Voicing the Past | “I was there. I remember it very well”

The woman in this image is Catherine Hawks George, also known as Cha’ist or Tleko. Library of Congress caption: “American Indian woman standing holding basket on beach.” Edward S. Curtis Collection, ca. 1910.Published in The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis. [Seattle, Wash.]: Edward S. Curtis, 1907-30 suppl., v. 8, pl. 292
From ancient stories to contemporary interviews, Chinook voices play a critical role in understanding the Chinookan past. Below, we examine the role of storytelling in Chinookan culture, finding Native voices in tribal rolls and testimony, and the use of oral history.

The Role of Community Storytelling

Historically, indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest shared and passed on information through storytelling. According to Dell Hymes, et. al., they told stories “to instruct, to caution or warn, to explain, to validate, and above all, to entertain.” Storytellers memorized and carefully repeated tales to prevent significant alteration of narratives that had been passed down through the generations. The storyteller is a mediator who delivers a tale deriving its authority from age and universality (within the culture) rather than from the individual. Some stories were told only during the winter, “from the first frost until the frogs start to croak,” a condition still observed today, according to Chinook storyteller Joan Wekell. The act of storytelling and the stories themselves are essential to understanding Chinookan history and culture.

Ownership of traditional information does not lie with a single narrator but is shared within a family or with the tribe. The collective voice and shared creativity of storytelling is a part of Chinookan teaching which influences how the past is constructed and remembered, and how an individual identifies with his or her homeland, tribal community, and family. Stories demonstrate inter-tribal and family relationships and establish an understanding of the landscape and natural events.

In her book Kutkos, Chinook author Mildred Colbert reminds us of what is lost when stories are written: “One must read between the lines to get the real meaning from these stories. They were usually related by professional storytellers whose chief purpose was to keep the traditions of the past alive.”

Testimony and Tribal Rolls

Through oral testimonies such as court proceedings and the compilation of tribal rolls like the McChesney rolls, Chinook voices interact with the written historical record. These documented voices exist as evidence that the Chinook community, despite the devastations of disease and land loss, persist as a close-knit and well-rooted people.

For example, the court statement of Tleko, known to the Americans as Catherine George, establishes political and social continuity for the Chinook people. She was present at the signing of the 1851 Tansey Point treaties, which her husband and relatives signed. In her testimony, she documented the lineages of individuals, naming members of their extended families and their associations by marriage. She identified tribal affiliations and knew who was a member of which tribes. She knew how many men, women, and children lived in specific areas and the headmen of certain regions. Catherine George’s testimony demonstrates knowledge gained through her lived experience and in this document we are able to access direct evidence of her knowledge.

Below is a brief excerpt from Catherine George’s testimony in The lower band of Chinook Indians of the state of Washington, vs. the United States, 1902, a case concerning Chinook land claims in Washington state.

Q. What is your name?
A. My Indian name is Tleko. English name Catherine George, formerly Catherine Hawkes.

Q. In what degree are you related to any of the signer of this Treaty?
A. This Huckswelt was my husband and two other relations. One was father of Elapah. My father was cousin of Elaspah’s father and Ahmooseahmoose was my mother’s cousin.

Q. Were you present at the Treaty held between the Government and the Chinook Indians at Tansy Point?
A. I was there. I remember it very well. A great many of them put their names down, but they didn’t all put their names. Sent their names to Washington.

Read Catherine George’s testimony transcribed from the 1906 McChesney Rolls from chinooknation.org

Oral History

Many people use the terms “oral history” and “oral tradition” interchangeably when speaking of Native histories. However, oral history is a specific and particular research method used by historians, a way of recording individual voices that emerged and expanded with the development of portable recording devices.

The practice of oral history as a research method differs from documentary research in that the primary document, the recorded interview, is produced in collaboration between the interviewer and the interviewee (often called a “narrator”), whose knowledge is being sought.

Oral historians look to the experience and memories of those people closest to the events and processes that the historian is researching. Memory, of course, is not infallible and researchers relying on oral histories need to take this into account. However, documentary sources such as diaries, newspaper articles, and statements by public figures are not infallible either. Oral historians take into account the ways in which memories shape and are shaped by the life of the narrator, and how narrators construct an understanding of the past. Oral histories, just as documentary sources, are checked against other sources.

A narrator can access some memories are more easily than others because of the significance he or she attributes to them. Narrators remember best the activities they participated in personally. Unusual or unique events are most memorable. While aging affects the process of recall, the difference between young and old is in content rather than reliability. For example, young people may remember more details of an event, while older people “make better sense of the story.” In addition, men and women may attribute importance to different aspects of their memories. The researcher keeps these differences in mind, recognizing that certain bits of information may be more forthcoming than others.

A personal narrative such as an oral history interview is derived from individual rather than collective memories, but individual indigenous identity is always connected to tribe, family, and shared stories. Chinook elder Joan Wekell invokes culturally familiar elements in a personal narrative telling the story of her family’s origin, and reminding the listener that her origins follow the same course of events as the origin story of the Chinook people. Through personal narrative, her family is connected to the tribe, and Wekell and her audience are brought into a culturally significant relationship.


Claims Court of the United States. The Lower Band of the Chinook Indians of the State of Washington vs. the United States. Testimony given by Catherine George to Harrison Allen, Astoria, Oregon, January 21, 1902.

Colbert, Mildred. Kutkos: Chinook Tyee. Boston: D.C. Heath & Company, 1942.

Hymes, Dell, and William R. Seaburg, “Chinookan Oral Literature.” In Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia, edited by Robert T. Boyd, Kenneth M. Ames, Tony A. Johnson, (163-180). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013.

Wekell, Joan, and Jane Wekell Pulliam, unpublished interview with Katrine Barber, Makenzie Moore, and Donna Sinclair, November 6, 2011.

Yow, Valerie, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Altamira Press, 2005).

Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group (IPSG) of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). AAA Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group’s Declaration of Key Questions About Research Ethics with Indigenous Communities, 2010.