The Umatilla lived in the Umatilla River and adjacent parts of the Columbia River drainages in northeastern Oregon. They now live on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in the same area with the Wallawalla Cayuse. They spoke a Sahaptin language of the Penutian phylum and numbered about one thousand in the 1980s.
Kennedy, James Bradford (1977). "The Umatilla Indian Reservation, 1855-1975: Factors Contributing to a Diminished Land Resource Base." Dissertation Abstracts International 38(4):2344A.
Stern, Theodore (1960). "A Umatilla Prophet Cult." Acts of the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences 5:346-350.
"Umatilla." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/umatilla
"Umatilla." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved November 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/umatilla
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Umatilla (ŭm´ətĬl´ə), river, c.85 mi (140 km) long, rising in NE Oreg. in the Blue Mts. It flows W past Pendleton, then NW to the Columbia River at the city of Umatilla (1990 pop. 3,046). The Umatilla project taps two of the river's tributaries for irrigation.
"Umatilla." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/umatilla
"Umatilla." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/umatilla
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
The name Umatilla (pronounced you-muh-TILL-uh ) comes from the name of the tribe’s winter village, imatilam, and means “many rocks.” Other possible translations are “rocky bottom” or “water rippling over sand.”
The Umatilla hunted, gathered, and fished the area ranging from the site of present-day Arlington, Oregon, east to the Walla Walla River. Traditional tribal territory included land in what is now northern Oregon and southern Washington state. Along with other Plateau tribes, the Umatilla settled along the banks of the Umatilla and Columbia Rivers. In the early twenty-first century most Umatilla live with members of the Cayuse, Walla Walla, Warm Springs, Nez Percé, and other tribes on or near the Umatilla Reservation in northeastern Oregon.
In 1780 there were about 1,500 Umatilla. When Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805–6 the population was estimated to be 2,500. In 1910 there were only 272. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 1,285 people identified themselves as Umatilla. The 2000 census showed 1,608 Umatilla and 2,169 people with some Umatilla heritage.
Origins and group affiliations
The Umatilla say they have lived in their homeland since the beginning of time. They reject scientists’ theories that they migrated from Asia. Objects from their homeland that were dug up and studied indicate that the Umatilla culture may have begun there 10,000 years ago. The Umatilla intermarried with and were related to the Nez Percé, Yakama, Modoc, Cayuse, Palus, and Walla Walla tribes of the Columbia Plateau region of Oregon and Washington states. The neighboring Paiute often raided Umatilla villages; other enemies included the Shoshone, Blackfeet, and Bannock. In 1855 the Umatilla, the Cayuse, and the Walla Walla joined as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation.
The Umatilla prospered in a barren, dry landscape of sand and gravel in the Columbia Plateau, where the most attractive features were the warm winters and the abundant salmon in the crystal-clear waters of the Columbia River. They moved from the river to the plains and mountains in a cycle that included hunting, fishing, celebrating, and trading. The tribe gave its name to a county, a town, and a river. The people found prosperity through gaming (running casinos) during the twentieth century and are using those profits to revitalize their ancient culture.
Contact with Americans
Although explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1836) were the first European Americans to meet the Umatilla in 1805, smallpox had already been introduced to the region. An epidemic (uncontrolled outbreak of disease) swept through the tribe as early as 1775, brought by other tribes already in contact with whites. Smallpox greatly reduced the Umatilla population.
The Umatilla had never seen guns before, so they hid rather than encounter Lewis and Clark. They had seen Clark shoot a crane and believed the whites were sky gods who had come to kill them. Clark described this meeting in his journal: “They said we came from the clouds and were not men.” But the Umatilla overcame their fears when they saw Sacajawea (pronounced sak-a-ja-WEE-a ; c. 1784–c. 1812), the young Shoshone (see entry) woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition.
Lewis and Clark found the people of the Columbia Plateau region to be rich in horses and dogs. Like their neighbors, the Nez Percé and the Yakama (see entries), the Umatilla acquired horses through trade with other tribes in the early 1700s and became skilled horse breeders and trainers. Using the horse for transportation, the Umatilla could cover a larger territory in the search for food. They ventured all the way to the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains and hunted buffalo.
