The Yakama Indians
I have always felt close to the Yakama Indians. My grandma even said she thought I could have been part of their tribe when the doctor placed me into my mother’s arms the day I was born. I was born in Yakima, Washington on November 29, 1983. Before I turned two, my parents decided to move back to California. When I was four or five, we traveled back up to Yakima to visit friends, but the only thing I remember from the trip is me and my younger sister throwing crayons out the window of my dad’s truck. Because I was born in Yakima, I have always wanted to learn about the people who gave the city its name. I have come to learn that the Yakama were a peaceful people, thriving off of the riches of the great Columbia River. Like most of the native people in North America, life as the Yakamas knew it changed overnight once they encountered the white man. And like most of the native people in North America, they too were forced to live on a reservation and give up generations-old traditions. Sadly, not much has been written about the Yakama Indians and we know little about them. This paper will focus on where the Yakama tribe is from, their encounters with the white man, and what has become of them.
The Yakama Indians are considered Plateau Indians. The term Plateau Indians is taken from the name of the Columbia Plateau. “The Columbia Plateau is a region of highlands through which the Columbia River flows. Some 1,200 miles long, situated in both the Unites States and Canada, the Columbia River is one of the largest rivers in North America” (Waldman, 196). What scholars define as the Plateau Culture Area is situated between the Cascades to the west and the Rockies to the east, the Fraser River to the north and the Great Basin to the south (Waldman, 196).
The Columbia Plateau gets little rainfall, since the Cascades block the rain clouds blowing in from the ocean. The land consists mainly of flatlands and rolling hills. Grasses and sagebrush are the dominant vegetation in this part of the culture area (Waldman, 197). “The sparse ground vegetation of both mountain and plateau meant little game for the native peoples living there. Some elk, deer, and bear could be found at the edge of the forest” (Waldman, 197). Some antelope and jackrabbits could be found on the dry plains of the plateau. The abundant streams and rivers offered up plentiful food, including many different types of fish such as salmon, who swam upriver from the ocean to lay their eggs. The river valleys also provided plentiful berries, including blackberries and huckleberries. On the grasslands of the plateau, the Indians found other wild plant foods – roots and bulbs, bitterroot, wild carrots, and onions (Waldman, 197). “Through fishing, hunting, and gathering, Plateau Indians could subsist without farming” (Waldman, 197).
During the cold winter months, most Plateau Indians lived along rivers in villages of semi-underground earth-covered pit houses, which provided natural insulation. In warm weather, most peoples of the plateau lived in temporary lodges with basswood frames and bulrush –mat coverings, either along the rivers at salmon-spawning time or on the open plains at camas-digging time, which was a kind of lily. Plateau Indians also used the rivers as a source of contact to trade with the different tribes of the Plateau (Waldman, 197). The permanent villages of the Yakama were usually found in clusters along river valleys. Valley walls protected the villager’s from winter’s bitterly cold winds, and the largest rivers gave them water all year long (BoulÃ©, 31).
The varying dialects of the Plateau tribes are part of two main language families: Sahaptian and Salishan. Sahaptian comes from the Penutian language phylum, whereas Salishan comes from an undetermined phylum affiliation. Sahaptian or Salishan speaking tribes include the Nez Perce, Palouse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Coeur D’Alene, Flathead, Kalispel, and Spokan, as well as the Yakama (Waldman, 197).
The Yakamas occupied ancestral territory along the river named after them, the Yakima, a tributary of the Columbia River, in what now is southern Washington State. “The Yakima River begins in the Cascade Mountains and is joined by other streams, such as the Tieton, the Cowiche, the Toppenish, and the Satus, as it flows southeast to join the Columbia near Richland, Washington” (Ruby, 272). Besides the Upper Yakamas on the north, the Lower Yakamas, or Yakamas proper, occupied the lower Yakama watershed, from the ancient Selah Village (just north of present-day Yakima) south to present-day Prosser. The Upper Yakamas, also called the Kittitas, occupied the upper Yakima Valley (Ruby, 272). “Clues found by anthropologists show that the ancient Yakama tribal nation numbered some 7,000 people, who lived in 60 to 70 permanent villages. An average village population ranged from 50 to 200 people, although some villages were much larger” (BoulÃ©, 31). The largest Yakama village was thought to have had a population of close to 2,000 people and was found near today’s town of Union Gap, near the present-day city of Yakima (BoulÃ©, 32).
