The Northwest and Columbia Plateau Peoples
Article and research by Thomas Baurley, Technogypsie Research, August 7, 2017
The region of the Pacific Northwest was home to what Anthropologists call the indigenous Northwest Pleateau Peoples or Tribes. The region around the inland Columbia River, Fraser River, and the Columbia Basin were the Columbia Plateau Peoples just north of the Great Basin cultures. Many of the Plateau tribes shared languages, resources, culture, trade, and environment. The Plateau peoples dwell in the areas of the inland (non-coastal regions) Pacific Northwest that are now eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, northeast and central Oregon, northeastern California, and southeastern British Columbia. Commonly, the Plateau peoples historically lived in small villages located along rivers. The region contains the eastern flank of the Cascade Mountain Ranges. They hunted and fished trout, salmon, deer, and some buffalo. They gathered plants and roots, eventually planting their own.
- Cathlamet, WA
- Clackamas, OR
- Clatsop, OR
- Multnomah, OR
- Wasco-Wishram, OR and WA
- Watlata, WA
- Coeur d’Alene Tribe, ID, MT, WA
- Entiat, WA
- Flathead (Selisch or Salish), ID and MT
- Bitterroot Salish
- Kalispel (Pend d’Oreilles), WA and MT
- Lower Kalispel, WA
- Upper Kalispel, MT
- In-SHUCK-ch, BC (Lower Lillooet)
- Lil’wat, BC (Lower Lillooet)
- Methow, WA
- Nespelem, WA
- Nlaka’pamux (Thompson people), BC
- Nicola people (Thompson-Okanagan confederacy)
- Okanagan, BC and WA
- Sanpoil, WA
- Secwepemc, BC (Shuswap people)
- Sinixt (Lakes), BC, ID, and WA
- Sinkiuse-Columbia, WA (extinct)
- Spokane people, WA
- St’at’imc, BC (Upper Lillooet)
- Wenatchi (Wenatchee)
- Upper Cowlitz or Taidnapam
- Kittitas (Upper Yakima)
- Klickitat Tribe, WA
- Nez Perce, ID
- Pshwanwapam (Pswanwapam)
- Skinpah (Skin)
- Tenino (Warmsprings)
- Tygh (Upper Deschutes), OR
- Umatilla, OR
- Walla Walla, WA
- Wanapum, WA
- Wyam (Lower Deschutes)
- Yakama, WA
- Cayuse, OR
- Celilo (Wayampam)
- Cowlitz, WA
- Fort Klamath, OR
- Kalapuya, northwest OR
- Atfalati (Tualatin, northwest OR)
- Mohawk River, northwest OR
- Santiam, northwest OR
- Yaquina, northwest OR
- Kutenai (Kootenai, Ktunaxa), BC, ID, and MT
- Lower Snake people: Chamnapam, Wauyukma, Naxiyampam
- Modoc, CA and OR
- Molala (Molale), OR
- Nicola Athapaskans (extinct), BC
- Palus (Palouse), ID, OR, and WA
- Upper Nisqually (Mishalpan)
- First Nations of the Plateau
- Interior Salish (Canada)
- Kutenai (Canada/US)
- Lillooet (Canada)
- Nez Perce
- Okanagan of the Okanagan River Valley (Canada)
- Secwepemc (Shuswap) of the Fraser River Valley (Canada)
- Thompson First Nations (Fraser River Valley/Canada)
- Walla Walla
- Yakima / Yakama
- Inupiaq and Yup’ik
Northern Bering Straight and Alaska Region:
Plateaus, Rivers, Lakes, Forests, Woodlands, Valleys. Environments vary from semi-arid to lush mountain meadows. The peoples chose areas of lakes, rivers, and coniferous trees which dominated the landscape of the Plateau region. Climates were snowy and cold winters, warm summers. Temperatures range from −30 °F (−34 °C) in winter to 100 °F (38 °C) in summer. Precipitation is generally low and forms a snow cover during the winter, particularly at higher altitudes. The Middle Columbia area is a steppe of sagebrush and bunch grass fringed by yellow pine on higher levels. The Upper Columbia consists mainly of wooded areas, although grassland is found in river valleys. The Fraser area is a semi-open coniferous forest interspersed with dry grassland and a partly maritime flora.
