Our History & Culture:
Part 1

 The Cayuse People  People of the lower Columbia
 The Umatilla People  The economy
 The Walla Walla People  Internal affairs
 The historical setting  Horses
 Our ancestors' way of life  


The historical setting

Water was created first, life and land were created next, land promised to take care of all life, all life promised to take care of the land.

A long time ago the Indian people also promised to protect the land and have the responsibility to care for her. Water represents an integral link in a world view where water is sacred and extremely important in preserving precious balance. Water is the origin of and essential for the survival of all life.

The Columbia River System encompasses over hundreds of thousands of miles of streams with over a billion cubic feet per second a year passing along its shores into the Pacific Ocean. The system reaches deep into the interior of North America and drains over 259,000 square miles. The river flows from sources in the North American Rockies, from mountain sources along Snake River including the middle Rocky Mountains, from both sides of the Cascade Mountains, and flows through estuaries to the Pacific.

Due to the cool clean water from many different sources the environment of the Columbia Plateau region produced abundant and diverse natural resources.
The numbers of salmon, lamprey, steelhead, sturgeon and other fish were infinite. The fisheries were the staple of all life on the Columbia Plateau.

Eagles, Bears, Coyotes, Cougars and Indians were amongst those who relied on the Salmon. Elk, deer, antelope, and many other smaller mammals were abundant. The rivers and streams abounded with beaver and otters, seals and sea lions were known to venture up the Columbia River to the great fisheries at Celilo.

Several kinds of grouse, quail, and multitudes of geese and ducks as well as hawks, owls, badger, rabbits, and other wildlife shared the diverse wetland, steppe, desert, and upland .

Roots, nuts, berries, mushrooms, medicine, food, and fiber plants were seasonally available during the year. The hillsides were covered with lush bunch grasses, the timbered mountains were healthy, natural wildfires and floods were part of the cycle, the river vegetation was lush, and the water was cool and clean.

The conditions were pristine and wildlife was naturally abundant. Survival was not easy for Indian people but the tools and resources were available to support Tribal life since time immemorial.

Our ancestors' way of life

Salmon, Huckleberries, and other resources were gathered seasonally. As with most foods the huckleberries had to be dried for future or winter use. Dried berries, roots, onions, nuts, herbs, spices, mushrooms, meat and fish would be dried and cached for later use.

Foods would be dried individually or sometimes would be mixed and pounded to form cakes for storage. The hunting, gathering, and procurement of food and raw materials for tools was the order of the day.

Living not only required a supply of raw material and food; an organizational strategy and an efficient disciplined skilled source of labor was required to ensure survival throughout the year.

Fish were dried and pounded into cakes and packed into baskets for winter subsistence or commerce. Tribal fishermen would harvest from several different salmon runs occurring during different times of the year.

Many tribal members would move toward the Columbia and its main tributaries during the fishing seasons. Fishing was the primary means of livelihood and survival for Tribal members. The conditions along the Columbia and Snake River systems were so good that all that was required for a fisherman was a dip net, gaff hook, small spear, or a hook and line depending on where and what season they were fishing. Salmon ran during spring, summer, and again into the fall. Some Tribal members would stay at their usual and accustomed sites for the whole season others for the entire year.

The extensive and productive fishery allowed some Tribal people lived on the Columbia River year round. As seasons permitted some Tribal people would head into the mountains to hunt and gather plants, medicines, and other resources and again to fish in the tributary headwaters.

Columbia river people accessed the region through the river system by canoe and travel into the mountains was on foot sometimes relying on dogs to help pack the load.

There were specific spiritual and practical preparations that had to be adhered to ensure prosperity and subsistence. It required a diverse cultural system, with rules and a specialized division of labor to ensure survival. Without strict adherence to many of those cultural traditions survival for over 13,000 years would not have been possible.

The entry of Spring on the Columbia Plateau with the arrival of fresh plants and the dramatic return of the Salmon are reaffirmed annually, year after year. First food feasts gather the Tribe to celebrate the renewal of life cycles together with their community.

Spiritually, the Tribes do not separate themselves from the surrounding natural world. Individuals have a personal relationship with the Creator through the sweathouse and individual Weyekin. Larger groups reinforce this personal relationship with the land and the Creator in the long house. The longhouse is the community center where Indian people come together as a community to practice religion, to mourn, to socialize, and to celebrate the occasion.

Water is honored first at the feasts. Individual faith is also practiced on a personal level such as through the sweathouse. The sweathouse is utilized to communicate with the Creator, for medicinal purpose, as well as to build of one's physical and spiritual strength.

The winter on the Columbia Plateau was often hard and severe. Careful preparation for winter was crucial for survival until the spring. Social discipline, responsibilities and roles of men, women, children and elders were maintained and reinforced through daily educational experiences such as ritual, relationships, food and resource procurement, and language.