The Yakama were a Sahaptian Penutian-speaking people, and are classified as part of the Plateau Culture Area (Waldman, 266-7). Their name, pronounced YAK-uh-muh and usually spelled Yakima until officially changed by the tribe in 1994, has many different meanings (Waldman, 267). “According to John R. Swanton, the name Yakama means ‘runaway’. Yakama could possibly also mean “a growing family” in the Salishan language of neighboring tribes, or “the pregnant ones” in their own Sahaptian dialect. Another native name of the Yakama, or lower Yakama, is Waptailmin, which means “narrow river people” and refers to a narrows in the Yakima River where their main village is located, just south of present-day Yakima, Washington (Waldman, 267). Other meanings ascribed to the tribal name include “black bear”, “big belly”, or “the pregnant ones” (Ruby 272). “Some elderly Yakamas believe the last meaning derived from the spectacle of refugee women during the Yakima War of 1855-56” (Ruby, 272). It must be noted that the Yakama did not name themselves. “As with most Native American tribes, they simply called themselves ‘the people’. Neighboring villagers who spoke the Salish language used words to name the Yakamas that sounded like Yahahkimas or Eyakimas” (BoulÃ©, 30).
Like other Plateau Indians, the Yakama subsisted on salmon during their annual spawning runs (Waldman, 267). Fishing was perhaps their most important means of sustenance, followed by gathering roots and berries, and lastly, hunting (Ruby, 272). “The Yakamas say that when the salmon are gone, they will be gone” (Dietrich, 25). “Some historians claim that the Yakamas obtained horses from peoples of the Great Basin through Cayuse Indian intermediaries sometime around 1730. In any event, with horses they were able to hunt buffalo on the plains, though they did not pursue them to the same extent that the interior Salish peoples did, or as much as the Nez PercÃ©s, who were also Sahaptian speakers. The Yakamas did not hunt buffalo at the expense of their traditional food gathering” (Ruby, 273-74).
When elderly Yakamas are asked about their origins, “they replied that red men were the first on earth, and that they were followed by water and finally, by wood. Among the Yakama traditions are stories of the Flood and of prophets dying for three days and returning to earth and predictions of the coming of the black-robed Roman Catholic priests” (Ruby, 272). All of those indicate an early familiarity with Christianity, such as could have come through direct or indirect ties with the American Southwest, where Spanish priests had established missions. Christianity may also have come to the Yakamas from Salish speakers who had contacts with Catholic Iroquois Indians or French-Canadian Catholics in the early nineteenth-century (Ruby, 272). In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition met up with the Yakama near the junction of the Columbia and the Yakima Rivers. Clark was believed to have said that “The people appear to live in a State of comparative happiness,” after meeting with the Yakamas (Dietrich, 135). In the following years, both American and British traders did business with the tribe, trading manufactured goods for furs (Waldman, 267).
In the late 1830’s and 1840’s the Yakamas came under the ministrations of Catholic priests (Ruby, 272). Not much is written about missionaries and their attempts to convert the Yakamas to Christianity. Father Charles Pandosy (1824-1891), however, is one of the few priests to be mentioned with the Yakama. He was an Oblate Missionary of Mary Immaculate and one of the first two priests to be ordained in the future state of Washington. Father Pandosy established a home in present-day Ellensburg, Washington. There he built a small, crude structure to house a mission he called Immaculate Conception on Manastash Creek in 1848. He served at this mission until September 1849, attempting with limited success to convert the Yakamas, as well as the Kittitas, to Christianity (Historylink.org).
As white settlement of the interior progressed, the Yakamas were among Indians in 1855 that “treated with Washington Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs Isaac Stevens at the Walla Walla council” (Ruby, 274). “Stevens was pleased by the ease with which treaties had been made with the tribes west of the Cascades and so confidently turned his attention to the inland Indians” (Avery, 167). A council was called for May, 1855, near present-day Walla Walla to which the Yakamas, Walla Wallas, Cayuse, and Nez Perces were invited (Avery, 167). Around five thousand Indians came and he encouraged the Yakama, as well as the other Plateau Indians in attendance, to give up most of their land for reservations, homes, schools, horses, cattle, and regular payments (Waldman, 267). Stevens also promised the various tribes a period of two to three years to relocate (Waldman, 267). “The Yakima headman who signed the Yakima Treaty on June 9, 1855, represented various lower-middle Columbia River bands. Despite opposition to the treaty, fourteen tribes under the Yakima standard ceded to the United States about ten million acres of present-day central Washington for their main reservation, which was less than 1,250,000 acres” in exchange for the promises made by Stevens (Ruby, 274).