Historically Plateau tribes tended to live in woods, forests, prairies, and plateaus along the rivers – most notably the Nez Perce, Flathead, Kutenai, Palus, Coeur D’Alene, Cayuse, and Kalispel. The Plateau peoples identified their cultures as “tribes”. Most of the tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers and fishers. Today, most tribes have adopted Western culture and live in houses, RVs, trailers, house boats, or apartments. Today while most historic men wore their hair long, many today have short haircuts. Tribal dress is usually only worn during traditional ceremonies and events, while Westerner fashion – jeans, t-shirts, and clothing is more commonly observed.
Diet: The Plateau peoples hunted, fished, and gathered their foodstuffs. The most important was Salmon – diet as well as spirituality. They primarily ate vegetables, fruits, meat and fish. This was accomplished by the various methods:
Fishing: Trout, Salmon. Gathering: Berries, roots, and bulbs. These included but not limited to camassia, bitterroot, kouse root, service berry, chokecherry, huckleberry, and wild strawberry. Plateau women made berry cakes using Saskatoon berries.
Hunting: Buffalo, Elk, deer, bear, mountain goat, groundhog, coyote, fox raccoon, porcupine, weasel, beaver, hare.
Today most tribes have adopted Westerner diets, although they have noted that they eat 10 times the amount of Salmon than the normal American diet.
Native Americans with primary physical characteristics of dark brown eyes, prominent cheek bones, straight black hair, scantiness of beard. Skin color very light (Cheyenne) to yellowish (Flatheads), to almost black (Caddo)
For Nomadic shelters were tepees, tule mat lodges, lean-to’s, and pit houses. Commonly built were semi-subterranean Pit Houses. Also common were Tule Mat Lodges. Winters were often spent together with the rest of the tribe in larger, more permanent villages and/or winter camps. Pit houses were more common in the villages. Tule mats were made from the bulrush or tule grass which grew in marshes which was used for roofing over a shallow dug pit with poles lining the roof atop which was placed the woven tule mats or tree bark. Canvas eventually replaced the tule mats and bark. Once the tribes adopted horses in the 1600s, teepees were more commonly used, especially when travelling on horseback. Teepees were tall lodged poles braced against each other and covered with hides or woven tule mats. Today, Native Americans primarily have adopted Western culture and housing – living in houses, apartments, RVs, trailers, and/or houseboats.
Languages: – the primary language group is Sahaptian and Interior Salish languages. Some groups also speak Chinookan languages, which are often classified as Penutian languages, The Ktunaxa speak the Kutenai language, which is a language isolate. The peoples of the Plateau belong mainly to four linguistic families: Salishan, Sahaptin, Kutenai, and Modoc and Klamath.
Penutian language: Klamath, Modoc, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Yakama/Yakima
Salishan language: Salish (Flathead)
Today, most Native Americans have lost much of their historical languages and have adopted predominantly English with Spanish as a secondary language.
Primarily the Plateau peoples were Animistic. Animism predominated spiritual believe. Animism is the belief that all things held a spirit or soul, including rocks, plants, animals, and elements. Places also held spirits – including rivers, caves, and mountains. Common was a great spirit called “Coyote” who was responsible for bringing the salmon up and down the river every spring and fall. Common were Vision or power quests, smudging ceremonies, and vigils. The religious elder was a shaman who acted as a medium between the visible and spirit worlds. Shamanism was also a predominant spiritual path of the elders and leaders of the tribe. Shamans were also the healers of the tribe. They predicted the future, the hunt, and advised the leaders. Today most Native Americans have embraced Christianity and/or other Western spiritual belief systems while traditionally holding onto elements of their historical beliefs. They would typically feature personifications of myths into their tools, weapons, and material cultural artifacts such as Sculpin Figurines.
