Iman family notes

Who were those Indians?

As one reads through the narrative histories of Iman experience in Skamania one becomes aware of the fact that these pioneers were living among many native Americans. Though our family came to speak the local dialects, the impression one has is of little clear information about the historical and geographic circumstance in which they were living. They survived raids and described very tall Indians dressed in red skin. These were most likely, as Jim Windsor (following Jim Attwell's thoughts in his books [1]) accounts it, Yakima Indians from outside of the region, and not primarily the local Indians among which gorge pioneers were living. Sad to say, it seems that for the most part, the wrong Indians were hung at the end of the raids.

It may help to understand the geographic and historical circumstances. Native Americans have lived on the Columbia River for at least eleven thousand years. To them, the river is not just a resource, it is a way of life. Native American tribes throughout the Columbia River Basin, numbered at the time before white migration between fifty to seventy thousand. The gorge was the critically narrow passageway through which rivers and people could migrate and correspond from the plains to the coast; it was hallowed ground for not only locals, but to all the many 'cross-roads' participants who benefited so greatly from freely provided access. The pond at Stevenson, one sees in accounts from family was often full of natives visiting in large numbers. These were likely seasonal visits during salmon runs, as part of trading parties, and other ceremonial events.

Salmon was once the staple food for Native Americans throughout this huge area. Salmon ran rivers and they were captured, dried, and used even throughout the plains. It's been estimated that Salmon provided forty percent of the caloric intake of the plains tribes. Salmon was the staple not only for the Coastal Indians but the plains hunters and gatherers as well who had always visited to participate in the annual harvest. Lewis and Clarke estimated that Native Americans of the gorge prepared thirty thousand pounds of dried salmon annually.

The Native Americans of the Columbia River were divided into two broad cultural groups. Those west of the Cascade Mountains along the lower river were of the Northwest Coastal culture. They were fishing people and were oriented to the region's salmon runs. There were, along the Columbia, as noted by Lewis and Clark, many Chinookan bands with shared cultural traits and yet somewhat different languages. They were traders with local roots, 'broad-band" language capability, and generations of dealing with 'outsiders' including plains Indians, coastal Chinooks, fur traders of French or British origin, and now the local pioneers.. numbering many thousands streaming through their hallowed ground as the U.S. created land give-away incentives for entrepreneurs.

East of the Cascade Mountains and across the Bitterroots lived the Plateau Indians. They had a culture similar to the Plains tribes. In Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, western Montana, and adjacent Canada, mountains are covered with evergreen forests and separated by grassy valleys. As in the Great Basin, the hunting-gathering Shoshone pattern of life persisted on the Plateau, but it was enriched by annual runs of salmon up the Columbia, Snake, Fraser, and tributary rivers, as well as by harvests of camas (western United States plants with edible bulbs) and other nutritious tubers and roots in the meadows. People lived in villages made up of sunken round houses in winter and camped in mat houses in summer. They dried quantities of salmon and camas for winter eating, and on the lower Columbia River, at the site of the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon, the Wishram and Wasco peoples kept a market town where travelers from the Pacific Coast and the Plains could meet, trade, and buy dried food.

Plateau peoples include the Nez Percé, Walla Walla, Yakama, and Umatilla in the Sahaptian language family, the Flathead, Spokane, and Okanagon in the Salishan language family, and the Cayuse and Kootenai, or Kootenay in Canada (with no linguistic relatives). There may also have been plains-oriented Indians of a more local tradition as well since it's noted that Tenino bands were at times in conflict with the Wascos.

In the Columbia River Gorge, between the Cascades and the Dalles, the two cultures came together to trade, gamble, gossip and feast. The gorge was a crossroads between the plains and the coast. It was a high traffic area with much seasonal migration, and also local bands. Local bands spoke separate dialects, but also a multicultural language. Here is where the coastal Chinook salmon people met and shared resources with the hunting and gathering plains Indians; hunters and gatherers through vast areas of land in what's now Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana. This was a gathering place and major trading center with semi-shared beliefs, reverence for the river and the abundant salmon.

