Our History & Culture:
Part 3

 Language  Drumming and singing
 Traditions  Arts and crafts
Life cycle and Foods  Legends and oral histories
 Housing and transportation  Cultural events & ceremonies
 Our families



The three tribes (Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla) are part of a much larger culture group called the Plateau Culture. The Plateau Culture includes the Nez Perce bands of Idaho and Washington, the Yakama bands of Central Washington and the Wasco and Warm Springs bands of North Central Oregon on the lower Columbia River. There were many other smaller bands and groups such as the Palouse and Wanapum.

This large body of people belonged to the Sahaptin Language group and each tribe spoke a distinct and separate dialect of Sahaptin. The Umatilla and Walla Walla each spoke their own separate dialect, while the Cayuse in later years spoke a dialect of the Nez Perce with whom they associated a great deal. The original Cayuse language, which is extinct today but for a few words spoken by a few individuals on the Umatilla Reservation, is closely related to the Mollala Indian language of the Oregon Cascade Mountains.

Over the decades, our native languages have gradually been lost as the primary means of communication. Only a handful of our tribal members are fluent. In an effort to restore and retain our native languages, we have implemented a language program through our Education Department. Some of our elders are now teaching the languages to the younger generations.


Many things we do every day are based on tradition, but in many ways, modern life on the reservation is much like modern life any where in the United States. People live in houses, drive cars, work at jobs and children go to public schools. The people speak English, have T.V.'s and eat many of the same foods that other Americans eat. But there are things that make the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indian people different from other people.

The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indian people have a culture or way of life that has been handed down to them by their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Wallas' each have their own language and traditions.

Grandparents, mothers and fathers teach their children and grandchildren how to hunt, fish, dig roots, make teepees and put them up, how to dance and sing Indian songs. All these are traditions of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Indians had to learn many of these things to stay alive. Today they do many of these because it is important to them not to forget the ways of their parents and grandparents.

When traditions are strong, they change very slowly. Many of the traditional ways of life are taught and practiced the same way today as they were before the non-Indians brought their way of life to this part of the country. A celebration honoring the traditional foods, called Root Feast, is one tradition that continues each spring.


Life cycle and Foods

Until the early 1900s, the culture of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indians was based on a yearly cycle of travel from hunting camps to fishing spots to celebration and trading camps and so on.

The three tribes spent most of their time in the area which is now northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. They had lived in the Columbia River Region for more than 10,000 years. There were no buffalo in this area. The most plentiful foods were salmon, roots, berries, deer and elk. Each of these foods could be found in different places and each was available in different seasons. This meant that the Indian people had to move from place to place from season to season to their food and prepare it to be eaten and to be saved for the winter. They followed the same course from year to year in a large circle from the lowlands along the Columbia River to the highlands in the Blue Mountains.

In the spring the tribes gathered along the Columbia River at places like Celilo Falls to fish for salmon and trade goods with other tribes. They dried the salmon and stored it for later use. In late spring and early summer they traveled from the Columbia to the foot hills of the Blue Mountains to dig for roots which they also dried. In late summer they traveled to the upper mountains to pick berries and to hunt for deer and elk. In the fall the tribe would return to the lower valleys and along the Columbia River again to catch the fall salmon run. All would stay in winter camps in the low regions until spring when the whole cycle would start all over again.

The earth provided all the food the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples needed:

"I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground would come alive and what is on it? Though I hear what the ground says. The ground says, it is the great spirit that placed me here. The great spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed them alright. The great spirit appointed the roots to feed the Indians on. The water says the same thing. The great spirit directs me, feed the Indians well. The ground, water and grass say, the great spirit has given us our names. We have these names and hold these names. The ground says, the great spirit has placed me here to produce all that grows on me, trees and fruit. The same way the ground says, it was from me man was made. The great spirit, in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm...

Young Chief
1855 Treaty Council

The salmon was the first food to appear in early spring. Family bands gathered along the Columbia River at their favorite or traditional fishing sites to catch and dry enough salmon to use for the year ahead. During the salmon runs, the fish traveled up every creek and river that emptied into the Columbia. There were so many that it was said that you could walk across a creek on the backs of salmon.

