Cathlapotle Plankhouse


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Building a Future for the Past at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge:
The Cathlapotle Plankhouse Project

Virginia Parks, 9/10/02

Virginia Parks
Virginia Parks
As autumn settles in on the Columbia River, sandhill cranes, dusky Canada geese and other migratory birds begin to arrive at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, drawn to the glittering string of wetlands where food and shelter are plentiful. For some, the Refuge is just a resting place on the journey south, for others it serves as a winter home. This seasonal cycle has played out in nature here for millennia, and long before Euroamericans arrived on the Columbia River the Chinook people witnessed it from their villages along the riverbanks.

At Cathlapotle, one of the largest Chinookan settlements on the Lower Columbia River, the distinctive call of a sandhill crane flying overhead might rouse a sleeping household. The cedar plankhouse would quickly come alive with activity as people prepared to go about the chores of everyday life, gathering plant foods, fishing, trading, making stone tools. Smoke from the hearth fires would spiral up through openings in the roof, drying fish hanging from the rafters while the flames below took the edge off the early autumn chill. As people emerged from the fourteen plankhouses lined up in rows along the shore, the morning sun poring over the trees behind them would turn the river to gold.

On November 5, 1805, having just spent a sleepless night at a camp site a few miles upriver, Lewis and Clark laid eyes on Cathlapotle for the first time. The morning scene would have been similar to that described above, save for the sun which had given way to a grey rain. In a hurry to reach the mouth of the Columbia, the Corps of Discovery did not stop at Cathlapotle that day. But upon their return on March 29, 1806, they rested at the village a few hours to visit and trade, leaving us with some vivid descriptions of the people, their houses, and their way of life.

Lewis and Clark encountered a Chinookan settlement that was already over 350 years old. But in just a few decades following that epic journey, the Cathlapotle and other native peoples on the Columbia River suffered the consequences of contact with diseases for which they had no defenses. Inland peoples moved into the riverside settlements, but by the 1840s, Cathlapotle had been abandoned even by its new inhabitants. Since that time the site has been silent, slowly receding into the depths of the cottonwood forest that has sprung up and leaving to our imaginations the challenge of visualizing what life was like in those massive houses made of cedar planks. Soon, however, our imaginations will get just enough help to comprehend the enormous undertaking of building a cedar plankhouse and making a comfortable life within and without its walls.

On September 7, 2002, the Cathlapotle Plankhouse Project kicked off at Ridgefield NWR with a public event attended by upward of 200 visitors. The photographs here illustrate some of the event's offerings, which ranged from demonstrations of traditional skills such as cattail cordage making and basketry to flintknapping and plank splitting. All of these activities will play an important role in the construction and interpretation of the 37 by78 foot cedar structure beside a wetland on the Carty Unit of the Refuge in the years to come. Through community workshops and building parties, a Chinook-style plankhouse will once again grace the Columbia River floodplain in a setting that evokes the traditional landscape while protecting the fragile archaeological resources from which come much of our knowledge of the people and the place.

As the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery approaches, a far older story is emerging at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Please join us as we build a future for the past.

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