Until the early
1900s, the culture of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indians
was based on a yearly cycle of travel from hunting camps to fishing
spots to celebration and trading camps and so on.
The three tribes spent most of their time in the area which
is now northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. They had
lived in the Columbia River Region for more than 10,000 years. There
were no buffalo in this area. The most plentiful foods were salmon,
roots, berries, deer and elk. Each of these foods could be found
in different places and each was available in different seasons.
This meant that the Indian people had to move from place to place
from season to season to their food and prepare it to be eaten and
to be saved for the winter. They followed the same course from year
to year in a large circle from the lowlands along the Columbia River
to the highlands in the Blue Mountains.
In the spring the tribes gathered along the Columbia River at
places like Celilo Falls to fish for salmon and trade goods with
other tribes. They dried the salmon and stored it for later use.
In late spring and early summer they traveled from the Columbia
to the foot hills of the Blue Mountains to dig for roots which they
also dried. In late summer they traveled to the upper mountains
to pick berries and to hunt for deer and elk. In the fall the tribe
would return to the lower valleys and along the Columbia River again
to catch the fall salmon run. All would stay in winter camps in
the low regions until spring when the whole cycle would start all
The earth provided all the food the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla
Walla peoples needed:
"I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder
if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground
would come alive and what is on it? Though I hear what the ground
says. The ground says, it is the great spirit that placed me here.
The great spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed
them alright. The great spirit appointed the roots to feed the
Indians on. The water says the same thing. The great spirit directs
me, feed the Indians well. The ground, water and grass say, the
great spirit has given us our names. We have these names and hold
these names. The ground says, the great spirit has placed me here
to produce all that grows on me, trees and fruit. The same way
the ground says, it was from me man was made. The great spirit,
in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of
the ground and to do each other no harm...
1855 Treaty Council
The salmon was the first food to appear in early spring. Family
bands gathered along the Columbia River at their favorite or traditional
fishing sites to catch and dry enough salmon to use for the year
ahead. During the salmon runs, the fish traveled up every creek
and river that emptied into the Columbia. There were so many that
it was said that you could walk across a creek on the backs of salmon.
The men hooked, netted, trapped and speared huge quantities
of fish. A very common net was the long handled dipnet which is
still used today. Platforms made of wood were suspended from rocks
or bluffs. Fishermen stood on these platforms and used their dipnets.
The women cleaned the salmon and hung them on long racks to dry
in the sun.
When enough salmon was dried and stored away in caches, the
bands would prepare to move to the foothills of the Blue Mountains
to dig roots.
The couse root (Kowsh, also known as biscuitroot) with its bright
flowers turned the late spring and early summer hillsides of Eastern
Oregon yellow. Women dug the roots with diggers made of hardwood
or antlers. The roots were mashed together and shaped into small
biscuits and dried in the sun. The biscuits were stored away for
In the late summer, the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people
would move to the upper mountains to pick huckleberries and hunt
for game. The berries and meat were also dried. Chokecherries were
pounded with dried meat or salmon to make pemmican. Black moss gathered
from pine and fir trees was baked to make a cheese-like food. Camas
bulbs were dried or baked.
Every food the Indian people needed was provided by the earth.
Ceremonies were held in the spring to honor the new foods. One of
those, the Root Feast, is still celebrated today on the Umatilla
Reservation. Although salmon is not as plentiful as it was before
the dams were built on the Columbia, many of the Indian people of
the Umatilla Indian Reservation still eat traditional foods like
roots, berries, deer, elk and salmon as part of their every day