The Chehalis River watershed, which extends from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in southwest Washington State, was home to bands of Salish-speaking Indians for numerous generations before the advent of pioneers. The natives lived along the river, its tributary streams and creeks. The name Chehalis is taken from the native term Chi-ke-lis, or shifting sands, probably referring to an old native village near today's Westport. Two main tribes, the Lower Chehalis and the Upper Chehalis, inhabited that area, between Grays Harbor in the west and the headwaters of the Chehalis River to the southeast. They communicated with similar Salish languages and kept close relations through frequent contact, bartering and intermarriage. The elders passed down accounts of tribal origins to their children. Honne, the spirit of the Chehalis, was the creator of animals and people. He gave names to various species important to the Chehalis. Both tribes were river-oriented out to the sea. They relied upon the rivers for salmon, their principal staple. The natives were expert fishers, and paddlers of shallow shovel-nose canoes. In addition, there was an abundance of steelhead, eels, freshwater clams and crayfish. Their winter village dwellings, constructed of large cedar planks, were placed perpendicular to the streams; occupants could view the water from one end. The rivers also served as trading routes. The Chehalis peoples' economy went beyond hand to mouth. They traded fish, clams, oysters and furs. Dried salmon was a popular export to inland tribes. The Chehalis had developed an elaborate trading network among the several bands that comprised their tribes, and with other peoples at a considerable remove. Their trading route went from the Chehalis river system to the Cowlitz river system. This canoe highway with its negotiable portages was utilized well into the 1900s, not only by tribes, but increasingly by non-natives as well. The 19th century would introduce an influx of such non-native outsiders as explorers, trappers, missionaries and settlers. At first, the Chehalis helped clueless settlers stave off starvation by showing them how to fish and hunt. As the pioneers increased in number, however, relations soured and the natives began to resist their encroachment. In addition, the outsiders obliviously introduced disease. The Native American population in the region during those years is impossible to ascertain, but one report suggests that an 1855 gathering of the Upper Chehalis at Ford's Prairie numbered up to 5,000. Two decades following, an Indian agent and settler named Sydney Ford estimated that the native population in western Washington below the Puget Sound had dwindled to only 1,200 souls. The flu, measles, small pox, other white-borne diseases and alcohol-related health problems had withered the previously flourishing river village population.
In 1864, the majority of the Chehalis people were moved — without the protective provisions of a federal treaty — to the new Chehalis Reservation, situated six miles northwest of Centralia and roughly 26 miles southwest of Olympia. Oakville is adjacent to the northwest corner of the reservation. Members of the tribes have been located on the parcel, now comprising 4,216 acres, within the Chehalis River watershed ever since. The tribe became a confederation and crafted its own autonomous government with a constitution and bylaws, and adopted the provisions on July 15, 1939.