The conference did not go as smoothly as Stevens had expected it to. Some of the leading chiefs, such as Kamiakin of the Yakamas and Peu-peu-mox-mox of the Walla Wallas, refused to sign the treaties at first and signed later only with great reluctance (Avery, 167). Most tribal representatives ended up signing the treaties, but still remained skeptical of the promises because of earlier broken promises from the whites (Waldman, 267). It was natural that the Yakamas, as well as the other Plateau Indians would object more than the Coast Indians to giving up their freedom and going on reservations. “For one thing, the Coast tribes required less room for fishing than the inland Indians did for hunting, and, if fishing rights were protected, the Coast Indians would not be greatly restricted by reservation life. The Plateau Indians, on the other hand, were used to traveling long distances on horseback to hunt, and in fact, since they did no farming, it was often necessary to cover large areas to secure sufficient food for the winter” (Avery, 168). Also, the Coast Indians had been in contact with white traders much longer than the Plateau tribes, and they were not only more accustomed to white ways, but had been weakened by the introduction of new diseases and vices (Avery, 168).
When the Walla Walla Council met, Governor Stevens may have been too optimistic about the docility of the inland tribes to take as much time with them as they wanted. “With Steven’s remarkable energy went impatience at any delay. The Indians, on the other hand, did not value time and liked to deliberate at length and with much ceremony over any important question” (Avery, 168). Stevens acknowledged that the Plateau Indian representatives put on all of their finery for parleys, whereas he was too busy to change from his work clothes, and that the Indians protested about his lack of formality (Avery, 168). “At any rate, the Indians at the Walla Walla Council asked to have a second conference before they signed a treaty, and Stevens refused to give them more time” (Avery, 168).
“Historians who approve heartily of Steven’s actions state that he took pains to see that the treaties were explained fully to the tribes through interpreters and to make certain that they understood them. Such students believe that the Indians asked for another council only as a ruse to put off signing treaties which they did not like. Some of the Indians, many years later, told white friends, such as A.J. Splawn, that they lost faith in Stevens and believed that he was trying to trick them when he insisted that they sign the treaties immediately” (Avery, 168).
Those with suspicions were proven right. Governor Stevens had promised to give the Plateau Indians two to three years to move onto the reservations before he opened up their land to white settlement. As soon as gold was discovered at Fort Colville, a trek of prospectors began across the Yakama country to get to the gold. Stevens did nothing to stop the whites from moving through Yakama country and the Yakamas were outraged that he went against his promise (Ruby, 169). “Kamiakin, a Yakama chief, called for an alliance of tribes to resist intruders but not before they were ready to face the military” (Waldman, 267). His nephew, Qualchin, forced events, however, when he and five other young Yakama attacked and killed five prospectors (Waldman, 267). “A.J. Bolon, one of Steven’s Indian agents whom the Indians liked because of his sincere interest in their problems, heard of the murders and went to investigate. He, too, was killed by some young Indians” (Avery, 169). The Yakama War had begun.
When C.H. Mason, who was acting as Governor while Stevens was on his treaty-making expedition, heard of the murders, he asked Major Gabriel Rains, the commander of the federal troops at Vancouver, to send some of his men into Yakama Country. Rains sent Major Granville Haller with eighty-four men from Fort Dalles and Lieutenant W.A. Slaughter with fifty men through the Naches Pass to investigate (Avery, 169). Kamiakin and five hundred of his warriors met Haller in Yakama Country, and both sides claimed that the other fired first in the first engagement of what developed into the Yakama War (Waldman, 267). “After a series of skirmishes, Haller found himself on the third day of battle on a hill with no water and surrounded by Indians” (Avery, 170). The Yakama’s manner of fighting was to withdraw from battle at sunset and return the following morning to renew the fight. The white soldiers took advantage of this fighting method and were able to slip away during the night back to Fort Dalles (Avery, 170).
A few days later, one of Slaughter’s scouts met an Indian who told him of Haller’s defeat, and Slaughter was thus able to hurry back through Naches Pass to the Sound ahead of the pursuing Indians. “Rains then took troops into the Yakama Country in October, but he, too, was unable to adapt his strategy to Indian warfare and had to retreat again to the Dalles” (Avery, 170-71). Volunteers under Colonel James Kelly tricked a chief of the Walla Walla, Peu-peu-mox-mox, into coming into a parley, where they killed him. “This rash act caused Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla warriors to join the Yakama cause and to attack white settlements” (Waldman, 267).
A deadly pattern of raid and retaliation followed. The army built new forts. “A few indecisive battles were fought, such as the engagement at Grand Ronde Valley in July 1856. But when troops were sent out to fight, the hostile warriors usually hid among tribes to the east” (Waldman, 267). In some instances, the army had to protect innocent Indians from revenge-seeking whites, but there is no evidence that fully supports that claim. Raids against white settlements occurred all throughout the territories of Washington and Oregon. Although the Yakama War lasted until 1856, the Yakamas and their allies were defeated in a key fight early in November, 1855, at Union Gap. “During the war Yakama unity was disrupted by friction between Kamiakin’s Lower Yakama faction and that of the Upper Yakamas, who regarded this son of a Palouse father as an outsider. After the treaty was ratified on March 8, 1859, the fourteen confederated tribes formed what the Yakamas called the Yakama Nation” (Ruby, 274).