Soon after Lewis and Clark left, traders took their place. An American trading company set up a post in Oregon in 1812, and the North West Company (a huge fur-trading enterprise) built a fort on the Walla Walla River in 1818. Most of the tribes in the area traded horses for European goods such as guns and ammunition, iron pots, blankets, cloth, beads, and cattle. Rivalry over trade added to the hostilities that already raged among the tribes in the region—fueled in part by the custom of raiding other tribes for horses and slaves. The Umatilla could not avoid becoming involved in the conflicts.
Early-1700s: The Umatilla acquire horses.
1805: Lewis and Clark are the first whites to make contact with Umatilla.
1848–50: The Cayuse War takes place.
1855: Under the Walla Walla Treaty, the Umatilla, the Cayuse, and the Walla Walla join as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation.
1949: The Confederated Tribes organize a tribal government.
1965: The Umatilla are awarded more than $2 million for land lost in 1855 treaty.
Battles and land losses
In the 1840s, the Umatilla joined the Nez Percé in a fight against their Paiute enemies (see entries). To add to the already tense situation, white settlers and missionaries began arriving in the 1840s. The missionaries were especially active among the Cayuse. When a measles epidemic struck the Cayuse in 1847, the Native Americans blamed the missionaries for it and killed several of them. Those killings (called the Whitman Massacre after one of the missionaries) and concern over the flood of American settlers, led to the Cayuse War (1847–50) between Native Americans and Americans. In 1848 a number of Umatilla warriors joined the Cayuse in that battle. The tribes, however, could not stand up to the superior manpower and fire-power of the Americans, and they finally gave up in 1850.
White settlers wanted land, and to keep them happy, the U.S. Congress passed the Donation Land Law of 1851. It granted white settlers permission to build homesteads on any Oregon lands, even those that belonged to Native Americans. The Native Americans reacted with violence to this unjust new law. To keep peace, the U.S. government established the Umatilla Agency on the Umatilla River near present-day Echo, Oregon, in 1851. The new agency provided area tribes with food and supplies, and re-established the Saint Anne Mission that had been abandoned after the Whitman Massacre.
Signing of first treaty
Conflicts between the Americans and Native Americans escalated and, on May 28, 1855, Washington Territory Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–1862) called the Walla Walla Treaty Council. Stevens convinced some chiefs to sign a treaty giving up their lands to the United States. The treaty formally combined the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse in one group as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The treaty reduced the tribes’ 6.4 million acres of land to a 250,000-acre reservation along the banks of the Umatilla River near present-day Pendleton, Oregon.
Like all the tribes that signed treaties in 1855, the Umatilla were distrustful of the U.S. government and reacted violently to further trespassing by American settlers on lands they considered their own. It took more than four years for Congress to ratify (make legal) the Walla Walla Treaty. The fact that it was not legal did not stop Governor Stevens from announcing that American settlers could come and build homesteads.
Increasing numbers of immigrants trespassed on tribal lands and farms. When gold was discovered in the area, miners and settlers flooded the area. The Yakama tribe was the first to repel the settlers in the Yakama War of 1855–56. The Umatilla joined the Yakama in their war against the Americans, while still defending themselves against Paiute raiders. The Umatilla were forced to flee several times during the Yakama War when the Paiutes attacked. The war went badly for the Native Americans, and, as the U.S. Army gradually took control of the territory, the Umatilla surrendered along with many of the Yakama during the second Walla Walla peace council in 1856.
Though the Umatilla agreed to peace, other tribes still fought the Americans for several years. Meanwhile many of the tribe members on the reservation were unwilling to give in to government agents’ urging to settle down and become farmers. Soon white settlers realized that the Native Americans’ grazing land was prime wheat-growing land. They decided they wanted it, and the U.S. government obliged them by passing the Slater Act in 1885, which established an allotment system for reservation land.
