The Plateau

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The Plateau

A number of Native tribal communities of the Plateau region of the Northwest continue to live in their ancestral lands, which once spread across the Columbia River Plateau of eastern Oregon and Washington state. Many years ago, ancestors of the area’s tribes migrated south from northern territories in present-day British Columbia, Canada, and eventually moved throughout the northwestern United States.

The various Native American nations on the Plateau shared their natural environment as well as an array of cultural traditions. Tribal elders of the Spokane (pronounced spoh-KAN), Flathead, Nez Percé (NEZ-PURSE), Cayuse (KIE-yoos), Okanagan (OAK-uh-NAHG-uhn), Wishram (WISH-rum), and neighboring tribes were united by the belief that their Creator had placed them on the Plateau. Their history began when the Earth was new. The tribes in the area possess remarkable oral traditions about their origins and their interactions with nature.

For generations the Plateau tribes adapted their lifestyle to the landscape, developing complex cultures around the rich natural environment of the region’s salmon-filled rivers. Their land was lush with fertile soil, evergreen forests, and wide varieties of game and vegetation. Inevitably, such natural wealth attracted the attention of white explorers and settlers, especially as Americans began journeying westward at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Encountering outsiders

Many of the Plateau tribes played significant roles in the expedition American explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) led through the Plateau and out to the Pacific Ocean between 1804 and 1806. These pioneers surveyed the Plateau region and its peoples while outlining the potential development of the continent for U.S. president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9).

Lewis and Clark—the first whites that many Plateau tribes had ever encountered—entered the land of the Nez Percé in October 1805. The tribe offered them food and canoes, enabling the expeditionary force to travel to the Pacific Coast. Other Plateau region tribes—the Wishram, the Walla Walla, and the Cayuse among them—sent diplomatic representatives to meet Lewis and Clark. Goods were exchanged. A special medal bearing the image of two hands shaking and engraved with the words “Peace and Friendship” was presented to tribal chiefs by the U.S. government, and more than fifty Native chiefs accepted an invitation to meet President Jefferson in Washington, D.C.

Other Pioneers

Lewis and Clark were the first in a long line of explorers—including American army officer Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), American military and political leader John Frémont (1813-1890), and American geologist John Wesley Powell (1834-1902)—who were sent into the West by the U.S. government. Their mission was to penetrate the Native American territories and prepare the way for white settlers to take over the tribal lands.

In 1843 John Frémont began developing the westward path that had first been explored by Lewis and Clark. He surveyed the Oregon Trail (a route stretching from western Missouri through Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho and into Oregon) through Modoc (pronounced “MOH-dock”) territory. Within a decade pioneers moved in great numbers through the Modoc hunting grounds, scaring game and depleting the tribal food supply. With rations scarce, the tribe became more vulnerable to disease. Epidemics (uncontrolled outbreaks of disease) started taking their toll on the Native population. In frustration the Modoc attacked the white settlers, who then retaliated with much greater force. Overall the efforts to “open” the West to whites brought disastrous consequences for the Native Americans of the region.

Impact on Native culture

William Clark later returned to the Plateau to work with area tribes. When he became superintendent of Indian Affairs for much of the West in 1907, he was widely recognized as a fair and effective advocate of Native interests. Clark and others like him attempted to maintain peace and forge satisfactory relationships with the region’s Native Americans, but they were not able to prevent the devastating consequences brought about by the development of the West. The transformation of the Plateau region into U.S. territory would alter nearly every aspect of life for the tribes who resided there.

The United States eventually staked its claim to the entire Northwest, including the Plateau region, and began encouraging white settlement in the area. Because Lewis and Clark had observed and reported on the numerous furbearing animals of the region, traders and fur trading companies took an immediate interest in developing the fur industry on the Plateau. Within a matter of years, the animal population was decimated by trappers and the tribes had lost a valuable natural resource.

Decades before the American development of the West, certain cultural changes began taking place among the tribes of the Plateau. The Shoshone tribe acquired horses—probably through trade with Spaniards—and as a result travel by horse became popular throughout the Plateau region. Prior to that time the Plateau tribes engaged solely in hunting, fishing, and gathering activities. Contact with traders, explorers, and missionaries who moved through these tribal territories also brought exposure to non-Native diseases, especially smallpox, which struck the Native American peoples hard early in the nineteenth century.

In an attempt to “civilize” Native American tribes, U.S. policymakers failed to see the importance of maintaining traditional Native ways of life. White American reformers had little or no knowledge of the region’s Native American cultures, their traditional economic practices, or their heavy reliance on natural resources. The tribes ended up being forced onto reservations by the U.S. government. (Reservations are lands set aside for use by tribes.)


In 1887 Congress passed the Allotment Act, which divided the reservations into small plots of land that were to be owned by individual tribal members. (Before government interference, almost all Native communities owned land communally, and this was a vital part of many Native traditions.) After tribal members received their allotments, remaining reservation land was sold to nontribal members who used it for harvesting timber, farming, and ranching. The American government began allotting tribal reservation land in the Plateau region in the 1890s and continued the process until 1914. Conservative Native Americans (those who favored the old ways and were opposed to change) rejected the allotment process. Many were worshippers of the Washani religion, a belief system that emphasized the preservation of Native American land and traditions. Still, the government’s policy continued.

