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Indians and Indian Tribes

Columbia River Indians

Indians have lived along the Columbia River for thousands of years. There are hundreds of different groups, now known as “tribes.” Each one is unique in some way: clothing, language, houses, or government. There are many tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Four of these tribes are the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce. These tribes are known as “Plateau tribes” because their home is called the Columbia Plateau. The Plateau Indians are still here today. Many live in special areas called reservations that were set aside for them in the 1800s.


The languages of the four tribes are related much like some European languages. The language group is Sahaptian. Some of these languages have been lost, but many are now being taught to Indian children today.


The Plateau tribes were semi-nomadic. They moved from place to place throughout the year to gather edible vegetables and fruits. The gathering of these plants is still a traditional way of life among many of the people of these tribes today. Fishing was very important to these tribes. Salmon made up a major part of their food supply. They caught salmon with nets and spears. Salmon are still an important part of their cultures. Plateau Indians today eat up to 10 times the amount of salmon that an average American eats. Some fishers prefer to catch salmon with traditional nets and spears on platforms. Many fishers also use fishing boats and nets or fishing poles now.

The Plateau tribes hunted many types of animals. They used these animals for food, clothing and other items. They hunted using a bow and arrow or traps. Today, hunting is still an important activity for Indians and many depend on the meat they get to feed their families. Most Indians today hunt with rifles, but there are some hunters who still use a bow and arrow or traps.


The horse was introduced to the tribes in the 1600s. They had a deep and lasting impact on Indians throughout North America. When the Plateau tribes got horses, the animals transformed their culture, allowed them to travel longer distances, and gave them wealth. Horses were welcomed into their lives and villages. Nez Perce horsemen, famous for their skill in selective breeding, even created a new horse breed: the Appaloosa. From the backs of these animals, Plateau Indians were able to freely travel throughout the West—from buffalo hunts on the Great Plains to salmon fishing at Celilo Falls and everywhere in between.

Weaving and Basketry

Plateau tribes were known for their intricate baskets. They made many different sizes and shapes of baskets. Basic baskets were used for storing dried foods. The inside of some baskets was coated with pine tree sap to make them waterproof. Special cooking baskets were woven around a large flat rock. To boil soups and stews, the cook would drop hot rocks from a fire into the basket. These rocks didn’t burn through because they sat on large rock at the bottom of the basket. The Plateau tribes also wove hats, mats for their summer houses, clothing and bedding.


Tools were made from wood, stone and bone. Arrow shafts were made from wood and tipped with arrowheads chipped from obsidian, a rock made of glass that comes from volcanoes. Deer and elk antlers were used to make root-digging sticks, wedges, and weapons.


Plateau tribes lived in longhouses made from tule mats. Tule is a tall, tough reed that grows in marshy areas and is sometimes called bulrush. In the winter, they dug a shallow pit and built a roof with poles and covered them with tule mats or tree bark. In later years, canvas was used instead of tule mats. After the Plateau Indians got horses, they began using tepees made of poles covered with animal skins or mats woven from reeds. Tepees weren’t practical before the arrival of horses because the materials needed for them were bulky and heavy. Horses allowed them to carry more materials with them as they travelled, including tepees. Today, Indians live in houses, although many have tepees that they use for camping or at special events.

Indians Today

Plateau Indians today live much like any other American. They live in houses, drive cars, have jobs, play video games, and watch TV. They can be a firefighter, a police officer, an artist, a computer programmer, or anything any other person could be. Many Indians also do things that are part of their culture like hunting and fishing, digging roots, tribal dancing, or beading. Some Indian men choose to grow their hair long like Indians did in the past, but most have short haircuts. Indians wear regular clothes, but many wear traditional clothing for special events like powwows, feasts, or celebrations.

Columbia Plateau

The reservations and homelands of the four member tribes.

Traditional Foods

A Nez Perce woman peeling camas bulbs in preparation for drying or cooking. Photo courtesy Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Traditional Fishing

A Yakama fisher using a dipnet to catch salmon in the Klickitat River.

Appaloosa Horses

The Nez Perce Appaloosa horse breed is known for its patterned coat, especially on the rump.

Indians Today

A Umatilla tribal member playing high school basketball in eastern Oregon.