Native Americans of the Plateau

by Katherine Kirkpatrick

Note: This is a longer version of the sidebar that appears in Mysterious Bones.--KK

The tribes in the Kennewick Man/ Ancient One case live in a region known as the Columbia River Plateau. They and many other Plateau tribes inhabit the western parts of Canada, and eastern Washington and Oregon, north-central Idaho, and western Montana. For thousands of years their ancestors survived as hunter-gatherers in the semiarid region of grassland and sagebrush cut by rivers and bordered by mountains. By the early 1800s, when European settlers first arrived on the Plateau, the tribes were living in villages, though they also traveled to hunt and gather plants. Mat-covered dwellings, including longhouses, accommodated families.

A Columbia Plateau baby spent the first year of his or her life on a cradleboard, carried by his or her mother. Elders, both male and female, took care of the tribe’s children. Men and women held equal positions in daily life, with the right to serve on councils and to voice opinions. Villagers took care of each other, tending the sick and sharing food. Individuals owned possessions such as canoes, blankets, and baskets, but the tribes considered land a common resource.

The people cleansed themselves in sweathouses daily and for special ceremonies. In one ritual, the guardian-spirit quest, adolescent boys and girls met their spirit guides/protectors. Every winter the tribes engaged in spirit dances, a time of performance and song, to pray for warm weather and successful hunts. First-foods rites honored foods such as salmon that were caught or gathered at the beginning of each season. (It is a ceremony that continues to be an important part of Plateau culture today.) Many stories in Plateau folklore feature Coyote, creator and trickster, a beloved character.

Most of the Columbia Plateau Indians traditionally speak either Salish or Sahaptin, both of which have many dialects. All but one of the tribal groups represented in the Kennewick Man case are Sahaptin speakers. The Confederated tribes of the Colville Reservation, like other peoples in the northern Plateau, speak Salish.

Horses arrived on the Columbia Plateau in the early 1700s. Some tribes, such as the Cayuse and Nez Percé, owned more than 20,000 horses, which thrived in the lush grasslands and sheltered valleys of the southern Plateau.

Groups made annual trips on horseback to hunt buffalo on the Plains. As a result, the tribes adopted many aspects of the Plains culture, including skin-covered tepees, eagle-feathered headdresses, horse accessories, and colorful beaded garments.

In 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived on the Columbia Plateau, ushering in an era of contact with Euro-Americans. In the Kennewick area, Walla Walla chief Yelleppit (or Yelépt) traded a white horse to Clark for his sword.

Soon after, fur traders and missionaries settled on the Plateau. With them came, though not intentionally, diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and measles, for which the native people did not have immunity. Epidemics nearly wiped out entire villages.

Both British and American fur trappers and traders established trading forts in the region. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain made an agreement, and the lands of the Oregon Territory (now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana) became the property of the United States. Four years later, in 1850, Congress passed the Donation Land Claim, which permitted any U.S. citizen to claim up to 320 acres in the Oregon Territory. This included land where Native Americans already lived. The Oregon Trail, the route many settlers took to come west, cut directly across tribal homegrounds.

In 1853, Congress further divided the Oregon Territory, creating the Washington Territory from it and Isaac Stevens became the region’s first governor. To create room for more white settlers, Stevens set out to make treaties with the Plateau tribes and move them into reservations. This policy was also designed to assimilate Native Americans into non-Indian society by turning them into farmers.

The government officials negotiating the treaties threatened war if their proposals were not accepted by the Native Americans. The Plateau tribes lost 64 million acres of land when they signed the treaties. Tribal leaders refused, however, to give up the right to hunt and fish in their accustomed locations (a guarantee that continues to be of legal and political significance today). According to the treaties, the tribes also retained “other rights”—unspecified in writing but probably including the right to tend their ancestors’ graves. Not all the tribal groups signed treaties, but all were moved to reservations.

From the 1870s to 1934, federal policy toward Native Americans centered on assimilating them into non-Indian society and decreasing the size of the reservations. During this time, the Plateau tribes lost ownership of two thirds of their reservation lands. This was mainly due to the passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act), which allowed the U.S. government to divide and sell reservations land as individual land parcels to non-Indians.

At the same time, the government banned many Native American customs and religious practices and forced Native American children to go to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. Native populations declined steadily, as the land base dwindled, poverty levels rose, and the tribes lost their traditions and culture.

In 1924, the government declared Native Americans to be U.S. citizens. Many tribal members had already served in the military forces in World War I. Later, an even higher percentage of tribal members served in World War II.

The Indian Reorganization of Act of 1934 (also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act) provided a way for tribes to take back reservation lands that had not been sold. Passage of the act also allowed tribes to form their own governments, which could negotiate with federal agencies. Tribes could hire lawyers, establish their own corporations, and take charge of other aspects of community life, including managing their own schools. But by this time, tribal life had been torn asunder, with many members scattered into cities.

One by one, the tribes met the challenges of drafting constitutions and organizing their newly created governments. In 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission, an agency set up to settle native legal claims against the government. The Plateau tribes submitted many claims and, in some cases, met with great success. In 1951, the Spokane Tribe won 6.7 million from the government because of lost land. In 1959, the Nez Percé Tribe collected $20 million for lost land and gold mined from the land. Likewise, in 1965, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes won $5.3 million from the government for lost land.

But the Indians Claims Commission brought with it new hardships in the 1950s and 1960s. The government created the commission to settle claims but also to eventually withdraw itself from all federal responsibilities involving Native Americans. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, a government entity that had been overseeing reservation life for nearly a century, cut back the management and funding of essential services such as education and health care. Most tribal members continued to suffer great financial hardships during the 1970s and 1980s.

In recent decades, the Plateau tribes have created many businesses to boost their local economies and sustain health, education, and welfare programs on the reservations. These include gambling enterprises, hotels, forestry, fishing, ranching construction, and real estate, like industrial park complexes. As economic conditions for the tribes improve, the reservations have better health care and education. Populations are gradually increasing. The tribes look to the future while hoping to preserve the culture and traditions of the past. Repatriating ancestors represents one aspect of a larger movement to reclaim tribal culture and identity.