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Early History Settlement Construction Era Aftermath Appendices

A Native Understanding

The Native Americans inhabiting the region surrounding the Grand Coulee Dam were not organized into well-divided tribes as we are often taught to imagine. For centuries before the European explorers arrived, hundreds of villages dotted the banks of the Columbia River. Much more than political alliances, families of related males formed the villages. The languages spoken in the area were many, but derivatives of probably Salish, Sahaptin, Chinook, Yakama, and Kootney. The diets of the Native Americans changed with the seasons. Without sufficient water for farming, the people relied on roots and berries for most of the year. Buffalo were not especially plentiful through the Pacific Northwest, and before horses any hunting was very difficult. Instead, the main source of meat was fish of the Columbia River. The salmon runs defined the movements of these nations. Each breed of fish arrived at a different time of year and caloric value decreased upriver. As any other non-industrial society, the people formed a mythology used to describe and to understand the history of the local topography. To these fishing nations, the Columbia River was at the core of the understanding.


Compiled and published in 1953, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella Clark provided the erudite reader some outline of the indigenous belief systems. Unfortunately, because this information was compiled and rewritten by Clark for a more general understanding rather than specialists, and because much of the informational sources are fluid and pliable oral narratives, thus bent by the past influxes of Christian missionaries; one can not necessarily say these stories are exactly what was believed before the intrusion of Europeans. It is also a compilation of many so-called tribes' stories, which can make a too-quick homogeneity of a multiplicity of unique ideas and stories. A blind reading would certainly belie the reader, but these sketchy outlines aid understanding another mindset in some way. Moreover these interpretations complications explicate the definitiveness of a malleable oral history.


Some major ideas can be extracted from the texts and lend themselves to interpreting mindset. First, the animal people arrange themselves as a group of gods. A Puget Sound Indian describes, "This time, long time ago, animal just same way like man. He talk, everybody understand. Fur and skin he put on and take off just like coat. Same way everybody - animals, birds, and fish" (Clark, 81). Larger than humans, these animal people included Mosquito, Spider, Ant, Beaver, Fox, Coyote, and Eagle. Coyote is the chief character in Pacific Northwest mythology. Often a foolish and selfish trickster, Coyote's supernatural powers often caused more harm than good. But for the most part, Coyote is the life-giving source to the Indians having changed the "good ancients" into Indian ancestry. Coyote is also sometimes called Changer, because he is the one accredited with changing the world into what it is today. In the middle Columbia, Coyote is "known as Spilyay" (Hunn, 21). Okanogans and Colville Indians tell similar stories of a name-giving by the Spirit Chief. The Spirit Chief handed out all the names and Coyote, being the last to arrive, received the name with the least amount of power. Other times, Coyote saves all the animal people and names them himself, thus giving himself the most power. In any case, Coyote has the unique power to change into any form. Many times his power is located in his stomach, as in the example, "he asked his three sisters who lived in his stomach in the form of huckleberries" (Clark, 89). Other times his power is in his feces (White, 19). This power plays out in many stories. Eagle, Raven, and Mink often are accredited with deciding how rivers should flow. Some say that rivers flow one way to make it easier for the salmon to swim and spawn and so that fishing will be easy. However, in other stories, Coyote created the Columbia River by digging a hole in the mountains thus draining the lake that once covered the land. This was done to allow the salmon to swim up to the country from the ocean. Traditionally, Coyote feeds the people of his country by bringing or allowing the salmon to come to them. One story entitled "Why Coyote Changed the Course of the Columbia River" depicts Coyote's power over the people as he manipulates the flow of the river to his plan. Coyote's actions are driven by women who agree to marry him. Those who agree win the blessing of salmon runs for their community, as in the example of Kettle Falls where Beaver's daughter married him. Other women who refused were cursed by Hell Gate and Dry Falls and the river ceased to run there. Coyote teaches the people how to utilize the river. He breaks down the Beavers' dams, he teaches the people how to spear and cook salmon, he plants trees and makes huckleberry bushes accessible. Traditionally, women play roles of harboring the salmon; either the sisters keeping salmon from Coyote in the kitchen or the Beaver sisters building dams to hold them. In any case the mythological role of women passes down traditional roles in fishing rites for Native American women during seasonal salmon runs. One can also derive theories about women's sexual allowances with the European explorers from Coyote myths. Because marrying Coyote was thought to bring greater salmon runs and because many Native Americans thought the white men were gods of some sort, it is possible to see that ideas justified women to have intercourse with the white men to gain the "big medicine".

Columbia River near Hellgate

Like religion, art and language embody the mindset of a people or culture. What is known of the Native Americans on the Columbia is little, but makes the power of the river ostensible. The first peoples of the Columbia knew the Big River as Nch'i-Wina, or niawan in Sahaptin and netqua in Salishan (Layman, 53). The river was the home to people speaking Salishan, Sahaptian, and Chinookan languages and their dialects. In any language, the Columbia's name seems to translate into a meaning of Great or Big River. The ruling presence of the river is manifest in the numerous petroglyphs (carved images) and pictographs (painted images) marked on the river's rocks. One of the more famous is called Tsagiglalal, or She Who Watches. The images are icons of spiritual belief as well as imitations of life. To the European mindset these images are named art, while the Native Americans "regard the figures as part of a historical record, a written history that tells the story of [the] people" (Layman, 56). The images are latent with personal meaning and not part of a display as art often is in an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Located at Priest Rapids and Rock Island Rapids the images indicate a respect for place, a spiritual and personal geography surrounding the river. These images are thought to be left by ancestors of the Wenatchi, Columbia, Kittitas, Wanapum, and Yakama people (Layman, 74). The evidence of the images makes the site of the Columbia another nexus of cultural understanding, the past literally chiseled into the earth. Today many of the rocks containing petroglyphs and pictographs have been either moved or submerged. The rising water level, as a result of the mechanized damming of the river, submerged much of the spiritual rapids, falls, and rocks of the Native Americans. In something like forethought, many rocks were removed and are now stored in museums. A few hunks of rock smothered in images were stored (in a cage near Wells Dam) so that in a single glance the history of thousands of years can be seen.

As for the Grand Coulee, myth indicates that the chasm was a piece of spiritual history as well. Because many Native Americans believed the area was formally covered in a great lake, the empty river canyon serves as proof that Coyote changed the course of the Columbia. Moreover, the fur trader Alexander Ross in his journal notes of the Grand Coulee, "Thunder and lightning is known to be more frequent here than in other parts, and a rumbling in the earth is sometimes heard. According to Indian tradition, it is the abode of evil spirits" (Anglin, 102). In this way, the landscape is at once a personal biography, a history, and a spiritual geography.

Daughter of Ice Jeffersonian Imagination Native Understanding Lewis & Clark Journals Early Explorers Private Property

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