Art & Culture:
The Artwork of the Native American Pacific Northwest Cultures is phenomenal, embedded with myths, legends, and spirituality that empowers their people.
Basketry was of special art, skill, and importance amongst the Plateau people especially to hold and store dried foods. Pine resin was used to coat the inside of the basket to make them semi-waterproof. Special cooking baskets were woven around large flat rocks – these would hold soups and stews upon which the cook would drop hot stones to boil the water. Tribes would weave hats and mats for the houses, clothing, and bedding. Plateau peoples commonly used hemp dogbane, tule, sagebrush, or willow bark for textiles and basketry. The Fort Rock sandals are the oldest known shoes in the world which were made of twined sagebrush and dating between 10,390–9650 years BCE. The historic age Pacific Northwest peoples are constantly evolving with their material culture. One such example of this is their creation and use of Button blankets.
Many tools and weapons were made from stone, bone, wood, and fiber. Tools and weapons were often decorated with feathers, beads, and carvings. Bow and arrows or traps were the most common tools for the hunt. However, today – many hunters use guns and rifles. Arrow shafts were commonly made of wood. Arrowheads typically of stone, predominantly obsidian. Digging sticks, wedges, and weapons were often made of elk and deer antler. Harpoons and Toggles are made of wood, metal, bone, or ivory.
Transportation: Dugout canoes, walking, snowshoes. As a nomadic peoples, they often traveled and followed food resources. The Nez Perce travelled across the Rock Mountains to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains and returned to the Plateau in the winter to continue fishing the rivers. In the 1600’s with the introduction of the horse, horses became a predominent method of transportation. Today, most Native Americans have adopted Westerner means of transport including planes, trains, automobiles, motorcycles, boats, and bicycles.
Columbia River Tribes:
Along the Columbia River, extending from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho is a region called the “Columbia Plateau” – home to four major indigenous Native American tribes. These tribes, share similarities in their culture, religion, diet, and language patterns.
- Nez Perce Tribe
- Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
- Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon
- The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama NationIt was common for these tribes to intermarry, interact often, and share resources, and trade with one another. The site of Celilo Falls was a common meetup place and resource that was shared together. These tribes share a common respect for the natural environment and have similar belief systems and mythologies of where they came from – believing their spirits were tied directly to the natural world and all of its inhabitants, one of which specially connected – the Salmon. Salmon brough sustenance and prosperity to the region’s rivers and streams. More information about these tribes can be found at http://www.critfc.org/member_tribes_overview/.
Indigenous Fishing on the Columbia River
Indigenous peoples of the Columbia Plateau have been fishing all of the bodies of water found in the Columbia Basin for thousands of years. As a monumental source of life, these waters have become central to each people’s society, culture, and spirituality. While each tribe had different languages and culture, there were more similarities than differences between the peoples of the Columbia Plateau. The regional economy shared was based around Salmon. This is still true today, although in pre-contact periods – there was a self-regulation with resource availability, and today this relationship suffers with the depletion and near extinction of various salmon species due to the overkill caused by Westerners. In prehistoric times, tribes fished for not only sustenance and trade, but also for ceremonial reasons. Tribes today in the region still prefer salmon as their main course, often recorded as being ten times the U.S. average consumption. This has suffered greatly through the years. In 1855, The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes made a special treaty with the United States to give away millions of acres of their lands to the U.S. in exchange for various terms including peace and rights to be guaranteed upon them. One of these was the ability to harvest fish in all of the various tribes techniques and practices, culture and spirituality, ceremony and commerce including within waters on or off of reservations. This has suffered greatly. Today the Columbia Plateau tribes struggle to protect their sacred food source directly competing with Westerner pollution of waters, over fishing, property rights, access, and ease of livlihood.
More information: Columbia inter-tribal fishing commission: http://www.critfc.org/