Yakama (pronounced YAYK-uh-muh or YAYK-uh-maw). Some sources say the tribe’s name originated from E-yak-ma, meaning “a growing family,” or from the Sahaptin word, iyakima, which translates to “pregnant ones.” Others say the name may have come from yákama (“black bear”) or Ya-ki-ná (“runaway”). The Yakama were also called Waptailnsim, meaning “people of the narrow river,” or Pa’kiut’lĕma, which means “people of the gap.” Both of these names refer to the narrows in the Yakima River at Union Gap, the site of the Yakama’s main village at one time. The Yakama called themselves Mamachatpam. In 1994 the tribe changed their name from Yakima to Yakama to reflect the native pronunciation. The official name of the tribe is Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
Originally the Yakama occupied the area on both sides of the Columbia River and on the northern branches of the Yakima (formerly Tapteal) and Wenatchee Rivers in the state of Washington. In the early twenty-first century their 1,377,034-acre reservation is located on the western part of the Columbia Plateau in southcentral Washington, along the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountain Range.
Some sources believe that prior to 1805 approximately seven thousand Yakama lived in the area around the Columbia River. That number dropped to 3,500 in 1805. In 1806 Lewis and Clark estimated the Yakama population to be 1,200. The number of people living on the Yakama Reservation in 1909 was 1,900, but that included all the various tribes, not just the Yakama. According to an estimate in 1990, about eight thousand Yakama lived in the United States. In 2000 the U.S. Bureau of the Census did a population count that indicated there were 8,337 Yakima; of those 5,125 lived on the reservation.
Origins and group affiliations
The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, or simply the Yakama Nation (formerly Yakima), was a consolidation of 14 bands, or tribes: Kah-milt-pah, Klickitat, Klinquit, Kow-was-say-ee, Li-ay-was, Oche-chotes, Palouse (Palus), Pisquose, Se-ap-cat, Shyiks, Skin-pah, Wenatshapam, Wish-ham, and Yakama. During their wars with the United States in the 1800s, the Yakama allied with the Nez Percé, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Pala, Cayuse, Spokan, and Couer d’Alene.
The isolation of the Columbia Plateau enabled the Yakama to live undisturbed by outsiders for almost twelve thousand years. As the climate and environment changed over time, the people adapted, but maintained most of their traditions, some of which are still practiced today. The arrival of horses in the 1730s and of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 greatly changed the lives of the people. When the government took over Yakama territory in the mid-1800s, they consolidated the 14 bands and relocated them to a reservation. At the start of the twenty-first century that reservation along the Yakima River covers approximately 1.4 million acres, only a small portion of the area the tribe once roamed.
According to Yakama oral history, they dwelt in the area of the Columbia Plateau for centuries. Archaeologists found evidence dating back twelve thousand years, which supports the Yakama account of their ancestors. Cave dwellings, rock-shelters, and camps from thousands of years ago are scattered throughout the area. Artifacts such as ancient tools and stone carvings have also been discovered.
1730: The introduction of the horse changes the Yakama lifestyle.
1805: Lewis and Clark expedition arrives in Yakama territory.
1811: First trading post is established.
1855: The Yakama sign a treaty with the U.S. government.
1855–58: The tribe and its allies fight the U.S. Army in the Yakima Wars.
1883: The Northern Pacific Railroad is built through Yakama land.
1972: The U.S. government returns 21,000 acres to the Yakama Nation.
1990s: The Yakama spend almost $54 million to repurchase reservation land.
Early tribal life
The Yakama lived in sixty or seventy villages of about fifty to two hundred people. The bands lived in their own areas of the Yakima River Valley during the winter, but the rest of the year they met and shared hunting grounds and fishing areas. In addition to gathering food, they bartered goods, held horse races, played sports, and spent time visiting.
During the 1700s a Yakama leader, We-ow-wicht, united a large part of the territory. When he died, the land was divided between his eight sons. Around this time the tribe acquired horses, enabling them to increase their food supplies and barter for new goods. The need for horse pastures led the Yakama to explore the area east of the Cascade Mountains, which spread their language and led to intermarriage with other tribes.
Contact with whites
Long before whites arrived Yakama who traded with the Plains Indians brought Euro-American illnesses back to the tribe In the late 1700s many Yakama died from smallpox. Later outbreaks of disease killed more people; the tribe’s population dropped from an estimated 7,000 to 3,500.