After their defeat, most Yakama settled on the Yakama Reservation. “Other Sahaptian peoples-Klickitat, Palouse, and Wanapam, plus the Chinookian-speaking Whishram-also were settled there” (Waldman, 268). While on the reservation, the Yakama continued to fish area rivers, just as their ancestors once had, but the construction of dams on the Columbia River altered the Yakama way of life and led to legal activism by the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Indian Nation concerning fishing rights. The Yakama-Klickitat Fish Production Project, which began in the 1990’s, is an attempt to rebuild endangered fish runs (Waldman, 268).
The Yakamas made sure to maintain their traditional beliefs while living on the reservation. Many of their beliefs involve rituals and festivals surrounding salmon, roots, and berries. Others are religious revitalization movements that were developed in post-contact times (Waldman, 268). Some Yakama participate in the Waashat Religion (also called the Washani Religion, Longhouse Religion, Seven Drum Religion, Sunday Dance Religion, or Prophet Dance) (Waldman, 268). “The origin of this religious movement is uncertain, but it probably is associated with the arrival of whites or an epidemic in the early 19th century and the teachings of a prophet or ‘dreamer-prophet’ who had experienced an apocalyptic vision. One of the rituals is the Waashat (or Washat) Dance with seven drummers, a feast of salmon, the ritual use of eagle and swan feathers, and a sacred song to be sung every seventh day” (Waldman, 268). It is not known at what point Christianity came to influence its aboriginal form.
Today’s Yakama people are well organized and now go by the name of Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation (BoulÃ©, 56). Their reservation has its own laws, court, and a police force to keep order, in their own manner, on the reservation. Tribal members continue to follow many of the traditional beliefs and still celebrate some of the old religious ceremonies. “They still eat many of the traditional foods; they fish, hunt, and gather huckleberries and special roots throughout the seasons of the year, as their ancestors did before them” (BoulÃ©, 56).
The Yakama nation’s present-day leadership is headed by a tribal council, which elects new members every four years. Council members are active in tribal business and in 1972 were able to recover ownership of Mt. Adams from the United States government. Yakama people consider this mountain a part of their tribe’s past, present, and future. They feel Mt. Adams is a symbol of their tribe’s strength. Council members handle all the natural resources of their reservation but they must present their wishes to the federal government over and over again, in order to be sure of having even as important a resource as water from nearby rivers to serve those living on the reservation (BoulÃ©, 56).
The Yakama believe in giving their children an excellent education. Many tribal youngsters attend nearby public schools; however, the tribal council has worked with the state of Washington to provide a few public grade schools on the reservation itself (BoulÃ©, 56). Students at the reservation schools have Yakama history woven into American history classes. There are elective classes in Yakama arts, singing, and drumming. Student fieldtrips include root digging and huckleberry picking. Teaching of the Yakama language is an important part of reservation schools. The Yakama language is also taught at tribal summer schools to those who do not study it in their regular schools. Older tribal members still tell ancient tribal legends to those children attending summer school. “Summer evenings find young people sitting around campfires, listening to ancient legends from their elders” (BoulÃ©, 57). Young tribal adults now have their own college to attend when they graduate from high school. “By 1995, Heritage College had awarded 600 college degrees, currently has 1,200 students, and one of its own graduates serves as the college’s attorney” (BoulÃ©, 57).
Today’s Yakama nation has a magnificent Cultural Heritage Center, a compound of several buildings whish opened in 1980 in the town of Toppenish, Washington. Included in the center is a library, a gift shop, and a restaurant featuring many native foods (BoulÃ©, 57). Tourists may visit a large well-done museum where replicas of mat-covered lodges of the old days are shown, as are many of the ancient tools and utensils that were important to long-ago tribal life (BoulÃ©, 57). In the center of the compound’s buildings, the 75-foot-tall roof of the nation’s large winter lodge stands out against the sky. This community hall is used for special tribal meetings, feasts, and conventions. “Part of the reservation is private and only seen by tribal members. The council sees that no trespassers are found on this private land” (BoulÃ©, 57).
Unlike many other Native American groups in the United States today, Yakama tribes people still live on the reservation assigned to them around 150 years ago by the United States government (BoulÃ©, 57). Even more important to them, the reservation is located on a piece of their ancient territory. Although their land today is only a small part of the original territory, at least tribal members are able to say there have been Yakama people living on some part of their land for at least the past 12,000 years. I hope the Yakama continue to live and prosper on that land for at least another 12,000 years.
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