The Chinookan peoples were relatively settled and occupied traditional tribal geographic areas, where they hunted and fished; salmon was a mainstay of their diet. The women also gathered and processed many nuts, seeds, roots and other foods. They had a society marked by social stratification, consisting of a number of distinct social castes of greater or lesser status. Upper castes included shamans, warriors, and successful traders. They composed a minority of the community population compared to common members. Members of the superior castes are said to have practiced social discrimination, limiting contact with commoners and forbidding play between the children of the different social groups.
Some Chinookan peoples practiced slavery, a practice borrowed from the northernmost tribes of the Pacific Northwest. They took slaves as captives in warfare, and used them to practice thievery on behalf of their masters. The latter refrained from such practices as unworthy of high status.
He elite of some Chinookan tribes had the practice of head binding, flattening their children’s forehead and top of the skull as a mark of social status. They bound the infant’s head under pressure between boards when the infant was about 3 months old and continued until the child was about one year of age. This custom was a means of marking social hierarchy; flat-headed community members had a rank above those with round heads. Those with flattened skulls refused to enslave other persons who were similarly marked, thereby reinforcing the association of a round head with servility. The Chinook were known colloquially by early white explorers in the region as “Flathead Indians.”
Living near the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the Chinook were skilled elk hunters and fishermen. The most popular fish was salmon. Owing partly to their settled living patterns, the Chinook and other coastal tribes had relatively little conflict over land, as they did not migrate through each other’s territories and they had rich resources in the natural environment. In the manner of numerous settled tribes, the Chinook resided in long houses. More than fifty people, related through extended kinship, often resided in one long house. Their long houses were made of planks made from red cedar trees. The houses were about 20-60 feet wide and 50-150 feet long.
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