The first non-Native Americans to enter the tribe’s territory were members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who arrived in 1805. Fur trappers and traders soon followed. In 1811 the Pacific Fur Company opened the first trading post on the Columbia River. After the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver in 1825, the Yakama traded there. When Chief Kamiakin (died 1877) traded horses for cattle, the people began raising livestock.
As more whites entered their lands, the Yakama unified their villages into two territories under the leadership of We-ow-wicht’s descendants. Wenas Creek served as the dividing line. The Lower Yakama lived south of the creek; Chief Kamiakin and his brothers, Skloom and Showaway, led them. Their uncles, Teias and Owhi, became headmen of the Upper Yakama, or Kittitas, who settled north of the creek.
Treaty at Walla Walla
Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–1862), governor of the Washington Territory, called a council at Fort Walla Walla in 1855. Along with the Yakama, the Umatilla, Nez Percé (see entries), Cayuse, Walla Walla, and other bands attended. The tribes signed a treaty giving up more than 10 million acres, but kept their hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. They agreed to move to Simcoe Reservation, an area of 1.2 million acres.
The treaty consolidated 14 different Yakama bands and tribes into one Nation. Treaty terms ensured that no whites would live on reservation lands. The U.S. government also agreed to supply two schools, a hospital, a sawmill, a flour mill, and craftspeople to teach the Native Americans trades. The Yakama would receive two cents for every acre they turned over to the government. They were also to get yearly payments for twenty years and money to help them relocate and build homes on the reservation.
Although the treaty guaranteed the tribes two years to relocate, Governor Stevens opened the land to white settlers two weeks later. Chief Kamiakin organized several tribes to oppose this violation. They fought U.S. soldiers for almost three years in the Yakima Wars (1855–1858). Other tribes in the territory rose up as well. In September 1858 the U.S. Army defeated the Native Americans at the Battle of Four Lakes near Spokane. Chief Kamiakan escaped to Canada, but two dozen other leaders were executed.
The Yakama then moved to the reservation. When Kamiakin refused to return, a Klikitat named Spencer, was appointed chief. In 1867 the people elected White Swan (Joe Stwire) as head chief. He served until he died in 1910.
Pressure from whites
The federal agents who ran the reservation tried to make the Yakama more like white Americans. They established a boarding school at Fort Simcoe to educate Native American children. Students were forced to speak English, dress in American clothes, and learn white ways.
In the late 1800s a new government policy called allotment divided the reservation into eighty-acre plots for each person. The Yakama who had always relied on fishing, hunting, and gathering now had to grow crops instead. Reverend James H. Wilbur, an Indian agent, fought for the tribe’s rights in Washington, D.C., but had strict rules on the reservation. The Yakama who complied with government policy and those who converted to Christianity received clothing, food, and farm supplies. Wilbur also rewarded Natives who cut their hair, because “long-hairs” followed traditional Native American practices.
With the opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which ran through Yakama fields and orchards and with homesteaders flooding the area, the tribe gradually lost their fishing, hunting, and gathering areas. Some Yakama still struggled to maintain their old ways, but settlers’ livestock fed on roots and berries, and their plowing ruined plant and animal habitats. Irrigation projects and dams destroyed salmon runs.
By the 1900s much of the best farming land had been purchased from the Yakama. Towns were established on former Native American allotments. Landowners blocked the tribe’s access to the Columbia Plateau and the rivers, claiming they were trespassing. Even county and state officials opposed Native fishing privileges. Time and again the Yakama went to court to establish their treaty rights.
Beginning in 1900, when the tribe won a court case that redrew the reservation boundary to add 357,879 acres that rightfully belonged to them, the Yakima fought many successful cases. Over the years they reasserted their rights to hunt and fish according the terms of the 1855 treaty.
In the 1950s they received more than $15 million for the Celilo Falls fishery, which flooded when the Dalles Dam was built. That dam was one of 19that the government constructed on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. All of them caused the death of many young salmon. From 14 million salmon yearly, the runs dropped to 2.5 million in 1980. The Yakima Nation along with several other Plateau tribes formed the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and convinced Congress to write new legislation to protect fish and wildlife. They also lobbied for funds to start fish hatcheries and to build fish ladders and screens so salmon fingerlings are not trapped in irrigation ditches.
