth of building materials. A mild climate with plentiful food and resources allowed the wet-siders the leisure time to evolve a complex culture rich with artistic endeavors, theatrical pursuits, and such ceremonial gatherings as the traditional potlatch, where the divesting of one’s material wealth was seen as a status symbol. Dentalium and abalone shells, woodpecker feathers, obsidian blades, and hides were especially coveted. Later on, Hudson’s Bay blankets were added to this list.
After contact with traders, Chinook, an amalgam of Native American tongues with some French and English thrown in, was the common argot among the diverse nations that gathered in the Columbia Gorge each year. It was at these gatherings that the coast and valley dwellers would come into contact with Native Americans from east of the Cascades. These dry-siders led a seminomadic existence, following the game and avoiding the climatic extremes of winter and summer in their region. In the southeast desert of the Great Basin, seeds and roots added protein to their diet.
The introduction of horses in the mid-1700s made hunting, especially for large bison, much easier. In contrast to their counterparts west of the Cascades, who lived in 100- by 40-foot longhouses, extended families in the eastern groups inhabited pit houses when not hunting. The demands of chasing migratory game necessitated caves or simple rock shelters.
Twelve separate nations populated Oregon. Although these were further divided into 80 tribes, the primary allegiance was to the village. The “nation” status referred to language groupings such as Salish and Athabascan. The names of the tribes, such as Alsea or Shasta Costa, were usually derived from a word in the local argot for “the people” or from what a neighboring tribe called “them.” On occasion, European explorers bestowed a name on a particular native grouping. An example of this was the “Rogue” Native American appellation. Across the region, many Native Americans were united in their worship of Spilyai, the coyote demigod. Spilyai, as well as many other animal and human figures, formed the subject of a large body of folk tales that explain the origins of the land in ways that are both entertaining and insightful.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel