Iman family notes


















People of the Columbia Plains:

from The Great Columbia Plain - a Historical Geography 1805-1920 , D. W. Meinig Seattle, © 1968

When Lewis and Clark headed out across America from the East, they expected one mountain range, and an easy passage to a western sea. They found instead, a couple of massive mountain ranges to pass.. the Rockies and the Cascades. They'd hoped for easy down-river sailing, and it wasn't the truth. There is a 'second' set of 'plains' in the geography of North America.. it was a large area incorporating Eastern Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana where there was no easy access, aside from going South to the Columbia River Gorge. This huge basin comprised the Columbia Plain, and was inhabited by a number of Shoshone-related tribes; mostly hunters and gatherers experiencing cultural infusions related to horses and guns which would change their core values and performance. The Columbia plains people did not settle; they moved seasonally through wide areas at various seasons. They did not 'inhabit' particular lots. Their use of the land must have been hard for settlers to understand. They came and went, are rarely registered with a bureaucrat.

So.. who were these people of the plains who often visited the gorge in seasonal patterns not noted in family histories? How were they faring? What was happening to them when all hell broke loose in Skamania?

Some background first… looking to the North from Stevenson.. to an understanding of plains Indians of the area.. the Yakimas, Spokanes, and the rest. Lewis and Clark loved them most and found themselves saved in more than a couple of circumstances. (By comparison, they didn't like the gorge Indians who were full of trading and haggling instincts, and quite sneaky thiefs.)

Looking to the plains: this was not a bountiful land. The Columbia Plain had no good animal staple, few usable plants, and little material for fire and shelter. But it did have one plentiful resource, and the salmon bound all the Indian groups of the Plain to the river system; it was either an anchor or a magnet: holding some permanently along the banks, drawing others seasonally to replenish their supplies.

Salmon was the staple, but there were other important materials, few of which could be obtained from the Plain region itself: deer, elk, and bear; berries, bulbs, and nuts; pine and cedar timbers; flints, agates, and obsidians. Thus the Indian settlement pattern was predominantly peripheral. Even those groups most oriented to the streams were concentrated along the regional borders near the forested mountains: at The Dalles and lower Deschutes, and along the Columbia above the Wenatchee. Those whose river ties were more seasonal also lived around the fringes, wintering in the low country and canyons, congregating at favorable fishing sites for short periods, but spending much of the year hunting and gathering in and along the forested highlands.

Thus a large portion of the Great Columbia Plain remained virtually empty. Along the lower Snake and middle Columbia a few villages were at scattered wide intervals, but the arid countryside was hardly used at all, and the higher grassy plains to the north and east were entered only to hunt for rabbits and grouse and gather the eggs of waterfowl.

Viewed more broadly, the Columbia Plain throughout most of its prehistory stands out as a rather empty zone. Inhabitants moved through large ranges in order to secure the essentials of life. That region encompassed the whole of the interior country between the Cascades and the Continental Divide, and from the Blue-Salmon River mountain country far into the upper Fraser drainage in the north. Although more than two dozen distinct groups lived within that area, all shared certain cultural fundamentals. All were riverine fishing economies, supplemented by hunting and gathering; all used similar materials, tools, and techniques; in dress and decoration, social customs and organization, religion and ritual, political order and attitudes, there was sufficient identity to indicate a common heritage. Furthermore, within this region neighboring groups had lived in peace over a long period of time.

Cultural interactions
These features suggest a high degree of isolation and stability. In general that was true, but neither characteristic was absolute. The borderlands limited and channeled contact with outside groups. West of the Cascades lived the vigorous, aggressive, northwest coastal peoples whose highly developed social systems differed from the interior. But the physical barriers confined sustained contact to two narrow river corridors: the Fraser and the lower Columbia. By historic time coastal influences had penetrated up the Fraser, but on the Columbia, The Dalles had long persisted as a point of cleavage. Here the Wishram and Wasco of coastal culture (Lower Chinook) dwelt almost side by side with the Tenino of the interior.(2) They occupied carefully delimited sites at this richest fishing area, and they served as intermediaries in the flourishing trade between coastal and interior peoples. Relations with alien cultures along the Other border zones were more sporadic and of a different character. Intermittent warfare was carried on with the Shoshonean peoples to the south (3) and with several tribes east of the Rockies, especially the Blackfeet. Yet, just Drier to historic time, a major cultural change was introduced into the Great Columbia Plain from these contacts.