The men hooked, netted, trapped and speared huge quantities of fish. A very common net was the long handled dipnet which is still used today. Platforms made of wood were suspended from rocks or bluffs. Fishermen stood on these platforms and used their dipnets. The women cleaned the salmon and hung them on long racks to dry in the sun.

When enough salmon was dried and stored away in caches, the bands would prepare to move to the foothills of the Blue Mountains to dig roots.

The couse root (Kowsh, also known as biscuitroot) with its bright flowers turned the late spring and early summer hillsides of Eastern Oregon yellow. Women dug the roots with diggers made of hardwood or antlers. The roots were mashed together and shaped into small biscuits and dried in the sun. The biscuits were stored away for later use.

In the late summer, the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people would move to the upper mountains to pick huckleberries and hunt for game. The berries and meat were also dried. Chokecherries were pounded with dried meat or salmon to make pemmican. Black moss gathered from pine and fir trees was baked to make a cheese-like food. Camas bulbs were dried or baked.

Every food the Indian people needed was provided by the earth. Ceremonies were held in the spring to honor the new foods. One of those, the Root Feast, is still celebrated today on the Umatilla Reservation. Although salmon is not as plentiful as it was before the dams were built on the Columbia, many of the Indian people of the Umatilla Indian Reservation still eat traditional foods like roots, berries, deer, elk and salmon as part of their every day diet.


Housing and Transportation

In the old days the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people had to have housing that was easy to move from place to place because they had to travel much of the time to gather food.

The Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla and other Plateau tribes had a special kind of tent that no other Indian people used. It was called a longhouse. The longhouse was made out of lodgepoles much like a tepee, only much longer. It could reach up to 80 feet in length. The longhouse resembled the modern day "A" frame house in appearance. The covering was made out of "tule" mats. The long skinny-leafed tule plants grow along rivers and ponds. They were gathered, dried and strung together to make mats. The mats were placed on the poles and tied down. When the family wished to move they simply removed the mats and traveled on to the next camp. The poles were left behind because it was much easier to have a set of poles at each camp.

Beginning in the early 1700's the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people raised great herds of horses. Having horses made it possible for them to travel great distances from the lowlands along the Columbia River to the upper reaches of the Blue Mountains to gather and harvest the seasonal crops of wild foods. They also traveled across the Rocky Mountains to trade dried roots and salmon to midwestern tribes who had buffalo meat and hides. They also learned how to make tepee's from the midwestern tribes and sometimes used buffalo hides to cover the poles; although this was never as common as tule mats. Another item borrowed from the tribes east of the Rocky Mountains was the travois. A travois is two long poles tied together and pulled along by a horse. This was how they carried their belongings.

Today the Indian people of the Umatilla Reservation live in houses, but they still use teepees on certain occasions, like traditional celebrations or camping in the mountains. However, the tepees are now covered with canvas instead of tule mats.


Our families

The Indian families are quite often "extended families" or families that include aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins all living together.

For instance, the Walla Wallas' were several closely related bands living around the area of Wallula, Washington and up and down the Columbia River. Separate bands usually went their own ways during the food gathering seasons and regrouped in the winter season to camp together in an accustomed or traditional location. This was the same with the Cayuse and Umatilla.

The entire family - parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents - all lived together in a band. There was a lot of work to be done and everyone had a job to do. The men and boys hunted, fished, made arrows, weapons and tools and took care of the horses. The women and girls cooked, dried fish and meat, dug roots, picked berries, made clothes and beautiful decorations. The women also set up and tended to the tepee's. If someone didn't do their job they all might freeze or go hungry during the winter.

Each band had a headman or leader who made important decisions and represented his band in council or other important occasions. The headman had no power to make others do what he wanted them to, other than by convincing them that his way was the best. It was the same with other headmen. There were no headmen or chiefs of all the bands except in times of emergencies, like war. Then the bands would get together and select war leaders and would usually (but not always) follow their lead. In times of peace these leaders had no authority.

During the Treaty Council of 1855 which assigned the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people to the Umatilla Reservation, it was the headman of a few of the bands that spoke for all the Indian peoples. The U.S. Government representatives wanted certain individual headmen to make the important decision to give up the Indian lands. The government said that these persons had the authority to sign the Treaty and turn over the land when in actuality they had no more right to sell another bands property or right to live in an area than someone today has to sell his next door neighbor's property.

