The area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana is known as the Plateau Culture area.
From north to south it runs from the Fraser River in the north to the Blue Mountains in the south. The Columbia Plateau is bordered by the Northern Rocky Mountains to the east and in the west by the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges.
The plateau covers an area of about 100,000 square miles (260,000 square km) in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington, Oregon, and a small part of Idaho that is mostly covered with basaltic lava flows. The mountainous regions extend into northern California, parts of Washington and northwestern Montana. One of the most important geographic and culture features of the region is the Columbia River.
American Indian people have lived along the Columbia River in permanent and semi-permanent villages for thousands of years.
The Plateau Region has three sub-regions: the Sierra and Cascade Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Columbia Plateau, which are further divided into 14 ecoregions. At least forty-seven tribes called this area home.
Columbia Plateau and the Tribes who lived in this region
Location: Washington | Oregon | Idaho | Part of Montana | Part of California
The elevation ranges from 500 feet to 5,000 feet (60 to 1,500 m) above sea level on the plateau, and over 14,000 feet in the mountains.
The climate is semi-arid highland desert, and vegetation is limited mostly to sagebrush shrubs and grasses on the plateau.
It includes nearly 500 miles (800 km) of the Columbia River, as well as the lower reaches of major tributaries such as the Snake and Yakima rivers and their associated drainage basins.
The Columbia and Snake Rivers are the major water systems in the region. Other rivers include the Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla, and Walla Walla rivers.
The extensive Columbia River system drains the Rocky Mountains on its way to the Pacific Ocean. As it flows to the Columbia River, the Snake River passes through a broad plain in southern Idaho—the Snake River plain.
The ancient Columbia River was forced into its present course by the northwesterly advancing lava. The lava, as it flowed over the area, first filled the stream valleys, forming dams that in turn caused numerous lakes to form.
A porous, volcanic bedrock lies underneath the plain, so Snake River tributaries often disappear underground, thus creating a need for irrigation. After coursing through this plain, the Snake River flows through Hell's Canyon—a 6,000-foot-deep gorge—before reaching the Columbia River.
This main river also carves its way through a relatively open area, the Palouse hills of Washington, another irrigated farm region. Aside from the Palouse hills and the Snake River plain, much of the Columbia Plateau consists of mountains, such as the Blue Mountains, that lie in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains.
The average precipitation in this area is only 12 inches per year, with most moisture falling in the form of winter snows in the mountains.
There are five major volcanoes in the Columbia Plateau region
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They are Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens.
Mount St. Helens had a massive eruption as recently as 1980, which blew out the side of the mountain and deposited significant ash hundreds of miles away.
All together, there are 27 active volcanic areas in the Plateau Region today, with ten volcanoes having a high probability of eruption in this century.
Also known as the Columbia Basin, and originally carved by glaciers and slowly eroded over time by the Columbia River, the basin was further sculpted about 12,000 years ago by a series of violent flows known as the Spokane Floods.
The floods left behind strange basaltic rock formations known as the Channeled Scablands.
The basin is characterized by native shrub-steppe vegetation and thousands of acres of ponds and marshes created by irrigation water from the Columbia Basin Project.
Southwest Washington includes the vast wheat fields of the Palouse Hills and the rugged Blue Mountains which straddle the border between Washington and Oregon.
During the early stages of the Columbia Basin formation, granite rock was slowly created by heat and pressure deep in the crust of the earth. Then the crust was uplifted, exposing the granite, creating mountains similar to the Okanogan Highlands north of Grand Coulee Dam. Forty to sixty million years ago the formation of the outline of the Columbia Basin was complete.
The land had subsided below sea level, and a large inland sea had formed. The land was again uplifted and then, 10-15 million years ago, was flooded with volcanic lava. The boundaries of the flood lava were located in almost the same position as the former seashore. Many layers of lava were needed to build up to a 5,000 feet (1500 meter) thickness and form the smooth surfaced Columbia Plateau.
During the Ice Age, the old Cascade Mountains were also formed. Their outline still remains on the western slopes of the Cascades. The uplifting mountains were not able to block the flow of the Columbia River completely, and a deep Columbia River gorge was formed. Near the end of the Ice Age the volcanoes of the high Cascades rose to elevations of 14,000-15,000 feet (4000-4500 meters).
Older volcanoes, such as Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier, were sculpted by glaciers of the Ice Age; others such as Mt. St. Helens remained unsculpted, retaining their original volcanic form.
Eighteen thousand years ago the Columbia Basin was nearly covered by floodwaters when an ice dam at Lake Missoula in western Montana broke. Large boulders were strewn near the outlet of the Lower Coulee (Lake Lenore). Other boulders were carried in icebergs as far as western Oregon.
The floodwaters were 800 feet (250 meters) deep near Pasco and 400 feet (125 meters) deep at Portland. After the Ice Age, the Columbia River returned to its former channel. The channeled scab lands and large coulees that had been formed were left stranded 500-1600 feet (150-500 meters) above the present river floor and serve as a constant reminder of some of the most unusual episodes in geologic history.
As with other American Indian people, art was not a separate category in their lives, but was a part of everyday life. Their most important art forms were carvings, beadwork, quillwork, and basketry.
Plateau tribes were very skilled in the art of basketry. There were several different types for different purposes. These handmade baskets were used in everyday life to collect fruits and nuts, to store food, and also to cook certain foods. While it is common for people to assume that basketry refers only to containers, the Plateau peoples often wore them as hats.
Prior to contact with Europeans, the Indian people of the Plateau area in the Pacific Northwest decorated their clothing and other items with paintings, with beads made from shell, animal teeth, bone, and other items, and with porcupine quills.
New decorative elements became available to the Indians as tradegoods and gifts from the European explorers and later traders. Glass beads were quickly adopted into the cultures and began to replace and supplement both painting and quilling. The Plateau Indians soon became well-known for their fine bead work.
Beaded bags are made and used throughout the Plateau area. The beaded bags are usually made from cloth and beaded on one side only. The beadwork is an appliqué technique in which the beads lie evenly over the surface of the bag in straight rows that extend from one side of the bag to the other. The main design is beaded first and then the background is beaded around it.
A more utilitarian bag called a Sally Bag or Corn Husk Bag, was made from cornhusk, hemp, string, and yarn using a continuous weave that eliminates seams. Originally, these bags were used for storing foods, such as roots, as the tightness of the weave keeps out dust and dirt.
Plateau Cultural Practices
One of the cultural practices of the Indian people of the Lower Columbia was cranial deformation: the flattening of the head. As an infant, the child would be placed in a cradleboard which had a board that came down over the child’s forehead. The board would then be tied firmly in place. The result was a slightly enlongated head with a high forehead. This custom was practiced especially by more prestigious members of the tribes.
The Indian nations of the Lower Columbia traditionally buried their dead in raised canoes along with all their worldly possessions. The name of the dead person was never spoken again, for fear of summoning his ghost.
The indigenous people of this area believed that everything, including inanimate objects, has a soul or a spirit. This is called Animism. Many traditional ceremonies were held, mainly to strengthen and renew their bond with the supernatural.
Spirit quests or vision quests are an example of this. Adolescents were sent to a mountaintop for a period of 5 days without food or water around the time they reached puberty. They were to wait there until a vision with part human and part animal characteristics appeared. This vision was said to give supernatural powers so they would be protected throughout their life.
Adults might perform vision quests multiple times in their lifetime, before important events such as going to war, or when an important decision had to be made. If they did not receive a vision the first time, they might return multiple times until one was received. A spirit guide could also be purchased from someone who possessed it, if one was not received on one's own vision quest. Usually only males went on vision quests, but on rare occasions, some females also received visions.
In a ceremony, called the whipping ceremony, young boys from 5 to 10 years old were whipped by an Indian doctor because it was thought that this would prevent them from becoming sick during the winter months.
There were also celebrations for reaching puberty, catching a first fish or game, and getting married.
Although men and women had separate daily duties, they were considered equals. Each had a right to their own opinion and women were allowed to serve on councils. They were socially and economically equal in every way.
The Chinook, Clatsop, and Kathlamet languages all belong to the Chinookan language family. The Tillamook language, spoken farther south, belongs to the Salish language family, and the Klatskanie language, spoken to the east, belongs to the Athapascan language family.
Warmer months were spent living in teepees while winters were spent in larger, more fortified villages or camps. These Indians lived in partially underground houses during the winter in a style of housing called pit houses. They were sometimes connected to one another by a series of tunnels.
The Indians of the Lower Columbia River lived in villages of 5 to 20 permanent longhouses. The houses, made from cedar planks and cedar logs, ranged in size from 20 to 60 feet in length and from 14 to 20 feet in width. The roof was a pitched gable with a long overhanging eve. The houses were built over a pit that was 4-5 feet deep and roughly the same size as the dwelling.
The Plateau Indians relied mostly on fishing for protein, but they were also hunters. The men trapped the animals with lassos or other types of weapons and then used either harpoons, clubs, spears, slings or their primary hunting weapon, a bow and arrow to make the kill. If necessary they would also use fire to trap their prey or drove them into the water to be killed.