Even prior to that change, however, the internal patterns of this interior zone were not completely stable. Despite the basic similarities in culture, these peoples. were separated into two distinct language groups. Each group included several different spoken tongues. The linguistic boundary cut across the Columbia Plain, dividing the Salish languages on the north from the Sahaptin on the south and indicating that two distinct peoples entered the region at some remote time. Further evidences suggest that Sahaptin peoples had long been shifting to the north and west, infiltrating and absorbing Salish groups. However, this encroachment was peaceful and gradual, and the peoples were so similar that it produced no real disruption.(4)

The Horse
Far more significant was the acquisition of the horse. Through trades and raids Spanish horses were spread northward from one Indian culture to another. About the end of the seventeenth century, Shoshonean tribes in the upper Snake River plain acquired a few horses, and within two or three decades parties of Flatheads, Nez Perces, and Cayuses had obtained their first animals. Brought into the mountain valleys and the richly grassed plains, these animals thrived, multiplied, and soon became an integral part of Indian life.(5)

The impact of the horse upon these societies was immense. This new mobility improved hunting efficiency, enlarged the economic area, extended trading contacts, and intensified warfare with traditional enemies to the south and east. Expeditions to the buffalo range far to the southeast now became annual affairs, often marked by intermittent fighting with Plains culture tribes. Increased contacts with these alien peoples brought further changes. The Indians of the Columbia took over many of the Plains "horse culture" characteristics, especially the techniques and rituals associated with warfare. Wealth and prestige became bound up with horses and war. Access to the buffalo and increased range and efficiency of hunting enhanced economic security, and this in turn allowed larger groups to live together. Numerous autonomous fishing villages tended to amalgamate into organized bands, necessitating political and social change, and over-all populations probably began to increase.

At the opening of historic time these changes had been under way for little more than half a century. They were still in progress and unevenly spread over the region, and the peoples of the Great Columbia Plain mirrored the full gradation of differences which had appeared. Along the southeast, the Net Perces add Cayuse, who had obtained horses first and who occupied areas where a combination of low protected valleys and high, thickly grassed plains provided superb year-around grazing, were the most deeply altered. Each was a linguistic unit composed of several large bands; each band owned hundreds of horses, fishing was less important, buffalo expeditions were major annual events, and trading contacts within and beyond the Plain were extended.

Beyond this southeastern corner, the intensity of change decreased, the number of horses held were fewer, and the veneer of new, imported cultural characteristics became shallower. The Umatilla and Yakima on the west, and the Palus, Spokane, and Coeur d'Alene to the northeast were in the process of change, but their herds were smaller and the fishing and gathering economy was still important. The Tenino, Molala, and Klickitat in the southwest and Kittitas, Wenatchi, Okanogan, and Columbia owned few horses and were only slightly affected. A few villages in the arid center, and the San Poil and Nespelem along the northern branch, remained as riverine fishing communities almost untouched by the new influences.

Introduction of this valuable animal resulted in more mobile relationships which heightened trade, trespass, thievery, and petty quarrels. Yet peace prevailed and the geographic pattern of these groups remained stable. However, the higher grassy plains took on a new value, and tribal limits, formerly vague zones in the empty interior, now became more sharply defined.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century perhaps twenty-five to thirty thousand Indians lived in and around the Great Columbia Plain. The horse was opening a new way of life, transforming social relations within and without, extending the perimeters of contact, enlarging available resources, and promising a new period of social enrichment and progress.

But at this very time a different kind of influence was becoming vaguely known. Rumors began to spread over the interior of a new kind of people--of foreign tongue, curious customs, odd clothing and adornments -- vho came in huge boats to the ocean shore and even up the great river for some distance. At The Dalles the Chinook traders displayed a few objects -- beads, bracelets, knives--unlike anything known before. And then one early autumn, to the delighted interest of the local Indians, a party of these strange men appeared at the opposite corner of the region.


(1) The broader patterns of Indian culture areas are well displayed in Robert F. Spencer, Jesse D. Jennings et al., The Native Americans (New York, Evanston, and London, 1965); for the interior I have relied upon Verne F. Ray, "Cultural Relations in the Plateau of Northwestern America," Publications of the Frederick Webb Hodge Anniversary Publication Fund, S (Los Angeles, 19S~9), which describes culture areas, traits, and intertribal relationships. Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1965), chap. i., is a masterly synthesis and presentation of historical and ethnological materials on one of the most important tribes.

(2) Leslie Spier and Edward Sapir, "Wishram Ethnography," University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 8, No. S (1950), 151-300.

(3) Verne F. Ray et al., "Tribal Distribution in Eastern Oregon and Adjacent Regions," American Anthropologist, n.s., 40 (July-September, 1958), 384-415.

(4) Melville Jacobs, "Historic Perspectives in Indian Languages of Oregon and Washington," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 28 (January, 1957), 55-74.

(5) Francis D. Haines, "The Northward Spread of Horses Among the Plains Indians," American Anthropologist, 40 (July, 1938), 429-37; and Josephy, The Nez Perce Indians, pp. 27-29.