Today the Indian people of the Umatilla Indian Reservation still have large or extended families but many things are different. The old ways of food gathering, hunting and fishing for a living were still very common until about 40 years ago when dams built on the Columbia and hunting restrictions forced the people to adopt modern ways of life. Now the individual family members work separately at jobs and professions. Having separate jobs has caused the traditional Indian family to break up into smaller family units with just a father, mother and children. This is called a nuclear family. Often times they moved away from the reservation entirely for work somewhere else.

Even so, Indian people love to get together for traditional celebrations and special occasions. It is very common for Indian people to travel long distances and camp together at rodeos and celebrations all over the west and midwest. Many people take time off from their jobs and school to attend these gatherings.


Drumming and singing

Drumming and singing is an important part of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indian culture.

Drumming and singing is more that just entertainment. Many songs are religious, and all important occasions, celebrations and religious ceremonies have drumming and singing. Each song has a special purpose. Some songs are like prayers. Some tell stories about important things that happened to someone. Songs honor births, deaths and the changing of the seasons. Some songs honor the salmon, roots and other traditional foods that come in the spring.

The drum is the most common instrument that is played along with singing and dancing. There are two basic kinds of drums in our culture: the "big drum" and the "hand drum" (pictured with the children above).

Indian singers spend years learning to sing. Songs are difficult and require much practice. Even learning to strike the drum correctly requires much training. Today, there is a growing number of traditional singers on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. They play at dances and celebrations that are held throughout the year.


Arts & Crafts

All clothing, tools and utensils used by the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indian people were made from things provided by nature.

Tools were made from wood, stone and bone. Arrows for hunting were made from wood and tipped with arrow-heads chipped from special rocks. Antlers from animals were used for digging roots. For their tepees, they used poles and covered them with animal skins or mats woven from reeds.

Later, they used metal items like pots, needles and guns in addition to their natural tools.

Because of their love of the earth and eye for beauty, the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indian people decorated the everyday things and special ceremonial articles with beautiful designs. Each had special purposes, they didn't just make them for fun. They wove strong bags that they used to gather, prepare and store food. Moccasins and other clothes were made from animal skins. Beads and porcupine quills were used to decorate many things.

Today the Indians stills make their traditional clothing, bags, baskets, and other items. Although some knowledge of the art has been lost in the past, it is still an important part of their way of life. Mothers and grandmothers decorate their children's Indian celebration and dancing costumes. Many different beaded things, drums, woven bags and other crafts are used in traditional celebrations and special occasions.


Legends and oral histories

Stories and legends from the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indians were usually told in the winter months when cold weather confined families to close quarters. The elder people of the family and band were the story tellers. The elderly were valued and respected for their age and wisdom. The purpose of the stories was not simply for entertainment. Each legend taught lessons on how one should act or how the Indians and the creatures of the world came to be. Religious beliefs, the meaning of birth, death, and habits of animals were also explained in stories.

A main character in many stories of the Columbia Plateau tribes is Coyote or "Ispilyay". Coyote had great powers. Sometimes he was the fool, sometimes the wise man. In many stories Coyote rid the world of dangerous monsters and creatures to make it safe for the coming of the Indian to the world. In the times of Coyote, animals talked with each other and had magical powers.

The woman who tells the following stories grew up in a time when many of the old ways were still practiced. It was a time when life was not rushed as it is today, but when people kept time by the sun and would sit for hours picking berries, digging roots, hunting and fishing or performing some other chore.


This huge monster came up from the ocean. He came as far as he could and could go no further than where Cascade Locks now is. He would open his huge mouth and inhale anything that was in his path. He soon had all the salmon and other fish like sturgeon and eels, all eaten and because he was so huge he began taking in the deer and all food animals of the forest. He began on the fruits and bushes and trees like huckleberries, chokecherries and wild plums. He began on the roots, things in the ground and on the ground. Soon there was nothing left for the people and they were getting hungry, and babies and old people began to die. Finally someone went to Coyote and told him he would have to kill the monster.

