First Foods & Life Cycles

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.