Excerpt from coming book on NW Oregon: What was Illahee?

Some of you may be aware that I am writing a book about trails between Portland and the Coast for the Oregon University Press that will probably be released in early 2016. As part of that exercise, I have been writing small stand-alone sections describing the lesser known aspects of NW Oregon’s history – mostly on the blog side of this site.

I often post the 1st draft of my writings as “blog” pieces, and it appears from the steady flow of registrants to the website that you seem to enjoy these explorations in to the lesser known corners of Oregon’s history.

In that spirit I herewith offer up a short digression from my forthcoming book on the fascinating concept of “territoriality” as practiced amongst the Indians of this area up until the arrival of the settlers in the 1840’s. So without further ado…


To the Indians residing in and around the Portland area natural divisions such as rivers, mountains, watersheds and waterfalls were significant, but unlike Europeans they tended to not rely on these physical features to delineate the extent of their “home territory”. This, of course, became a huge problem when they began to have conflicts with settlers over land right during the middle of the nineteenth century. The Europeans wanted to have exclusive rights to the lands and sought to sequester the Indians into ever smaller parcels of land. But the Indians fundamentally did not understand the idea that a person could own any part of the physical world around them. It is true that Indians inhabited and used specific portions of the landscape, establishing what we might refer to in diplomatic history as “spheres of influence” suggesting a special association with a location based on its proximity to their villages. Had we visited northern Washington County two centuries ago we would have met Atfalati hunters and wizened Atfalati females gathering huckleberries from their “ancestral” berry bushes. Near Scappoose we would have encountered the longhouses of the wealthy Chinook Indians that fished the river. North of Tualatin Range, the Clatskanie Indians also hunted the mountains, fished for salmon and occasionally preyed upon those traveling up and down the river.  When the early traders arrived in the area and began trying to pin down the tribal claims to territory, they were aware of these geographic distinctions. As a consequence, they quickly equated these partitions to the European concept of territory. But this geographic interpretation utterly missed the essence of the Indian concept of “Illahee” – the closest concept the Indians had to our notion of territorial sovereignty.  Asking an Indian how far his “home territory” extended was akin to asking someone how big his or her family was. Quite literally this question would elicit puzzlement, and the Indian would ask whether the inquirer wanted to include cousins, second cousins, in-laws, or even in-laws’ relatives. Like “spheres of influence” their concept of ownership, “Illahee” rested on the strength of the personal ties – not on geographic characteristics. Their concept of Illahee was based on a linear concept of linkages that describe the extent of their influence, not a specific physical distance or any relationship to physical features in the landscape, like mountains and rivers.

Using the Indian framework of “Illahee” , the concept of territory was quite inclusive, but at the same time variable over time. Illahee derived its definition from a complex network of personal relationships, including multiple kinship ties that shifted with births, deaths and inter-tribal marriages. The Atfalati (a band of the Kalapuyan Indians) from Washington County were known to travel through the Coastal Mountains to trade with the Tillamooks for fish, whale meat and abalone shells. It is reported[1] that the local Chinookans strictly limited the Atfalati’s fishing rights around the Willamette Falls. But further down the Columbia River, they were granted the right to hunt seals in the “Chinookan” waters of the Lower Columbia River. In return the Chinookans were allowed to hunt for elk and deer on the northern slopes of Washington County.

The Illahee framework was primarily based on the right of primary usage, or “usufruct rights”. It applied to prime camas growing plots, high yield fishing sites, wapato ponds and even particularly bountiful huckleberry patches. These rights were typically allocated to family groups, but in fact they were often extended by marriage and mutual agreement.

It is no wonder then that the European attempts to carve out physically restricted areas both for themselves and for the remaining Indians foundered, because these two approaches to “ownership” were so utterly alien to each other, that there was no way to bridge the cultural divide. Unfortunately, the malaria epidemics of the mid-1800’s removed most of the remaining natives and the issue became moot.

But for those of us that explore different ways that people organize themselves and define their interactions with nature, “Illahee” represents a different way to relate with our natural surroundings. Food for thought?

[1] Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee, Gray H. Whaley, University of North Carolina press, 2010, page 8.

About Jim

Love to spend time getting lost in the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest with Zoe, my Siberian Husky.
This entry was posted in Indian lore, Lower Columbia Trails, Pioneer Lore. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Excerpt from coming book on NW Oregon: What was Illahee?

  1. Sam says:

    Love the article, cant wait for the book to come out. Thanks for this.

  2. JB says:

    Hey Jim,

    I got your contact info at an REI talk on the new book, however I have since lost it. I have some questions I would like to ask you-


  3. Dan Nicollet says:

    Hello Jim,
    Wow, your site is impressive, deep and rich with information I can’t wait to have time to go through. This article is really well written and I look forward to your book. Please make sure to post the Amazon link or other as soon as it’s out!

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