Under allotment, reservation land was divided into 160-acre plots that were “given” to individual Native Americans. Any land left over was opened up to white settlement. By the end of the allotment period the 250,000-acre Umatilla reservation had shrunk to 82,742 acres for 1,118 Indians.
Allotment affected the Native Americans in many ways. Owning plots of land went against traditional Native American values of using land in common. Conflicts arose when Indians who owned large herds of horses could no longer graze them on land now used for farming. People whose families had lived in an area for ages could no longer live there because someone else had title to the land.
The Umatilla found it hard to adjust to reservation life, and many left, moving to urban areas to look for work. Those who remained behind faced unrelenting poverty. Conditions only began to improve in the 1960s, when money from land claims and from new federal programs enabled the tribe to start development projects. The land claim issue was first raised in 1951, when the Umatilla filed lawsuits against the United States, demanding payment for 4 million acres of land taken in the 1855 treaty. In 1965 they were finally awarded more than $2 million. The Umatilla won other claims after their fishing sites were destroyed by the construction of a dam.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation took advantage of these funds and other monies from the government to improve their living conditions and to develop an economic base. In the 1980s the government agreed to allow gaming on reservations. After the tribe built casinos, more money flowed into the reservation. The Confederated Tribes are using this money to fund programs to revive their culture.
The Walla Walla Regale Lewis & Clark
In 1806 explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark visited a Walla Walla village on the return trip of their expedition. Walla Walla Chief Yellept was delighted to see them, presenting them with gifts of firewood, fish, and a white horse. Yellept received Clark’s sword in exchange for his generosity. One of the white men brought out his fiddle, and the white party treated the Walla Walla villagers and their Yakama guests to an hour of dancing. Lewis reported that in turn, 550 Indian men, women, and children then “sung and danced at the same time,” and were pleased to have some of the white men join in the dance with them. Lewis later recorded in his journal: “I think we can justly affirm to the honor of these people that they are the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”
Like many tribes of the West, the Umatilla did not have a supreme being. They believed that an Old Chief, who had great power, created the seasons. He was invisible, but good; and unlike some of the gods of other tribes, he demanded no sacrifices. After him came animals in human form, as well as giants, elves, and other mythical beings. Signs of all these creatures can be found in nature.
People had guardian spirits, who gave them a specific power. By way of a ceremony called a vision quest, an individual got in touch with his or her guardian spirit. No one could control the type of powers received from the spirits. A person might receive the power to cure illnesses or to be successful in hunting or war. Tribe members communicated with their guardian spirits through songs and drumming. Each Umatilla “owned” rhythmic and hypnotic personal songs that were their most important possessions.
The most powerful guardian spirits were the heavenly ones: the Sun, Moon, and stars. Other spirits came from animals, thunder, wind, and other forces of nature. Umatilla who received powers from these spirits were directly connected to nature and could hear the whispers and songs of the trees and the messages of beasts of all kinds.
The Umatilla expressed their religious feelings through a ritual called the Washat Dance. The dance marked changes in the seasons and rites of passage. It featured male and female dancers, seven drummers, and feasts of salmon and roots. The Washat Dance religion flourished in ancient times, went through changes under the influence of Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s, and then was restored to its original meaning by Dream Prophets in the late 1800s. Umatilla Dream Prophets named Luls and Pinapuyuset helped people in the Columbia Plateau stay in touch with their old religion when it came under attack by Christian missionaries. The Washat Dance religion remains a major form of religious expression in the Northwest.
The Umatilla version of the Northern Sahaptian language is related to the languages spoken by the Yakama, Palus, and Walla Walla, among others. After the establishment of the reservation in the late nineteenth century, all the people there adopted the language of the Nez Percé. By the 1990s only a handful of people could speak or even understand the languages of the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Indians. Furthermore, the languages formerly spoken by the people on the reservation had never even been written down.
By the end of the twentieth century tribal elders realized that unless they write their languages down and teach them to young people, they will be lost forever. Edith McCloud, who teaches the Walla Walla language, explained why she was at first unwilling to pass on her knowledge of the language:
When I first started, I would have preferred never to have the language written down, never documented. What our elders used to say was that the white man is taking everything from us except our language. We didn’t want to give it away. But today, in today’s world, children are conditioned to learn from documents, tape recorders and now computers. If we keep the language to ourselves and try to teach it only verbally it really is going to get lost.