Two court cases, one in 1969 and one in 1974, reaffirmed Yakama fishing rights and gave the tribe a 50-percent share of the fish in tribal fishing grounds. The Boldt decision of 1974 also led to the federal government and the tribe co-managing the Columbia River waterways. In the early 2000s the Yakama prevented nuclear waste disposal from the Hanford Nuclear plant on tribal land.
The Yakama went on vision quests as children to get a guardian spirit. Children went alone to a remote spot and stayed overnight or for several days until they had a vision. Those who received a spirit never talked about it, but would later experience “spirit sickness,” then a twáti (medicine doctor; see “Healing practices”) would explain how to use the power.
Yakama who had guardian spirits participated in winter spirit dances or wáanpsha (“medicine sings”). These were sponsored by the family of a person who had been cured. Wáanpsha lasted five days, and those with guardian spirits sang and danced, accompanied by drummers who pounded on planks with sticks or canes.
The traditional Yakama religion had several different names: Wáashat, longhouse or seven drum religion, or Native American worship. Wáashat came from the Sahaptin word for “dance.” Derived from ideas of early Native prophets, it focused on ancient rituals such as the First Foods Feast (see “Festivals”).
Services were held in a longhouse, where participants were separated by gender. Males stood along the northern wall; females, along the southern one. Everyone dressed up and painted their faces red and yellow. Drummers, led by a bellringer, sat or stood on the west side.
Participants sang and danced in sets of seven (a sacred number) on a hard-packed earthen floor. At the end of each song, everyone turned in place to get rid of their troubles. Between song series, elders spoke to the youngsters to remind them of their grandparents’ teachings. Children sometimes performed using rapid, hopping steps.
Water was important to the ceremony. Before the ritual feast, a bell rang, and everyone sang a prayer. The second time it rang, they all said chiish (“water”), then sipped from their cups. They repeated this at the end of the meal.
In 1847 Pascal Richard and Eugene Casimir Chirouse established the first Christian mission, but they abandoned it later that year during the Cayuse War (1848–55; a conflict between the Cayuse tribe and the U.S. government). Other denominations set up missions over the next few years. In the early twenty-first century many Catholic and Protestant churches offer services on the reservation.
The Indian Shaker Church is also a strong influence in Yakama religious life. Founded by John Slocum in 1881, this combination of Christian and Native American beliefs was introduced to the tribe in 1890. Participants use bell-ringing, foot stomping, shaking, and Native prayers to communicate with God and to heal illness.
During the 1850s the Wanapum prophet Smohalla (c. 1815–1895) called for a return to Native American ways. He told his followers to avoid white ideas and goods, to never cut their braids, to eat traditional foods, and to go on vision quests. He also urged people not to move to reservations or become farmers. Although he preached nonviolence and peaceful co-existence with whites, his teachings were influential in organizing the confederacy of tribes that fought the Yakima Wars.
Jake Hunt, a Klikitat, started Waptashi, or the Feather religion, in about 1904. While traditional religions revered God and Mother Earth, the Waptashi believed the Eagle to be the supreme being. Messages came from the Eagle through Jake Hunt. Although he had been raised in the Washani ways, Hunt cut his hair and wore white men’s clothing.
Modern religious beliefs
In modern times the Yakama worship in various ways. Three longhouses on the reservation serve as traditional places of worship. Some tribe members participate in the Washani or Feather religions. Others attend Christian churches or the Indian Shaker Church. Many Yakama, however, see no conflict in combining both native and Christian practices.
Most Yakama on the reservation speak Ten-tumpt, a northwestern Sahaptin dialect (variety) of the Plateau Penutian family. Yakama and Klickitat speakers have trouble understanding Umatilla or Walla Walla speakers, but the languages are similar enough that speakers can communicate with each other.
Only a few dozen Yakama elders use their language exclusively, but many people can speak it. Some Yakama elders believe that their language should not be written anywhere until the afterlife.
In spite of this opposition, the reservation holds language classes for middle school students that incorporate both speaking and sign language. These classes, which meet two days a week, are intended to keep the Yakama language and culture alive. Signing (using hand signals to communicate) is an important part of the Yakama language, and sign language is used in certain ceremonies where talking is forbidden. Because of this, the students also learn to use signs.