Youth learned from elders and were encouraged in the many skills required. Extended family relationships were known by all, as well as where one's people originated from, their number, character, and abilities. Indian names were given based on individual attributes. Indian names also reflect the history and ancestry of the Tribes with names reflecting past leaders, special events, or even places.

Elders remind us that there did not used to be Tribes as we know them today, Indian people were identified as so and so's people, were recognized by their family, or by where they come from.

Survival was depended on working with each other as one elder reminds us; "Indians used to help each other. In the old days there was no welfare or aid. If someone was down people would help them."

People of the lower Columbia

The Walla Walla and Umatilla are river peoples among many who shared the Big River (Columbia). The Cayuse lived along the tributary river valleys in the Blue Mountains. The Tribes lived around the confluence of the Yakama, Snake, and Walla Walla rivers with the Columbia River.

The river system was the lifeblood of the people and it linked many different people by trade, marriage, conflict, and politics. The people fished, traded, and traveled along the river in canoes and over land by foot.

The Walla Walla, were mentioned by Lewis and Clark in 1805 as living along the Columbia just below the mouth of the Snake River as well as along the Yakama, Walla Walla, and Snake Rivers. The Walla Walla included many groups and bands that were often referred to by the village whence they originated from such as the Wallulapums and Chomnapums.

The Umatilla occupied both sides of the Columbia River from above the junction of the Umatilla River downstream to the vicinity of Willow Creek on the Oregon side and to Rock Creek on the Washington side. The river people were tied with other Tribes along the river with close family, trade, and economic interests in the Columbia River Gorge and the northern Plateau.

The Walla Walla and the Umatilla were a part of the larger culture of Shahaptian speaking river people of southeastern Washington, Northeastern Oregon, and Western Idaho.

The Cayuse, whose original language is known to linguists as Waiilatpuan, lived: "..south of and between the Nez Perces and Wallah-Wallahs, extending from the Des Chutes or Wawanui river to the eastern side of the Blue Mountains. It [their country] is almost entirely in Oregon, a small part only, upon the upper Wallah-Wallah river, lying within Washington Territory."

Prior to the horse the Cayuse were tributary fishermen. After the arrival of the horse and gun they sometimes were mounted warriors to protect their way of life. They lived throughout the lower Columbia Plateau from the Cascade to the Blue Mountains, and grazed horses on the abundant grasses of southeast Washington, the Deschutes-Umatilla Plateau. As horsemen the Cayuse had close ties to the horsemen of the Palouse and Nimipu.

The area from Wallula to the mouth the Yakama River where many members of the tribes lived could be considered the cross roads of the Columbia River System. This area was shared by many related bands and was a central hub of Tribal life on the Columbia Plateau.

Extended family relationships, social, and economic interests exists between many Tribal people from throughout the Columbia Plateau. The people on the Columbia Plateau were multi-lingual. Tribal members learned and spoke several trade jargons, other Indian dialects of Shahaptian, as well as, Salish, Chinookian, and Klamath. Later they adapted to French and English.

The economy

Inter-Tribal relationships were based upon many needs key to the survival of Columbia Plateau life. Tribes throughout the region established relationships like any sovereignty, for military security and protection, trade and economic prosperity, education, religion, and family ties.

The Umatilla, Walla Walla and the Cayuse were very influential within the region in economics and politics of the Plateau due to their key geographical setting, halfway between the Pacific Coast and the Great Plains.

The geographic setting also placed the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse in the prime situation of being the middlemen of trade between the buffalo country of the Great Plains and rainforest and ocean resources of the Pacific Coast cultures.

Tribal members relied on trade goods from the plains such as buffalo meat and hides, obsidian from the south as well as abundant seafood, plants, and medicines from the Pacific Northwest coast.

Gatherings were held at many places throughout the region. Very large gatherings were known to be held and in the Wallula area near the confluence of the Snake River and at Wascopum near the ancient fishing grounds of Celilo Falls and Nine Mile Rapids.

Smaller gatherings were held in the many fertile river valleys in the region where peoples paths crossed during their seasonal round. At such gatherings many traditions such as language, religion, ritual, music, dance, legends, stories, feasts, sport, gambling, and families values were continued and passed on.

Perhaps due to the harsh realities of living close to the elements the Tribes created many forms of entertainment often involved risk. The Tribes on the Plateau enjoyed gambling and wagering on stick games, foot races, wrestling, hide races, horse racing, or other competitive feats. Wagers would include items of value such as raw materials, meats, fish, roots, berries, horses, slaves, finished products such as baskets, nets, bows, arrows and many other items of value. Risk was sometimes greater as a participant in some of the races if one was fortunate to be there to ride. The way of life and daily risk were such that the people developed a great sense of honor and humor.