McCloud is only one of several tribal elders who are now teaching weekly classes in Umatilla, Walla Walla, and other languages. This is part of an ambitious program to revive and preserve the ancient languages; it is funded by profits from tribal gaming operations.
There are many similarities between the three languages spoken on the reservation. A few simple Umatilla expressions and words are below:
- Niix pačway … “Good day.”
- Wayaninamwa? … “How are you?”
- wapayatat … “to learn or teach”
- ispilyay … “coyote”
Each Umatilla group who shared a winter camp had its own chief or headman. Long ago the position was hereditary (passed down from father to son), but when the people began to hunt buffalo, they adopted the Plains custom of electing chiefs for their skills. The primary duties of a chief were to keep the peace and to promote good behavior among his people. He could not force people to obey him but rather had to convince them his way was best.
The chief represented his group in meetings with other chiefs. Because a chief’s authority was limited, most tribe members did not believe that, when only a few chiefs signed the 1855 treaty with the U.S. government, all Native Americans should be forced to move to the reservation. They soon realized, however, that if they did not comply, they would be destroyed.
After they moved to the reservation, government agents selected and paid the chiefs. In 1949 the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation formed their own government. In modern times a nine-member tribal council elected by the general council (consisting of all tribal members age 18 and older) makes decisions about life on the reservation. A chairperson, a vice-chairperson, a secretary, a treasurer, a general council chairperson, and four members-at-large are part of the elected tribal council.
The Umatilla depended on fishing before they acquired horses in the early 1700s. Then their economy expanded to include buffalo hunting. Every year, tribes from all over the Northwest and from as far away as the Great Plains came to the Columbia River to trade for dried fish.
The early days on the reservation were difficult. Native Americans were not allowed to leave without a permit, so they could not gather their traditional foods. They came to depend on government handouts and grew so dispirited that observers predicted the culture would perish. After allotment went into effect (see “History”), most Native Americans found they could not afford to farm their land, so they leased or sold it to white farmers. Some people continued to fish in the old way, but their fishing spots flooded and became unusable once dams were built on the Columbia River in the early and mid-1900s.
After suffering through years of struggle and limited opportunities, the Umatilla people are experiencing a turnaround. The tribal economy that once depended heavily on farming and forestry has expanded, and today the Confederated Tribes are a major economic force in northeastern Oregon. The tribal government and tribally owned businesses employ more than eleven thousand people. In addition to leasing land, the people also have acreage for agriculture, livestock, and forestry. Fisheries are restoring the salmon to area rivers. Mining, construction, real estate development, service-retail operations, and an industrial park all generate income. The Wánapa Energy Center is under development. The Wildhorse Resort and Casino and the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute provide revenue for the Wildhorse Foundation (a charitable organization) and for tribal programs.
In traditional times extended Umatilla families—parents, children, grandparents, and other close relatives—all lived together in small groups called bands. Families were large, and everyone had an assigned job. If they failed to do their jobs, the family might starve or freeze when winter came. Grandmothers stayed in the camp and watched the children while their mothers were digging roots.
Children began their training in adult skills at age ten. Boys watched as older men hunted and fished but did not participate until they were teens because an untrained person was an insult to the prey. Girls helped with household chores. From ages twelve to sixteen, they lived together in a separate house where they were closely guarded and kept away from boys. There, older women taught them to cook and to make baskets and clothing. They also learned about personal hygiene.
Christian missionaries began their work in Oregon as early as 1836, introducing their concept of formal education. In addition to gaining converts, the missionaries hoped to guide the Native Americans into becoming like white Americans. They believed the best way to do that was to educate Native American children. The Presbyterian missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman (1802–1847) and others taught American domestic skills to Native American children. As the Native Americans saw it, Whitman was turning their children into servants for whites. This was one of the misunderstandings that led to the Whitman Massacre (see “History”).
