My wife and I lived in Denver, Colorado for many years and occasionally experienced a phenomenon called the “Chinook Wind”. These winds, blowing over the Rocky Mountain Front Range, could actually raise the temperature from below freezing to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours. Chinook winds can occur in many areas of western North America and certainly are not unique to Colorado. In fact, the term and the original Chinook winds originated in the northwestern coastal area.
The term “Chinook” comes from the Pacific Coast Chinook tribe that lived along the lower
Columbia River. These were the people encountered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. Like many of the tribes of the Pacific Coast, the Chinook people had a highly stratified society with the upper classes often isolating themselves from the lower classes to the extent that their children were not allowed to play the children of the lower classes.
The upper class was composed of religious leaders and medicine men, warriors, and merchants or traders. To further distinguish themselves, the upper class often artificially
flattened the foreheads of their infants by tying a board firmly to the child’s head in a daily ritual. Over time, this would cause the head to flatten out. They were later called “Flatheads” by colonists. Since slavery was a common practice by ancient Pacific Coast tribes, having a flat head served to distinguish one as a member of the elites and prevented them for being accidently seized for slavery.
To the east of the Chinook tribe, the Wasco tribe lived along the Dalles section of the Columbia River. In the winter months, warm winds would blow across the Wasco coming from the direction of the Chinook “freeing the snow-laden lower slopes of their winter burden.” The struggle between Cold Wind and Chinook Wind was told in this Wasco story (from “They Dance in the Sky”, Jean Guard Monroe and Ray A. Williamson). I have taken the liberty of shortening the story for this article.
Chinook Wind’s grandfather was a great fisherman, often catching many more salmon than anyone else. But, he was a generous man and gave away his surpluses to the less fortunate. Once, when Chinook Wind left to visit relatives far away, Cold Wind decided he would come in and take over.
Cold Wind loved Salmon, but was too lazy to arrive early enough for good fishing. When he saw the grandfather going home with plenty, he decided to steal some from him. Of course, had he been less impatient, he would not have had to steal salmon for the old grandfather was generous and would have given him a share. But greedy people are seldom patient or courteous.
When Chinook Wind returned and learned how Cold Wind was stealing salmon from his grandfather, he grew angry and decided to teach him a lesson. Chinook Wind challenged Cold Wind and forbade him from taking any more fish from Old Grandfather. But Cold Wind challenged Chinook Wind and they wrestled hard until Chinook Wind won. To this day, Chinook Wind is stronger that Cold Wind and Cold Wind can never again take salmon away from Old Grandfather.
Today if you look closely at the sky, you can see Chinook Wind and his brothers in their canoe (Orion’s sword) close to Old Grandfather’s salmon while Cold Wind and his brothers are in a canoe far behind (Orion’s belt).
The hot Chinook Wind can seem to do battle with the Arctic air mass at times blowing in, raising the temperature in a short time, drying and melting the snow, and even making pasture land available for grazing of animals.
There is another story told by the people of southern Alberta about a winter when the church was covered with snow except for the steeple. They tied their horses to the steeple and went down the snow tunnel to attend services. When they emerged from church, a Chinook wind had come and melted all of the snow and their horses were dangling from the steeple.
I have always heard Chinook pronounced “shi-nook”, but records show that it was originally pronounced “tsi-new-ook”.
Author of the7-book series, Cherokee Chronicles