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Early History Settlement Construction Era Aftermath Appendices

Native Culture

While the Americans were purebred farmers to the degree that many easterners found hunting a despicable habit, the Native Americans had no such beliefs. It was to their benefit to profit from a source in which the planting and sowing had been done by nature. All they had to do was reap of the provisions of the river. Moreover, it was easier not to introduce agriculture into the arid lands of Washington. During the Walla Walla Councils of 1854 and 1855 a zealous leader named Smohalla expressed some feelings that support the Native American inclination to harvesting the river:

"Those who cut up the lands or sign papers for lands will be defrauded of their rights and will be punished by Godıs angerŠYou ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my motherıs bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my motherıs hair?" (Josephy, 435).

The Native Americans surrounded the Columbia River at the massive drops where it was most easy to obtain salmon. The Cascades, the Dalles, Celilo Falls, Priest Rapids, and Kettle Falls were significant sites first because of the human dependence on food. These falls eventually became imprinted on the spiritual geography of the Columbia Basin for these groups. They were not tribes as Europeans and American appellate them. Instead, "the basic social unit was the village or town organized around a core population of related males. People ebbed and flowed in and out of these settles according to seasons. Movements demanded connections, and the strongest connections came through the outmarriage of women" (White, 21). There was sometimes a salmon chief who regulated rules and rites. At the mouth of the river were the Chinooks and Clatsops, Kathlamets and Wahkiakums. The Katskanies and Cowlitzes were further upriver. A little further were the Skillutes, Kalamas, Quthlapottles, Clannarminnamons, Multnomahs, Tillamooks,Shotos, Clanninnatas, Cathlahnaquiahs, Cathlacommahtups. Then at the Dalles were Wishrams, Wascos, Cathlakaheckits, Cathlathalas. This was the end of the Chinook-speaking groups. The language changes to Sahaptin at Celilo Falls. The Nez Perces fished near the Snake River, and the Kutenais fished the Kootney River.

Kettle Falls
Fishing at Kettle Falls

The Native American culture was inexorably linked the Columbia River in a spiritual as well as a physical dependence. The salmon supplied the Native Americans with the energy necessary to sustain life. The Native Americans in turn used that energy to better know and experience the river. The salmon are an anadromous species, which means that as smolts they travel into the Pacific to feed and grow. By impetus of seasonal water temperature change and other natural forces, the salmon's bodies become less conducive to ocean life and thus return to their streambeds of their birth to spawn and die. To the Native Americans, the salmon arrived by force of Providence, so their return was never expected but always received with spiritual gratitude. Without any work expended in planting and growing, the salmon were simply theirs for the harvest, "a virtually free gift to the energy ledger of the Columbia" (White, 15).

Legend taught that Coyote or 'Ekanunum' (White, 16) instructed the Indians to fish and cook the salmon properly. He made the Columbia River drop or move in order for the humans to better obtain the fish. He also made the large rocks at the falls for the people to use to catch them. Historian Richard White describes the technologies implemented by the indigenous humans as part of the organic machine of the Columbia. Nespelems and Sanpoils constructed weirs to guide fish into artificial channels in the rapids so they would be more visible and accessible. At Kettle Falls, a spiritual locus now submerged in Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, the people constructed large timber frames which hung from them large willow baskets so that jumping fish would hit the frames and fall into the baskets. Often fisherman would wait nearby with clubs to knock the salmon unconscious. Each basket caught a yield of 5,000 pounds of salmon during the apex of the runs. At the Dalles, the Cathlakaheckits and Cathlathalas would build platforms over the rapids to stand on with dip nets. The yield here was about 500 salmon daily for an experienced hand (White, 16).

Kettle Falls

Salmon live off the fat obtained in the ocean and burn it swimming upstream to their birthplaces. In this way, the caloric value of the salmon steadily decreased till it was at the lowest point in Nelson or British Columbia, about 25% of is original fat. Because the runs fluctuated so much in season and geography it was necessary to preserve the fish. In an area where hunting was not largely available the main source of food year round was berries and roots. The salmon were preserved in styles mentioned in the journals of the early explorers. Mostly the women preserved the fish while the men hunted them. The "lower river fish had to be smoked to be dried, but at the Dalles and above Indians could rely on solar energy - the direct heat of the sun - to dry the fish the split and set out on racks" (White, 18).

Reciprocity was no faithfilled hopefulness to the Native Americans. For indigenous people whose lives depended on this food, the return of the salmon was a relief of a huge anxiety. Because of the cultural myth that women are responsible for the contained salmon or poor salmon runs, cultural practice reflected a separation of women and the harvest. Women are represented in myth as the sisters that held the salmon behind a dam (White, 19) near the Cascades. For the women who refused to marry Coyote, he punished the entire village with the loss of salmon. The women were sometimes a sandpiper or eagle or a wi'dwid, the Sahaptin word for swallows (White, 19). Bird migration often coincides with the arrival of the Chinook, or King Salmon, so women's movements were closely regulated. They could not fish or even come within a certain distance of the fishery. They could not touch the water. Menstruating women were even more susceptible. Blood, organs, or bone in general was a contaminating force on the salmon runs, probably stemming from the myth of Coyote teaching his people how to properly clean the fish. Men's positions were thus privileged and women were culpable for a bad salmon run. Salmon did not define wealth as Lewis and Clark may have supposed, because goods in low supply were much more valuable like dentalium shells from afar. However, the Native Americans only hesitantly traded nonfood items for salmon.

Exploitation & Expropriation Native Culture Exchanges Water Law Science & Technology Homesteaders Working the River

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