Chinook People and Frog Mythology on the Lower Columbia & Willamette Rivers
The Lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers are the ancestral homelands of Chinookan people. These people have a long history of being renowned traders and canoe builders throughout the Pacific Northwest. Trade and the abundant resources of their homelands made these people wealthy prior to the arrival of settlers. This abundance produced a rich culture of customs, songs, and stories. More than twelve bands or tribes of Chinook people existed in the 1800’s and they spoke two languages known as Lower and Upper Chinook. The Chinook in and around the Portland area spoke Upper Chinook and are known today as the Multnomah, Clackamas, Cascades, and Clowewalla.
Frog is a character found among the rich mythologies of this region’s indigenous people. Among the Clackamas, Frog is the one who swallows the moon until coyote kills her and sets the moon free to shed light on troublesome affairs. Long after this event in another Clackamas story, five frog sisters consult myth age lizard on the appropriate time to beginning singing each year. This is why frogs begin to sing in March each year. Among the Kalapuya of the Willamette Valley to the south, Frog is known for being tricked by Coyote. When Frog selfishly dams up all of the water, Coyote moves the dam aside, allowing the water to be everywhere for all time. Downstream on the Columbia River among the Lower Chinook, Frog is known for creating cordage for the weaving of the first fishing net. Coyote uses this net to establish the complex set of taboos associated with the catching of salmon.
Canoes and Frog Mythology on the Columbia & Willamette Rivers
The ability to travel the waters of the Columbia and Willamette rivers has allowed people to become intertwined through trade and commerce for centuries by canoe. The journal entries of Lewis and Clark in 1805 described the shores of the Columbia River as being lined with canoes elaborately carved from cedar trees. The ability to navigate these waterways gave the Chinook people control over vast reaches of the Columbia River basin for hundreds of years.
The area surrounding the Columbia and Willamette rivers is steeped in a rich mythology told to us through early ethnographers who traveled the river documenting Native American inhabitants and their culture. According to
Chinookan mythology, Frog (Shwekheyk in Chinook language), was given the basics of weavable fiber by his relatives, Snake and omnipotent Coyote. With this fiber, Frog was given the task of creating the cordage for the weaving of the first fishing net. With this net, made from fibers of nettle plants, Frog had made it possible for the new human beings to catch their first salmon. Coyote tested the net, with the guidance and wisdom of his three sisters, thereby establishing the complex set of taboos associated with the catching of the first salmon of the season.
The Chinook people would never eat or harm Frog for his association to them would always protect him. That is why you should always step around frogs and never over them.
—Adam McIssac, Columbia River Master Artist
Crest of the Sam Robinson Family of the Chinook Nation, used with permission