There were bands of Indians in the gorge itself who were more permanent residents in this crossroad of interaction. Their language was related to Chinookan stock stretching from the mouth of the Columbia River to around the region of Cecilo Falls near the Dalles, Oregon. The multicultural circumstance of these "intermediaries" have led many ethnologists to decribe them as "Upper Chinook". These were the only Chinook east of entry to the Cascades. The Wasco on the Oregon side of the Columbia and the closely related Wishram on the Washington side were the easternmost of the Upper Chinook. They lived east to Celilo Falls and the Five Mile Rapids area. More anthropological study has been done on the Wishram than the Wasco. Below the Wasco, from Hood River to The Cascades, was the Watlala or Hood River of which little is written.

The Wasco-Wishram (Wascos were primarily on the Oregon side, while the Wishrams lived along Washington river shores) were intermediate between the Plateau and Northwest Coast cultural areas. They maintained trading partnerships with both Northwest Coast groups and those of the Plateau. From the Klamath they obtained slaves that were raided from northern California, from the east they received skins and Plains traits, from the west seafood and shells, and they traded with peoples from the north. As middlemen in a vast trade network they were extremely important. Salmon was the staple item of trade and their main food source. Perhaps the most excellent spot on the Columbia River for these fish was at Celilo Falls in the midst of the Wasco-Wishram.

The Wasco-Wishram kept slaves, who were the lowest "caste" in a three or four caste system. One big notch above the slaves were the commoners, and above them were the rich and/or chiefly classes. This class system and the common practice of keeping slaves were typical of the Northwest Coast.

Chieftainship was hereditary, being passed from father to son if the son was worthy. The same system held for subchiefs as well as for heads of wealthy families. Duties of the chief were advisory and judicial. They often served as intermediaries in village disputes, as there appears to have been no council.

In Eastern Oregon, as for the whole Northwest, there was really no such thing as a tribe in the terms of political networks that stretched beyond the individual villages. Except under extreme conditions a chief was only a leader of a local group, and the culture, or aggregate of villages speaking the same dialect, was held together by cultural and social bonds rather than political bonds. The above was true of the Wasco-Wishram who lived in villages each with its own leaders. The winter village was near the river and permanent or semi-permanent in nature, with the houses constructed of cedar planks. In the summer they moved from camp to camp fishing, hunting, berrying, and digging roots. Its said that this temporary abandonment of winter villages has led many anthropologists astray, since to the early explorers it appeared that the Indians of the Columbia River had fled from the area.

1855 was the year of local disturbances in Skamania. Much else was happening outside of the gorge area during the period. The introduction of European diseases, including small pox, syphilis, pneumonia and dysentery, killed ninety two percent of the total population. Periodic wars and attacks decreased their numbers even more. The movement of Native Americans to reservations was another harsh blow to their culture. In 1855, Washington governor Isaac Stevens secured the Native American surrender of sixty four million acres of Pacific Northwest land for 1.2 million dollars. The reservation land allotted to them was not much of a substitution. Only one percent of the reservations created by the government bordered directly on the Columbia. The chief of the Yakimas had been killed by pioneers.

In our family histories, Margaret talks about her learning the language, and her husband Felix's facility at it. There are great tales of personal confrontations which work out for the best, evidence of employment, and evidence from Iman off-spring of living easily with their childhood friends (post-crisis). Margaret talks about having lost the language through disuse, since it, like the natives just seemed to disappear.

Other references suggest that most or all Indians of the region were moved to the Warm Springs Reservation in 1855. To this day, there are speakers of the Wishram-Wasco Upper Chook language who are affiliated with the Warm Spring Tribal Council of Oregon. Wishrams and "Upper Chinooks" are also among the native Americans living on the Quinault reservation.

Links for more learning:

[1] Attwell, Jim, Columbia River Gorge History, Volume 1, Tahlkie Books, 1743, and Columbia River Gorge History Volume Two, 1975.