- á’a … “crow”
- átmupil … “car”
- áay … “hello”
- mishcosk … “red”
- kúpi … “coffee”
- likúk … “chicken”
- lkw’í … “day”
- k’usík’usi … “dog”
- iníit … “house”
- p’úus … “cat”
- tíin … “person”
- tkwátat … “food”
- wásiis … “canoe”
- xítway … “friend”
The small, independent village was the main political unit among the early Yakama. The headman of each group had to be wise and generous, have good morals, and be a good speaker. Rarely, a chief led a larger band or several groups, usually during war. He often inherited his position, but the people also had to respect him.
Several men served on a council to settle disputes and oversee activities. Elderly women also had a say in tribal decisions. Men and women earned leadership positions through their skills in special activities such as digging, hunting, or leading ceremonies. To keep people informed, the headman’s assistant walked through the village every evening announcing news and repeating speeches.
In 1933 the people set up a tribal government. When Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, the Yakama refused to comply with the U.S. guidelines for creating a government and a constitution, because they already had a government. In 1946 the tribe set new rules for the tribal government. They also made all tribal members over 18 years of age automatic voting members of the tribe.
The Yakama Nation Tribal Council consists of one representative from each of the 14 tribes and bands, a chairperson, a vice chairperson, and a secretary. Originally the tribe elected council members by a show of hands, and representatives served for life. In the mid-2000s, the tribe elected half of the tribal council members every two years for four-year terms.
Early Yakima economy depended on trapping, fishing, hunting, and gathering. Later the tribe traded fish products, baskets, mats, furs, jewelry, artwork, dogs, and horses with other tribes. Other trade goods included food, canoes, feathers, mountain goat wool, and even slaves. Most tribes used dentalia, shells harvested on Vancouver Island, in place of money. Later, horses replaced dentalia as currency. The acquisition of horses allowed the tribe to travel greater distances, giving them access to more food supplies, which improved their economy.
When the tribe ceded their land to the U.S. government in 1855, they kept their rights to hunt and fish on the land as well as to graze livestock, gather traditional foods and medicinal herbs, and have sufficient water.
Many Yakama still engage in ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial fishing for salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon. The tribe supervises the Columbia and eight other rivers in conjunction with the state of Washington. Their fisheries program employs about forty people. Another project, cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, established radiation-free settling ponds at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation for young Chinook salmon to be released into the Columbia River.
The tribe manages 600,000 acres of timber and 15,000 acres of cultivated land. In addition, they irrigate 90,000 acres from the Wapato Project and lease farming and grazing acreage. On tribal land they raise alfalfa hay, wheat, hops, sugar beets, grapes, asparagus, spearmint, and sweet corn. Orchards produce apples, including the tribe’s own Yakama apple, which they package in their warehouse. Grazing land of 936,358 acres supports livestock and a buffalo herd.
Yakama Industries and Yakama Forest Products employ many people. Other tribal businesses include a restaurant, a sawmill, a furniture factory, a manufacturing plant, and a real estate development office. Many tourists visit the Yakama Nation Cultural Center, Legends Casino, Mount Adams Recreation Area, and the RV park. The tribe is also known for its Yakama Sun Kings professional CBA basketball team.
Most villages consisted of extended families. They contained five to fifteen lodges; each house usually had three generations living together. Families took the name of the villages where they lived; a tradition that continues today.
The earliest Yakama houses were small underground pits with domed roofs. They were about three or 4 feet (1 meter) deep and 12 to 18 feet (4 or 5 meters) around. The Yakama laid poles over the hole to hold up mats. An opening in the roof allowed smoke to escape and light to enter. It also served as a door; to exit, people climbed a notched log.
In later years the Yakama lashed up to ten pairs of cottonwood poles together at the top to make their winter lodges. Workers held these 12- to 15-foot (4- to 5-meter) poles upright while others used thatch made of willows to connect them. They draped several layers of rush matting over the structure, leaving an opening for a door, and often banked dirt against the lower part of the house to keep it warmer. Up to ten families shared these 40- to 60-foot (12- to 18-meter) homes; each one had its own central fire. At the back of the lodge they hung fish on racks to dry. Mats served as floor coverings, bedding, partitions, and doors as well as for plates and platters.
In summer the Yakama used tepees covered with tule mats. After the arrival of horses, the tribe hunted buffalo, so later tepees were often covered with hide. For beds they spread mats over a layer of dried grasses and used blankets of jackrabbit fur.