Roman Catholic missionaries set up a school on the reservation in the 1870s, and the Presbyterians opened their school in 1871. Some children were educated at those schools, while others were sent to a government-run boarding school in Forest Grove, Oregon. This style of education weakened traditional Native culture and language.
In modern times reservation children attend Head Start classes on the reservation, then most of them attend public schools in Pendleton. Along with casino proceeds, money won in land claims funds scholarships, language and tutoring programs, and adult education.
The Umatilla favored winter homes called longhouses, which they built along the Columbia River. The homes, sometimes as long as 80 feet (24 meters), were made of dried mats arranged over a pole frame. Winter lodges could house many families, and a village might contain five or six of them.
The Umatilla devised portable mat tepees to take along on buffalo hunting or gathering trips. They did not use buffalo skins for tepees because their supply of buffalo skins was not as large as that of the Plains tribes. Today they use tepees covered with canvas for celebrations and for camping in the mountains.
The Umatilla ate fish—salmon, steelhead trout, eel, and sturgeon—as their primary food source. The tribes of the region gathered along the Columbia River in spring and fall for salmon runs. In late summer men hunted wild game such as deer, elk, mountain sheep, bear, antelope, wolf, fox, and cougar. Later the Umatilla also hunted buffalo on the Great Plains.
While the men hunted and fished, women gathered camas roots, onions, potatoes, carrots, acorns, and a variety of nuts and berries. One root, called biscuitroot, was mashed and shaped into small cakes that were dried in the sun and stored for later use. Black moss from pine and fir trees was baked to form a cheese-like food.
In modern times, because of dams on the Columbia River, salmon is no longer as plentiful, but it is still caught. The people on the reservation continue to rely on salmon and other traditional foods like roots, berries, deer, and elk.
Aunt Margret Tawatoy’s Elk Steak
Joseph Armand Lavadour Jr learned this recipe on the Umatilla Reservation in Thornhollow, Oregon. Lavadour recommends serving this with fry bread to soak up the juices or chilling it for sandwiches.
- Elk Steaks, Cut Into Single Serving Portions
- Bacon, Salt And Pepper To Taste
- Onions Cut Into Rings
Note that deer or beef steak can be used, this is a layered dish so use amounts that work out for the amount of layers that are needed.
Using a hot cast iron frying pan, place steaks in it and quickly fry on each side, 30 seconds to one minute.
When they are all cooked place a layer of bacon on the bottom of a Dutch oven or a heavy baking kettle, then a layer of raw onion rings, then a layer of steak.
Continue until you end with a layer of onions. Bake in an oven at 375 until well done, approx. 60-75 minutes.
Lavadour, Joseph Armand Jr. “Aunt Margret Tawatoy’s Elk Steak.” Native Tech: Indigenous Food and Traditional Recipes. (accessed on August 10, 2007).
Clothing and adornment
Umatilla dressed in robes, vests, and aprons, all made from skins and furs. Women wore basket-shaped hats woven from dried leaves. After they began to hunt buffalo, their clothing styles changed to resemble the buckskin shirts, leggings, and dresses of the Plains Indians. They tied their side-stitched, beaded moccasins around their ankles with thongs.
After cloth became more widely available, women made “wing” dresses. These T-shaped dresses had wide, full sleeves that looked like wings. They decorated them with dentalia (shells), elk teeth, and beads. Men had pictures of their war exploits painted on their elkskin robes. They often decorated their shirts with tallies of war and painted symbols on their faces.
The Umatilla used herbal remedies to treat a variety of illnesses. Conditions caused by evil spirits required a medicine man, or shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun ). The shaman either expelled the evil spirits or filled the afflicted person with a powerful spirit to drive out the sickness. Most healing rituals involved singing, chanting, and drumming and could get very loud. Shaman used rattles, smoke, and face-painting as part of the healing ritual. The shaman’s job was a dangerous one, because those who failed to cure their patients were often killed.
