For thousands of years, people lived in the Columbia River Gorge, which cuts through the Cascade Range. The River People are the Northwest Klickitat and the Eastern-speaking Chinookan Kiksht. They are the Wascos, the Cascades, the Wíshxams, the Clackamas, the Multnomahs, the Hood Rivers, the Skamanias, the Skilootts, and others who lived in villages on both sides of the Columbia River. Linguists call the people of this area the Eastern Kiksht speakers. Further east were the western Walla Wallas: the Teninos, Wyampams, Tukspushes, and the Tyighs, and Ski’ins. Two hundred and fifty years ago, the River People were the most powerful nation in the region.
The Three Tribes
The Warm Springs Reservation is home to the Warm Springs, Wasco, and Northern Paiute Tribes. Prior to 1855, the three tribes lived in different places. Traditionally, the Warm Springs people, comprised of Teninos, Wyams, Tukspushes, and Tyighs, have spoken a Sahaptin dialect known as Ichishkiin, and formerly lived primarily along two tributaries of the Columbia River, the Deschutes and John Day Rivers. They depended upon game, roots, berries, and to a lesser degree, salmon.
The Wasco people, the easternmost band of Chinook speakers, lived on the Columbia River around Hood River and the Dalles, primarily as fishers, traders, and farmers. Their language is known as Kiksht. They lived primarily in plank houses, and their culture resembled that of Northwest Coast people. Through marriage ties, the River and Coast peoples had many of the same customs and a similar social structure. The Wascos derived power from their position along a key stretch of the Columbia River, where they were the foremost traders of among the Upper Chinookan peoples.
The Northern Paiutes spoke a Shoshonean dialect, Numu, and lived in the Northern Great Basin of southeastern Oregon. Paiutes migrated further and more frequently than the other two tribes, hunting, gathering, and fishing, though fish was not an important part of their diet. The Northern Paiute’s pre-contact lifestyle was well adapted to the harsh desert environment in which they lived. Each tribe or band occupied a specific territory, generally centered on a lake or wetland that supplied fish and water-fowl. Individuals and families appear to have moved freely between bands. The name of each band came from a characteristic food source. Many of the Paiutes who reside on the modern-day Warm Springs Reservation are from the Wadatika Band, the “Wada Root and Grass-seed Eaters.”
While the Wasco and Warm Springs peoples had traditionally peaceful relations with one another, neither had peaceful relations with the Paiutes.
During the 19th century, waves of settlers began to travel through and settle in the territory of the tribes, bringing disease and an unquenchable thirst for land and resources. Diseases brought by European American settlers struck with such intensity that by some estimates, 80% to 90% of the Native People in the ancestral area of the Wasco and Warm Springs people died. Small pox first arrived in the late 1770s or early 1780s. A malaria-like disease in the 1830s and 1840s claimed almost 90% of the people on the Columbia River. In 1844 came scarlet fever, whooping cough, dysentery, and typhoid, and in 1847-1848, the measles.
In 1855, Joel Palmer, superintendent for the Oregon Territory, was ordered to clear Indians from their lands. In that year, under pressure from Palmer, the Wasco and Warm Springs Indians ceded approximately 10 million acres to the US government in exchange for 464,000 acres (about 1/20 of their original land base), and for the rights to self-govern, fish, and, and gather foods in the ceded lands. The Treaty of 1855, signed on June 25 of that year and ratified on March 8, 1859, set the stage for the arrival of an increasing number of settlers into the ancestral territory of the tribes.
Although the Wasco and Warm Springs Tribes signed the Treaty of 1855 in peace, the Northern Paiute Tribe did not. In 1859, the Wascos and Warm Springs people on the new reservation were subjected to Northern Paiute raids, which continued until 1866 when the US Army began a campaign to subdue the Paiutes. The Paiutes rose up against the US Army in the Bannock War of 1878, and were defeated. After their defeat, they were first moved to the Yakama Reservation, and then, between 1879 and 1884, to the Warm Springs Reservation. The first 38 Paiutes brought to Warm Springs came from the Vancouver Barracks in Washington Territory, where they had been imprisoned as early as 1866 after being captured in the US Army campaign of that year.
Traditional ways of life changed greatly after the tribes came to the reservation. People had to adjust to new land resources, and there was a boundary dispute (which was not resolved until 1972, when the Tribes increased their official holdings to 644,000 acres). The reservation could not provide enough salmon, and having poor land and a harsh climate, was also difficult to farm. Indian children were taken from their parents and put into boarding schools, forbidden to speak their own languages, and not allowed to leave school to help their parents participate in traditional activities. The curriculum they were taught promoted an assimilationist program aimed at replacing the children’s indigenous cultural practices, language, and religious traditions with those of American society. In this way, much of the language and culture was lost, as was much of the people’s sense of identity and purpose. People were able to hunt and fish in ancestral lands, and a large number of tribal members tried to subsist by fishing along the Columbia River. However, fishing became more tenuous each year, and the number of tribal members who made a living from fishing steadily declined.