Clothing and adornment
In the early days men wore only a breechcloth (a piece of fabric attached at the waist that covered the front and back) and moccasins. Moccasins were one piece of deerskin sewed in the front from toe to ankle, held around the ankles by thongs or cords.
Women had two different styles of dress, depending on where they lived. The ones near the Snake River wore long leather skirts decorated with beads and shells, while those near the Columbia River tied a piece of leather around their waists and used cord to draw and tighten it between and against their legs almost like pants. They painted their shoes and faces red.
Before the Yakama acquired horses in the 1700s, most clothing was made of sagebrush, willow bark, and cedar. After they began riding and had more contact with the Plains Indians, their clothing changed. They used buckskin, and men wore leggings and shirts with their breechcloths. Women sewed buckskins together at the shoulders and laced them or sewed them along the sides. Porcupine quills, elk teeth and fringe adorned the tribes’ clothing.
The men also adopted feathered war bonnets. For dances they wore roaches (tufts of animal hair, often dyed bright colors) on their heads, hair and bone breastplates, and feather bustles. During ceremonies women wore cone-shaped hats of mountain grass with dyed designs, which were flat on the top. In the twentieth century they tied colorful scarves over their hair for everyday wear.
The seasons determined the tribes’ activities and locations. In March when the first wild plants (khásiya, or “first celery”) appeared, they camped with neighboring tribes in areas where they could gather roots and plants. In May or June when salmon swam up the Columbia River, they moved to the riverbanks to catch and preserve fish. They prepared these by splitting them and spreading them in the sun to dry, then they wrapped them in rush mats. In fall the people traveled to the Cascade Mountains, where they hunted and picked berries. During the winter they moved into their lodges along the streams and ate dried foods.
The river provided the mainstay of their diet. Men waited for their leader’s permission before fishing for salmon, then seven men caught a few fish for a tribal feast. This religious practice ensured that some salmon escaped upstream to reproduce for other years. In addition to salmon, men caught steelhead trout, sturgeon, suckers, and eel. Fish was roasted or boiled with roots.
In spring women gathered over twenty kinds of roots using a root digger (a curved, pointed stick with a bone handle). Camas, carrots, and bitterroot were the most common. Roots were eaten or dried; some were ground into flour to make bread.
In August they picked berries. Huckleberry was a favorite, and they celebrated after gathering it (see “Festivals”). They dried whatever they did not eat by placing it on a smoldering log, then packed it into bags and sewed it into cedar bark containers for winter. At the same time men hunted for mountain sheep and goats, elk, bear, wolf, fox, and birds. Deer provided meat, clothing, tepee covers, and household items. The Yakama made antlers into tools and sheep horns into spoons, ladles, and utensils. They carved mountain goat horns into bowls.
During the mid-1800s the Yakama traded horses for cattle, and beef became an important part of their diet. They also bartered for seeds from the Hudson’s Bay Company and planted gardens. They dug their gardens near the streams and irrigated the land, then raised potatoes, melons, squash, barley, and corn.
When the various tribes and bands gathered on the hunting or fishing grounds in warmer weather, they enjoyed competing in sports. Men held wrestling matches, foot races, and played shinny, a sport similar to field hockey. Horseracing was also popular. A less active game was paalyút, the bone and stick game, which could last all night. Women liked to play games as well; especially one in which they used dice made from beaver teeth.
While the parents worked, grandparents taught the children. Lessons included appreciation for the tribe’s way of life, respect for others, and proper behavior. Children were respected and allowed to express their individuality.
To learn their adult roles, children imitated their parents. When a child performed an important feat (for example, if a boy killed his first animal or a girl gathered her first basket of berries), his or her parents invited the whole community to a feast. The family gave gifts to the guests and praise to the child.
Childhood was also a time to seek a guardian spirit (see “Religion”). A youngster went alone overnight or for several days and left a token to mark where he or she had been. The spirit gave the child special powers and instructions on taboos, dress, face painting, songs, and dance.
The Yakama have always encouraged academic achievement. Outstanding students receive scholarships, and the tribe sponsors Camp Chaparral, to teach traditions and to encourage students to stay in school. A K–12 school operates on the reservation in the early twenty-first century and offers Sahaptin language classes. Adult education classes also teach the Yakama dialect. The Yakama Nation Cultural Center provides opportunities to learn traditional arts and crafts, history, language, and literature.