Trade and barter was a significant aspect of Indian life on the Plateau and essential for the survival of Indian people. Indians relied on other Indians to provide goods they themselves were not able to obtain, were not available during their seasonal round, or not available in their country. Often groups from a single village community would travel different directions as part of their seasonal round.

Through years of trade relationships, elders new exactly what other Indians needed in exchange for goods they needed. The abundance of salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries gave wealth to the tribes who fished there. They dried and processed the salmon for their own subsistence and for trade to the other tribes of the Plateau and surrounding regions.

The vast grasslands and the mountains populated with game, roots and berries were wealth for those tribes who occupied them. To protect the regions abundant resources and their way of life it became necessary for the tribes to develop and maintain strong warrior traditions to defend the people, resources, and territory from their enemies. A strong warrior tradition helped to provide a foundation for defense and survival.

Life on the Columbia Plateau was recorded by the people in traditions and art. Songs, dances, and stories that embody the history of the Indian people are passed down generation to generation by oral transmission.

Stories and symbols were weaved into the many baskets, hats, and bags utilized by the people. Basketry evolved as a crucial survival tool and an art form. Elaborate balls of long hand woven string kept tract of many events of the peoples history. Rock art, cairns, and unique geological formations were present at many locations providing reference to the peoples lives. Personal histories are reflected through the individuals preparation of personal regalia and dance. Wealth was personal strength, family, community, comfort, and happiness.

Internal affairs

Individual abilities were recognized by elders at an early age. Headmen and chiefs were selected based upon their experience, abilities and skills. Elders were respected and often leaders had council with elders. Individuals were recognized for their spiritual strength, medicinal abilities, warrior qualities, recognized for their hunting and tracking abilities, fishing skills, art, weaving, education, discipline, healing, cooking or other skills. Labor and skills were divided as many survival skills were necessary.

Conflicts and issues were resolved by council of elders and leaders. Leaders were decisive when they believed that their followers had arrived at a consensus. If there was no consensus, powerful orations between the headmen and chiefs might soon swing the people on issues or problems of the day.

If an individual disagreed with the decisions of the band, he did not, nor was he forced to comply with the decision. Overall decisions of the Tribe were arrived at by consensus of the people. Planning and preparations were conducted in ways to prepare for future generations.

A very elaborate and complex Indian civilization once flourished on the Columbia Plateau. Resources were so abundant that the development of elaborate cultural material was not necessary.

Today Columbia Plateau social traditions have been maintained on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Nez Perce Indian Reservation of Idaho, on the Yakama and Colville Reservations of Washington, at communities like Celilo Falls, and Priest Rapids. Many Tribes from the Columbia Plateau are related to one another by blood and marriage, linguistics, traditions, history, and religion.


The tribes owned a tremendous number of horses. The bunch grass covered hills of Columbia Basin was the home of the Cayuse and Appaloosa, as well as Pintos, Paints, and Mustang horses.

Due to the extraordinary amount of horses owned by the Indians living at the headwaters of the Umatilla the rugged Cayuse horse was identified with the people who have traditionally lived along the headwaters of the Umatilla River, on the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Appaloosas were bread for speed and ceremony by the Cayuse, Palouse, and Nimipu (Nez Perce).

The Cayuse Tribe was known for their large horse herds that grazed in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Cayuse ponies were stout and able to move quickly through the steep and timbered Blue mountains Prestige and wealth was partially reflected by the number of horses that a person owned.

Tribal elders tell us that in those days the Indians had thousands and thousands of horses and that they needed areas for them to graze. There wasn't enough grazing area so they had to spread the horses out. The Cayuse used to graze horses all through the Umatilla Basin, across the Columbia River on the Horse Heaven Hills all the way to Hanford to the north, on the east side of the Blue Mountains from the Grande Ronde country all the way to Huntington, to the John Day River country in the South and all the way to the Cascades in the west.

The horse expanded Shahaptian and Cayuse culture, improved mobility and brought the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla into contact with other Indian cultures in Montana, Wyoming, Canada, California, Nevada, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Horses increased the Tribes mobility allowing members to travel further, faster. Horses allowed for new ideas to be introduced from new places as well as allowing other Indians to travel and trade along the Columbia River.

While on the extended seasonal round, Indians would hunt elk, deer, and gather plant foods. Instead of packing resources themselves or by dog they would now dry meat and plants and pack them onto horses and move on to the next destination. They would go down to the river to trade and fish. If there was a surplus of food supplies and/or horses procured during the seasonal round the surplus would be used for trading to obtain desirable resources.

Go to History and Culture, Part 2

Go to History and Culture, Part 3

Learn more about our history and culture at our Tamastslikt Cultural Institute


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