Tribal elders say their oral tradition dates back ten thousand years. Men and women were encouraged to display their oral skills by reciting tribal myths and tales, especially during the winter when cold weather kept everyone inside at night. A favorite character in their stories was Coyote, who sometimes played a fool and sometimes a wise man. An often-told tale describes how Coyote made the world safe for the first Native Americans by ridding the world of dangerous monsters.
Women were known for their beadwork; they still decorate bags, baskets, and children’s dancing costumes with beautiful geometric designs. Men painted their robes and war shields with pictures of their brave deeds. Basket twining, beadwork, and regalia (fancy clothing or other symbols of high rank) sewing are some of the local arts that are being revived at Crow’s Shadow Institute on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The institute brings artists, teachers, and arts professionals from around the world to the reservation to help local artists develop careers in the arts.
The work of artists affiliated with Crow’s Shadow Institute and of other local craftspeople is shown at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, which opened in 1998. The institute has displays that tell the story of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes. Special exhibits feature the work of established artists as well as children.
When a boy felt he was ready to be a man, he went through a period of training to test his strength, courage, and endurance. He was sent to a spot far from the village, which was marked by a special stone. This spot was located close to tribal enemies; the boy was required to spend a day and a night there without being detected.
There was no ceremony to mark a girl’s first menstruation. She remained in a separate hut for the duration of her period, then bathed, put on fresh clothes, and resumed her daily chores.
Courtship and marriage
Because girls were so closely watched, boys had to seize opportunities to catch them alone. A boy might court a girl by singing to her from the shadows or waylaying her on the way to a water source. At about age sixteen, boys and girls were ready for marriage. The boy’s parents sent a relative to speak to the parents of the girl he chose.
If they agreed to the marriage, the boy’s parents presented the family with horses. Much feasting and gift exchanging followed. Givers competed to offer the best presents. Afterwards the couple was considered married. They usually moved in with the groom’s parents for a while before establishing their own home.
Divorce happened frequently in the early years of marriage. Children went to live with the parent of the same sex. Husbands could kill unfaithful wives. Wealthy men could have more than one wife; usually they chose their wives’ sisters.
Pregnant women hoped to keep their babies small by swimming frequently. They avoided unpleasantness that might upset them and affect the child. Mothers stayed secluded for ten days after the birth, then the new parents sweated and bathed. The woman also destroyed any clothing or dishes she had used during her pregnancy.
Newborns were bound tightly to cradleboards. Girls had their foreheads compressed so that their heads would grow flat. This was considered an attractive feature, but the custom was given up soon after the whites came.
Children had many toys, including stilts, buzzers, bull roarers, popguns, and tops. They played cat’s cradle with string, making shapes of animals like the porcupine or elk. Tug-of-war and hide-and-seek were popular. Most children also practiced adult skills. Girls played with dolls and rode on stick horses to practice setting up tepees and moving camp.
Elders lectured youngsters and told stories to teach them proper behavior. Disobedient children would be threatened with the “whipper,” a man whose job was to discipline village youngsters. If boys fought, they had to lie on a blanket on the ground. The whipper gave them a spanking with a willow whip, then lectured them. Afterwards the whipper took the blanket as payment. A child who got into trouble frequently might be sent out alone to seek a guardian spirit. Children who were too young to have a guardian spirit were rarely punished.
Entire tribes seldom fought together as a unit. Instead they recruited warriors from other tribes who lived nearby. This is how the Umatilla came to participate in the Cayuse War. Horse-stealing raids were a form of warfare, a manly pursuit, and a way to demonstrate bravery. Raiding parties usually consisted of five or six people.
War parties attacked in the early morning and took women and children as slaves. Sometimes slain enemy warriors were scalped, or their hearts were eaten (to ingest the strength of the fallen warrior). Upon returning to the village, successful warriors held a scalp dance, then purified themselves in a sweatbath. Warriors from other tribes who were taken captive had their fingers, hands, or limbs cut off.
A shaman supervised the washing and dressing of the corpse, then fumigated the house and family with rosebushes. The family held a wake during the night. Friends and relatives visited, but children, especially those who did not have a guardian spirit, were kept away. The next day the community took the corpse to the cemetery.