In 1981 the tribe opened Heritage College to offer higher education to multicultural students. In the mid-2000s they offer four-year programs in many disciplines as well as Master’s degrees through many satellite campuses. They changed their name to Heritage University in 2004 to reflect their growth.
The Yakama believed supernatural powers caused some illnesses. These needed to be treated by a medicine doctor. A healer, or twáti, wore a coyote or wolf headdress, a bear claw necklace, and a rattle of deer dewclaws. The doctor sang, massaged the body, or sucked out the illness. Sometimes patients drank a special herbal tea. Women healers were especially gifted in using herbs to cure.
Doctors were asked to change the weather, foresee the future, and find lost objects. A powerful guardian spirit, T’amánws, gave them all these skills. They also received power from the sweat lodge, which served as a place for healing.
The Yakama built sweat lodges alongside streams. These dome-shaped buildings had a fire inside for heating rocks. After users sealed the doorway, they piled hot rocks into a shallow pit and poured water over them to create steam. They sang or chanted, then jumped into the cold water of the nearby stream. They repeated this several times to clean their bodies, but also to purify their minds and spirits from evil.
Both the Indian Shaker Church and Feather religion offered healing in the past and still do so in the present-day. Many Yakama rely on both traditional forms of healing as well as modern medicine.
The Indian Health Service operates the Yakama Nation Tribal Health Facility. The tribe also owns the White Swan Health Clinic and a mother-child health center. Other offerings include nutrition, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), and alcoholism programs.
The Yakama were known for their basketry, which they often traded with other tribes. They made baskets of many sizes; some were for carrying water and for cooking. These baskets were woven so tightly that water did not drip out. They had tapered bottoms so they could be wedged into the ground. To cook in them, women dropped hot stones into water until it boiled.
Most baskets were made of coiled cedar roots that they stitched together and decorated with bear-grass. The bear-grass was left white or dyed black by dipping it in blue clay or yellow by boiling it in berries. But they also made softer bags of hemp for gathering roots. They often decorated these with human or animal figures made from bear-grass or cornhusks.
Small, flat, flexible baskets shaped like wallets held personal items or could be used to store dried roots and berries. These were also made of hemp with cornhusk, twine, or colored yarn designs.
To make dishes and spoons, men carved cottonwood with elk-horn chisels, then burned out the hollows. Knives and arrowheads were made of flint.
In the cold northern winters families gathered around the fire for storytelling. Grandparents passed down tales of the people to their grandchildren. Stories began when the elder said, Awacha nay!, which meant “This is the way it was in the legendary days of the animal world.” Children let their grandparents know they were listening by saying, Eeee!
All legends of ancient times had animal characters, because oral tradition indicated that long ago animals had been like humans. Many stories were about the trickster Speelyáy, or Coyote, who did things to help the world. Other tales told how natural features were formed or taught children proper behavior.
Birth and naming
Babies were born in a small, cone-shaped hut set apart from the main lodge. Older female relatives assisted at the birth. Afterwards, the mother and child stayed isolated for five days, and then returned home.
Babies were placed in cradleboards made of wood and buckskin. A hoop of wood protected the baby’s head. Parents hung a buckskin bag on the hoop containing the infant’s umbilical cord (the cord attaching a baby to its mother before birth).
After a couple’s first child was born, the wife’s family invited the husband’s relatives to a feast. They would give gifts of baskets, food, and strings of beads wrapped in tule mats. Later the man’s family hosted a meal and gave blankets and hides in a rawhide container. Wealthier grooms might give saddles, horses, and cattle. Following the ceremony, the guests took home the plates, pots, and mats used at the feast. This gift exchange was also the first public recognition of a marriage.
Children learned cooperation and sharing. Parents praised and honored youngsters with feasts when they took on adult responsibilities (see “Education”). Each town, however, also had a “whipper” to discipline children who did not listen during ceremonies. If children misbehaved, parents would threaten to call the whipper—that threat usually worked to make children obey.
When a boy turned 13, he began to do men’s work. A girl became a woman after her first menses; she was then ready to marry. She started an ititamat, or counting ball, by winding a string of hemp into a ball. For each important event in her life, she tied a knot in the string or added a shell. She would record her courtship, her marriage, and the birth of her children. When she died, the ball would be buried with her.