Salmon was one of the most important foods of the Plateau Indians.
Another staple of the Plateau Indian's diet was berries. The women were responsible for gathering blackberries, huckleberries and wild strawberries. Their diet also consisted of various roots, bulbs, and other wild vegetables. They relied heavily on stored and dried food during the cold winter months.
Weapons and Tools
In addition to a variety of knives, they also used several other tools. A pebble tool was a smooth, water-worn tool. It was often used for cutting, chopping, crushing, cracking, shredding, pulping, scraping, and smoothing.
The ulna tool was a type of pointed knife made from animal bone, usually deer. It was made in many different sizes and shapes. The knife was used for splitting everything from fish to trees.
Bone points were used mainly for hunting and fishing purposes. They varied in size and were essentially sharpened bone pieces that could be attached to hooks or fishing lines.
- Cayuse, Oregon
- Celilo (Wayampam)
- Upper Chinookan (Dialects: Clackamas, Cascades, Hood River Wasco, Wishram Kathlamet, Wishram, Cathlamet, Multnomah)
- Columbian (Dialects: Wenatchee, Sinkayuse, Chelan) Washington, Oregon
- Coeur d’Alene Indian villages were numerous and permanent. Each village and the people there had a distinct name in their ancestral language. Collectively, members today call themselves, "Schitsu'umsh," meaning "Those Who Are Found Here."
- Colville, Washington
- Upper Cowlitz
- Flathead (Selisch or Salish), Idaho and Montana
- John Day
- Kalispel Washington
- Klamath, Oregon
- Klikitat, Washington
- Kootenai/Ktunaxa, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho
- Lower Snake (Chamnapam, Wauyukma, Naxiyampam)
- Modoc, California, Oregon
- Molala (Molale) Oregon
- Nez Perce, Idaho and Washington
- Nicola Athapaskans (extinct)
- Nlaka'pamux aka the Thompson people, British Columbia
- Okanagan (Siylx), British Columbia & Washington (Dialects: Northern and Southern)
- Palus (Palouse), Washington
- Pend'Oreilles (Kalispel), Washington
- Rock Creek
- Secwepemc (Shuswap), British Columbia
- Sinixt (Lakes Indians), British Columbia, Washington, Idaho
- The Spokane Tribe (sqeliz – meaning The People) is comprised of five bands: sntu/t/uliz, snzmeme/, scqesciOni, sl/otewsi, hu, and sDmqeni. Their traditional homelands spanned most of present day Eastern Washington: north to Canada, east to Idaho, south to the Columbia River, and as far west as the Cascades.
- St'at'imc (Lillooet)
- Tygh Valley
- Umatilla Oregon
- Upper Nisqually (Mishalpan)
- Walla Walla, Oregon and Washington
- Wasco, Oregon
- Yakama (Yakima), Washington
Salish nations inhabited the upper Columbia River and middle Fraser River regions of the Cordillera, and were separated from the coastal region by the Cascade and Coast Mountains, through which the Columbia and Fraser Rivers flow.
They include the Flathead and Pend d’Oreille nations of present-day Montana; the Coeur d’Alene of Idaho; the Kalispel, Colville, Spokan, Sanpoil, Nespelem, Methow Penskwaus, Wenatchee, Okanogan-Similkameen, and Sintaiekt of Washington; and the Lakes Sinixt, Okanagan-Similkameen, Secwepemc, Nlakapmx, and St’at’imc of British Columbia.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is a combination of the Umatilla (Natítayt, meaning The People) , Walla Walla, and Cayuse tribes of Oregon.
The Colville Confederated Tribes are made up of 12 plateau bands which include the Moses-Columbia, Sanpoil, Nespelem, Methow, Entiat, Colville, Lakes, Wenatchee (Wenatchi), Chief Joseph’s Band of Nez Perce, Palus, Southern Okanogan, and Chelan. Their ancestral lands incorporated approximately thirty nine million acres in Central Washington and Southern British Columbia.
The Yakamas have lived in Central and South Central Washington since time immemorial. The lands of the Yakama extended in all directions along the Cascade Mountain Range to the Columbia River and beyond. Tribal elders say their distance of travel sometimes took them as far north as Canada and as far south as California. The Yakama Nation includes these bands: Kah-miltpah, Klickitat, Klinquit, Kow-was-say-ee, Li-ay-was, Oche-Cotes, Palouse, Pesquose, See-ap-Cat, Sk'in-pah, Shyiks, Wisham, Wenachapam, and Yakama.