He got a length of a vine that is called coyote's rope. He tied one end around his waist and coiled the other around his arm. He got some pitchy kindling and flints for starting a fire. He stood on a far hill and called the monster a shameful name, he teased him until the monster began trying to eat him. The coyote wanted the monster to eat him so he could set loose all who had been eaten before. Finally he was swallowed. He had to work fast. First he built a fire with his pitch sticks. The monster didn't like the smell and heat of the fire. His own fat began dripping to into the fire and he was burning up on the inside. He would open his mouth and try to blow out the fire. Every time the mouth opened, coyote would throw out some useful thing. He sent the river food back, he sent the deer, elk and mountain sheep back to the mountains. The heat inside was getting very bad, but he got out all the foods and threw them where they would do most good for the people.

The monster was near collapsing. About the last gasp, coyote cut the rope and got away. The fire got so hot that the monster died and went back into the sea. Some parts of him clung to the sides of the river bank so it was rough like it was before Bonneville Dam was built.

Told by Esther Lewis

THE BOY AND THE EAGLE [Hots-Wal ka Wap-tesh]

To the Indian, the eagle is held in high regard. The feathers are used in ceremonies and as part of some clothing. For instance, the feathers are attached to a staff and used like a flag.

This story is about a boy who saved the lives of young eagles and how the mother eagle helped. The boy had been fishing and was taking a short cut home when he was bitten by a rattlesnake. An eagle had been watching the snake. She flew down and killed the snake and took it to feed her young. At that time people and animals could talk to each other. The boy asked the eagle to help him. The eagle flew to a low marshy place and gathered medicinal grasses and seeds which the boy wrapped around the place where the bite was. Soon it healed enough so he could go on home.

One day the boy decided to go fishing again, and on his way home he met a group of bad boys who had a bunch of eagle feathers. He knew that they must have killed the parent eagles. He looked for them and found them both dead. He climbed the high bluff and found two young eagles who were much too young to go out and find food for themselves. He fed them the fish he had caught and made them comfortable.

Every day or so he would take them some food like snakes, mice, frogs, and fish. They grew fast and strong and were soon trying their wings for flight. Soon they were finding small animals to eat and flying further away from the nest.

One day they were gone from the nest and never returned. Sometimes eagles would be seen flying high in the air.

Oh yes, there is a certain time of year when the eagles lose their feathers, so they would let the boy pick what he wanted.

Told by Esther Lewis


The grandmother usually stayed in camp while the mother went out into the hills to dig roots, couse and other kinds when the season was right. It was up to the grandmother to care for the children. Families were usually large so there was a number to care for. The grandmother was a very kind and gentle person. She knew what to do if a child was sick or got hurt. She saw to it that they had plenty of good food and took care of their clothing, and made new ones when needed.

When the hunters brought in deer, she helped take of the meat. She also made the hides into the softest leather to be used for clothing.

Another thing she did in the fall of the year was to go to marshy places where tules grew. Tules are a long reed, when dried, were sewn together into mats [Tu-qu]. These mats were used for shelters, to sleep on and make shade while the women worked outside.

The best time of the day was when they went to bed. You know the homes of the people in those days were a circular dwelling, so everyone was in one room. The grandmother told the children stories. This they never hated because that was the time the grandmothers told them their favorite legends and sometimes scary true stories. One favorite was about a mother who had been out in the hills digging roots and gathering berries:

When the mother came home, she was dry, tired and warm. As she sat down, she asked for some water to drink and wash with. No one brought it to her, they went on playing. She called again, still no one came, so she stood up and in a loud cry called for the Raven to come for her. The Raven came and took her out to the tops of the lodge. She had turned into a bird.

The children cried and called to the mother to come back, promising to have water waiting for her. Sometime later, the mother returned and true to their promise, there was always water ready for her.

So, always do what your mother asks!

Told by Esther Lewis


Cultural events and ceremonies today

Many events and ceremonies are held throughout the year on the Umatilla Reservation -- some are open to the public, others are not.

"Celebrations" or "Pow-wows" are gatherings held at both our Tribal Longhouse and at our Wildhorse Casino and Resort. They are primarily traditional dancing and drumming competitions that the public is welcome to attend. Celebrations are generally free and often have lots of food and arts/crafts available for sale by local and regional vendors.

Many events held at our Tribal Longhouse are ceremonies that often involve elements of our traditional religion. Examples include Root Feast, funerals, weddings, and namings. While many of these ceremonies are taking place it is inappropriate and against our local customs to photograph or record the ceremonies or people involved in them.

For a current list of upcoming cultural events that are open to the public, check out our events calendar.


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


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