Families arranged marriages, but only with the couple’s consent. The bride and groom went to live with either his or her family until their first child was born. At that point the wedding was formally recognized. Men who could afford it might have more than one wife.
When someone died, the whole family gathered around to help the mourners. Relatives brought and prepared food. Services lasted five days and nights. Family circled the body, sang, and beat a drum to help the spirit move on to the afterlife. Afterwards they held a giveaway and burned the deceased’s lodge. One year later the family held a memorial parade and dinner. Those who had received the deceased’s clothes and accessories wore them and gave gifts in honor of the dead. Afterwards the family could once again participate in ceremonies and other tribal events.
First Fruits Feasts are the most important ceremonies for the tribe. They are held before hunting, fishing, or gathering. Along with dancing shoulder-to-shoulder in separate men’s and women’s circles, the ceremony also includes drumming, bell ringing, and prayers. According to tradition, when the Creator made people, he asked the animals to care for them by sacrificing their lives. The Salmon agreed first to be food for the people, then the Deer and Elk, next the roots, and finally the berries. So during the feast, the food is set out and eaten in that order.
Once a year between the full moons of December and March the Yakama hold a winter dance. To honor the ancestors and give strength and guidance to the tribe, medicine songs are presented. Singers place homemade objects on the floor. When they are finished their songs, members of the audience can take the items.
Current tribal issues
Buying back land
The Yakama Reservation, like that of many other tribes, is a checkerboard area of Native American and non-Native American land. After the U.S. government allocated land during the early 1900s, many tribe members could not afford to keep their land because of taxation (see “History”). Yakama land holdings dwindled as more and more property ended up in white American hands. This caused difficulties in governing, grazing, and overall tribal unity. Much of the land was also subject to different municipal laws and taxes.
In 1950 the tribe formed the Yakama Nation Land Enterprise to buy back former reservation land. They repurchase parcels inside their original Nation boundaries. In 2001 they added 27,939 acres of forestland to their holdings. They develop the parcels they buy to produce income; thus generating funding for additional land purchases.
In the late twentieth century nuclear waste, dams, and water diverted to irrigation destroyed many traditional foods. In the early decades of the twenty-first century the Yakama are working to reverse that damage. In 1986 they fought to prevent nuclear waste from being stored on the site of the Hanford Nuclear Plant, but prior to that a great deal of radioactive and chemical waste had been discharged into the Columbia River and into the air. In addition, during the 1950s and 1960s liquid waste was also kept in a large storage crib on the property. In 2007 a crawling camera was designed; it is lowered into the crib and sends pictures to a computer screen so scientists can safely assess what is in the pit without exposing themselves to the danger. This is the first step in the clean-up process.
The Yakama also had concerns that pesticides used by farmers were polluting the rivers and killing the salmon. Working with the state of Washington, the tribe developed new laws to prevent chemical run-off and dumping in the rivers. They are also working to restore fish runs on the Yakima River. They hope to convince authorities to breach four Snake River dams to reclaim salmon habitats. Lewiston, Idaho, however, would lose its seaport if that happens. At first many people were against the idea, but as of the mid-2000s it had gained some support from environmentalists, scientists, and anglers.
In addition to lobbying to change policies, the Yakama are improving their own practices. They invented a unique system called winter logging. Crews wait until the ground is snow-covered and has frozen eighteen inches under the surface before cutting trees. This prevents the soil and plants from being crushed by trucks and workers. It also protects any artifacts buried on the site.
The tribe is guarding and preserving sacred sites, including petroglyphs, which have been vandalized. They are restoring these rock paintings for future generations.
Russell Jim, a Yakama elder, has worked for decades to protect tribal land, his people, and the Columbia River from the damaging effects of the Hanford Nuclear Plant. During the 1970s he suspected a connection between high rates of rheumatoid arthritis among his people and radioactive waste disposal nearby. In the 1980s he helped convince the government not to store more nuclear waste in the area. As manager of the tribe’s Environmental Restoration/Waste Management Program, he has also been working to clean up the site. In 2002, he received the Paul Beeson Peace Award for his efforts.
Chief Yowlachie (Daniel Simmons; 1891–1966) started out as an opera singer, but switched to films in the 1920s. Over the next 25 years he played many different characters in more than 87 movies and television shows. Two of his well-known roles include Quo in Red River (1948) and Geronimo in Son of Geronimo: Apache Avenger (1952).
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Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
Amanda Beresford McCarthy