Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Chinook Indians

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The Chinook Nation consisted of a number of related tribes who inhabited the Columbia River Valley. Their lands were mostly situated in modern British Columbia and Washington State. At the turn of the 19th century, a census placed their number at about 16,000. While they were mostly known for fishing and trading, and frequently hired warriors from other tribes to fight for them, they had an active warrior tradition.

1 Bows and Arrows

Chinook war bands typically included a significant proportion of bowmen. The Chinook bow was typically a repurposed hunting tool, and there is no strong tradition of the manufacture of bows specifically for war. The arrows were usually tipped with flint arrowheads, bound to a one- to two-foot shaft by sinew cord and fletched with feathers or stiff leaves. Bows occupied a skirmishing role among the Chinook, with individual bowmen firing at targets of opportunity, with no real evidence of massed fire. Tactically, bows and arrows were chiefly used for their demoralizing effect, to shake the confidence of an approaching enemy or to spur on a retreat.

2 Spears

The majority of the warriors in a Chinook warband were armed with spears, usually hunting spears or harpoons. These weapons were readily available, as most adult males took part in hunting local game or collecting salmon from the Columbia through spearfishing. Spears were lightweight, between 4 and 6 feet tall, and were tipped with either a flint spearhead or a sharpened and fire-hardened wood point. They could be thrown in battle, but were more often used as thrusting weapons except when pursuing retreating enemies, as throwing the spear often meant losing one's sole weapon.

3 Clubs

A smaller number of Chinook warriors bore carved hardwood clubs, consisting of a 2- to 3-foot shaft topped by a double-edged striking head. These clubs could be intricately carved, and often served as signs of status or prowess in war. They were capable of breaking bone and delivering lethal strikes. When used with care, they could render an opponent unconscious but alive, which was a valuable consideration when raiding neighboring tribes for captives or slaves.

4 Armor

The hallmark of the Chinook warrior was a cuirass or breastplate known as a clamon. A clamon was a double layer of hardened elk-hide leather reinforced with cedar bark and hardwood. Clamons covered the wearer from waist to neck, leaving the arms bare. While they provided only marginal protection against clubs and spears, clamons were reputed to provide a good defense against arrows, and were a valuable trade good for the Chinook Nation. In an average warband, only some of the warriors would be so armored, with most of the others either going without protection or donning partial armor of animal hide and bark.