The Umatilla wrapped the dead in animal skins and tule mats and buried the body in a shallow grave in rocky ledges. They laid the body on its back heading west and surrounded it with farewell gifts and personal possessions. Graves were enclosed by cedar poles and stones. Often they killed horses and left the corpses near the grave. Mourners stopped eating for a while and cut off their hair to show their grief. Those who had touched the body purified themselves in the sweat lodge.
Early observers claimed that death by suicide was quite common and often came about after a person’s feelings had been hurt. Sometimes grieving relatives decided to be buried alive with their loved ones. A memorial feast was held five days after the burial. The dead person was praised, then his or her name was never mentioned again so the soul could rest.
Festivals and ceremonies
Ceremonies were held before raiders or war parties set off and later to welcome them home. But the most important ceremonies concerned food, which was considered a sacred substance. In a custom known as “first food observances,” the people thanked the first salmon of the season and the first roots before they ate them.
Drumming and singing have always been an important part of the culture, and every important occasion featured performances that took years to learn.
In the early twenty-first century many tribal festivities take place on the July Grounds on the reservation. In the late 1800s the federal government tried to discourage traditional Native American celebrations. The Confederated Tribes gathered at the July Grounds and pretended to celebrate Independence Day (July 4). They were actually celebrating their own heritage through horse and foot races, spear throwing, dancing, singing, and drumming.
Current tribal issues
Two major tribal issues concern the reburial of the remains of the individual known as Kennewick Man and the struggle for salmon recovery in the Columbia River.
The 1995 discovery of a 9,300-year-old skeleton near Kennewick, Washington, ignited a controversy that still raged in the mid-2000s. Kennewick Man is the oldest skeleton ever found in the Pacific Northwest. Scientists wanted to study it, while the tribe contends their religious and cultural beliefs require the immediate reburial of the remains of what is likely one of their ancestors.
In 2005 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the land on which Kennewick Man was discovered, decided to turn the bones over to the Native American tribes. Scientists, however, sued; they wanted time to examine the bones. They won their case, and as of 2007 a team of experts was studying the skeleton. One startling discovery they made is that the bones may not be Native American. They more closely resemble those of a Japanese Ainu. Some researchers speculate that the body may be from the Pacific Rim.
In 1998 the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation announced a new campaign to restore natural salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin. The campaign is called Waykaanashmiyay Nishaycht (“Home for the Salmon”). The tribe and its supporters claim that dams on Columbia and Snake river tributaries are threatening the wild salmon runs on the rivers. The Campaign Mission Statement declares: “We believe that a Pacific Northwest without salmon is unacceptable. For our children, we must again make the Columbia River and all of its tributaries Home for the Salmon.”
The Umatilla are also involved a joint venture with the Yakama, Nez Percé, and Warm Springs tribes. This group, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), is working to restore the salmon and their habitats and to raise public awareness about the problem. They also represent the Native’ environmental views in regional planning, policy, and decision-making meetings.
Ballantine, Betty, and Ian Ballantine. The Native Americans: An Illustrated History. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1993.
Chatters, James C. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Downey, Roger. Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man. New York: Copernicus, 2000.
Karson, Jennifer, ed. Wiyaxayxt/ Wiyaakaa’awn / As Days Go by: Our History, Our Land, Our People-the Cayuse, Umatilla, And Walla Walla. Portland: University of Washington Press, 2006.
Yenne, Bill. “Umatilla.” The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Tribes. New York: Crescent Books, 1986.
Et-twaii-lish, Marjorie Waheneka.“Indian Perspectives on Food and Culture.” Oregon Historical Quarterly. (Fall 2005). Available online at (accessed on September 9, 2007).
“Q: Should scientists be allowed to ‘study’ the skeletons of ancient American Indians?” (Symposium). U.S. Representative Doc Hastings; Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Spokesman Donald Sampson. Insight on the News. 13, 47 (December 22, 1997): 24.
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
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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
"Umatilla." U*X*L Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/umatilla-0
"Umatilla." U*X*L Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. . Retrieved November 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/umatilla-0