Native North Americans of the Plateau

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Native North Americans of the Plateau

For thousands of years prior to European contact, the Columbia Plateau was home to dozens of native groups. The Plateau is the region between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in eastern Oregon and Washington State. It includes parts of southern Canada and northern Idaho and Montana . Plateau Native Americans include the Nez Perce (pronounced nez PURSE), the Cayuse (KIE-yoos), the Spokane (spoh-KAHN), the Kootenai (KOO-tun-eye), the Coeur d’Alene (cur-dah-LANE), the Umatilla (YOO-mah-TILL-uh), the Walla Walla, and the Flatheads.

The Plateau is a dry plain covered with grass or brush, surrounded by high, deeply forested mountains, and crossed by rivers and canyons. It is very cold in winter and hot in summer. With its many climates and terrains (physical features of the land), the Plateau has abundant varieties of food.

Pre-European contact

The Plateau Indians hunted, fished, and gathered their food. The annual salmon runs up the Columbia and other rivers enriched their livelihood. The bands stayed in permanent villages during the winter, but made temporary camps on different sites for spring root gathering, summer salmon fishing, and gathering of vegetables and fruits and hunting in the fall.

The permanent winter homes on the Plateau were villages of sunken round houses. The villages were organized into a complex social structure with a chief chosen for his ability and wisdom. Decisions for the village were made only when there was a consensus (agreement by everyone) among the people.

The Plateau Indians believed that their god, the creator, had placed them on the Plateau when the earth was new. They celebrated the cycles of life with a variety of ceremonies for hunting, seasons, and rites of passage for puberty, marriage, and death.

Horses expand trade

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas in the early sixteenth century, they brought horses, which reached the Plateau long before European settlers got there. The Plateau Indians found that the grassy Plateau was a good place to raise horses, and they developed new breeds for trade. They traded horses with Native North Americans of the Plains and soon expanded their trade networks. Horses also enabled them to trade heavy and bulky goods with Native American populations in distant places.

Trade became central to Plateau culture. The various tribes depended on goods produced in other regions. Each year they dried vast amounts of salmon to trade with other groups. Many traveled to a place in present-day Oregon called the Dalles, where there was a huge market at which many tribes exchanged trade goods. The Plateau groups learned several languages and learned about life in other regions.

Lewis and Clark arrive

Between 1804 and 1806, American explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) led an expedition through the Plateau and out to the Pacific Ocean. The Plateau tribes offered help to the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition , the first white people they had encountered.

When Lewis and Clark returned to the east, they reported on the abundance of beaver in the Plateau region. Their reports sparked the interest of beaver trappers, who were the next whites to arrive on the Plateau. These were the famous fur traders and mountain men , the only white men rugged enough to make the difficult trip. They brought new trade goods with them to trade for beaver furs. Many mountain men married Indian women and lived peacefully within a tribe.

Missionaries and settlers

In the 1830s, missionary and physician Marcus Whitman (1802–1847) wanted to serve as a doctor and missionary to the Plateau peoples. In 1836, he and his wife, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808–1847), set off for Oregon Territory with another missionary couple, the Spaldings. The Whitmans set up a missionary at Waiilatpu (near present-day Walla Walla, Washington) and the Spaldings at Lapwai, 120 miles away in present-day Idaho.

In 1842, Whitman returned east, and in 1843 served as a guide for one of the first large wagon trains, with nearly 100 settlers, who returned with him to Oregon. The great migration of settlers taking the Oregon Trail had begun. From 1842 to 1840, an estimated 12,287 settlers crossed the country in wagon trains, many of them moving through or into the traditional lands of the Plateau tribes.

As the settlers poured in, a deadly measles epidemic spread among the Cayuse Indians, killing a large portion of the population. The Native Americans blamed the Whitmans, who had brought them strange medicine and religion. The Cayuse killed the missionary and his wife and twelve other members of their community. Violent conflict between the local tribes and the white settlers followed.


In 1853, the United States created the Oregon and Washington Territories. At this time, most U.S. policy toward Native Americans in the area focused on taking titles to their lands and moving them onto Indian reservations (lands held by the government for the use of Native Americans). In 1855, the governor of Washington territory organized the Walla Walla Treaty Council. A meeting with the leaders of the Plateau tribes and the federal government persuaded the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla tribes to give up 6.4 million acres of land in northeastern Oregon. In exchange, they were given a 250,000-acre parcel of land called the Umatilla Reservation. The Flatheads and associated tribes gave up more than twenty million acres of land to the United States, and they were promised that they could retain 1.3 million acres that were to serve as the Flathead Indian Reservation in present-day northwest Montana. The Nez Perce also agreed to give up some of their traditional lands to the government in exchange for money and the promise that they could retain 13 million acres.

The government did not stand by its word. Soon after the tribes entered into the Walla Walla Treaty, the governor of Washington Territory invited white settlers into the Indian lands to build their homesteads. When gold was discovered in Yakima territory, the Yakima went to war with the miners who trespassed on their lands, starting the two-year Yakima War (1855–56).

Impact on Plateau culture

In the 1850s, many people of the Plateau joined a new religious movement, called Waptashi, or the Feather Religion, founded on the teachings of Smohalla (c. 1815–1895), the Wanapum prophet. Smohalla spread the message that Native Americans must return to their old ways of life and reject the ways of the white settlers.

On the reservations, the Plateau people tried to live according to their traditions. They raised horses and fished for salmon and gardened on small lots. But the U.S. agents who directed the reservations often interfered with the groups’ leadership and the children were forced to attend Christian missionary schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language.

The flight of the Nez Perce

The Nez Perce remained a peaceful nation until 1860, when gold was discovered on their lands. Gold miners quickly moved into the Nez Perce country. A few Nez Perce leaders signed a treaty, later called the Thief Treaty, which reduced Nez Perce lands by seven million acres. Many bands refused to sign it, and they became known as the non-treaty Nez Perce.

In 1877, the U.S. government demanded that the non-treaty Nez Perce move onto a reservation in present-day eastern Idaho. Before they could obey the demands, three young Nez Perce men killed some settlers. In fear of U.S. retaliation, the Nez Perce fled, eventually heading toward Canada where they hoped to cross the border and escape from U.S. forces. The army stopped them just south of the border. The U.S. government sent them to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas , as prisoners of war, and then on to Indian Territory , in present-day Oklahoma . The Nez Perce remained in Indian Territory until 1885, when the government permitted them to return to the Northwest.


In 1887, Congress passed the Allotment Act, which divided the reservations into small plots of land that were to be owned by individual tribe members. After each of the individual members received his or her allotment, the remaining reservation land was sold to nontribal members. The process of allotment began in the Plateau reservations in 1890 and continued until 1914.

Before allotment, the Flathead Reservation consisted of about 1.25 million acres of land. Allotment reduced the land by one-third. The Umatilla Reservation was reduced from about 250,000 to 158,000 acres. The reservation lands became a checkerboard of Indian parcels and those that had been sold to commercial interests and non-Native Americans.

Fishing rights

Perhaps the most significant issue facing the Native Americans of the plateau and eastern mountain region is fishing rights, which were guaranteed by treaty. The fight for fishing rights continued throughout the twentieth century. In 1974, the Plateau Indians won the Boldt decision, which made the tribes of the state of Washington equal partners with the state in harvesting and managing the state's fish.

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Native North Americans of the Plateau

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