On June 19, 1902, Congress passed a resolution directing the secretary of the Department of the Interior to allot Spokane tribal land holdings. Spokane tribal members could do nothing to prevent the division and destruction of their territory. Land that was not distributed among the Spokane people was sold to white-owned businesses, farmers, and ranchers.

On the Flathead Reservation the allotment process yielded similar results. In its original form, the Flathead Reservation consisted of about 1.25 million acres of land. From 1904 until 1908 U.S. policymakers allotted 80 acres each to Native Americans designated as “farmers” (not many Plateau Indians farmed) and 160 acres each to those designated as “ranchers.” In all, less than 2,500 Native Americans were assigned allotments on the Flathead Reservation. The 400,000 acres that remained—a third of the original reservation—were sold, and the state of Montana retained about 60,000 acres for the construction of schools.

Aside from losing significant portions of their lands, the Plateau tribes became victims of treaty violations—violations that robbed them of fishing rights and timber interests. For example, the Nez Percé filed petitions with the Indian Claims Commission in July 1951 for the theft of their original homelands in northeastern Oregon and western Idaho. The claim was not settled until twenty years later, when the victorious Nez Percé received $3.5 million to compensate for the loss.

Termination and beyond

During the 1950s the U.S. government began to “terminate,” or put an end to, the reservation system and the treaty relationships it had established with tribes throughout the United States. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in the state of Washington were particular targets of the termination policy. Colville tribal members who were not living on the reservation accepted termination in the hopes that it would bring them individual cash settlements. Those tribal members living on the reservation, however, rejected termination, fearing it would lead to the loss of historically established treaties and the destruction of the Colville tribal culture.

The Colville fought termination for many years. Finally, in the late 1960s, the U.S. government ended the termination policy. The Colville Reservation in the early twenty-first century remains intact and is stronger than ever. Workshops are offered to revitalize tribal culture, and the annual Powwow and Circle Celebration help unite tribal members and enhance community life. A sawmill, a mail-order log cabin sales business, and a trading post enhance economic development among the Colville Indians. Casinos, commercial farmland, timber harvesting, and tourism provide income for the tribe as well as jobs for its people.

The Flathead Reservation has also undergone vital tribal economic and cultural revitalization over the past two decades. There, the Kootenai (pronounced COO-ten-eye), the Kalispel, and the Flathead tribes work hard to preserve tribal languages, oral histories and stories, and traditional ways of life. Financial support for this critical mission comes from business partnerships established between the tribe and the Montana Power Company. The operation of the Kerr Dam on the reservation land and the development of a tourist resort at Blue Bay on Flathead Lake provide key economic support for the reservation’s cultural outreach programs, as well as jobs for many Flathead Reservation tribal members. Revenue from forestry and gaming supports health care and other tribal programs.

Freed from the destructive policy of termination, the tribes of the Plateau Region are now focusing their energies on other issues. For example, the Cayuse, Umatilla (pronounced you-muh-TILL-uh), and Walla Walla tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon are trying to cope with the devastating consequences of depression, especially among the younger generations of tribal members. The rates of alcoholism and suicide are statistically much higher among the Native Americans on the reservations than among the rest of the American population. Tribal leaders are determined to reverse these trends.

Fanning the fires of tradition

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the tribes of the Plateau region sought to retain a measure of tribal identity, control, and uniqueness. U.S. government policy has had a devastating impact on Native American culture, land, and resources. But the Plateau tribes are working to preserve traditional Native American cultural experiences through education, language training, and social activities. Their respect for old ways, however, has not blinded them to the realities of life in the modern world. They offer scholarship programs for college education, day care centers to allow more parents to work in tribal enterprises, and public health programs aimed at treating and preventing alcoholism, depression, and a host of other social ills. Education—both in tribal traditions and in standard college courses and job-training programs—has become the key survival tool of all the Plateau region tribes.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century the Plateau region tribes were actively engaged in sharing their own story of the Northwest expansion. Tribes have invested in extremely successful gaming resorts, arts and crafts, enterprises, business councils, wildlife and fisheries management, timber processing and protection, and legal claims to tribal land, fishing, and water rights. The conservation of salmon sources, as one example, has been the focus of intense effort on the part of the Nez Percé, Yakama (pronounced yah-KEE-muh), and Palouse (puh-LOOS) over the past decades. Fortunately, an increasing number of white Americans have come to respect the rights of America’s Native peoples. Tribal fishing rights were a hot political issue in the 1992 campaign for governor of the state of Washington; the state elected a staunch supporter of Native American treaty rights.

The tribes of the Plateau region have found the means to provide for themselves and control their own destiny. Whether they are seeking renewed rights to old salmon fishing territories, reclaiming ancestral lands, developing new industries, securing political support, or devising tribal educational and public health strategies, the tribal leaders of the Plateau are becoming—like Lewis and Clark—pathfinders in their own terrain. In the early twenty-first century, Native Americans were seeking to recapture the West for themselves.

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Laurie Edwards

Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)

Laurie Edwards

Amanda Beresford McCarthy

Laurie Edwards

Elizabeth I. Hanson, The College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina

Laurie Edwards

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The Plateau

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