Walla Walla’s particular landscape is within the geologic area now known as the Columbia Plateau and Columbia Basin. Spanning areas of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia, it is an extensive area of varied terrain that gave rise to more than 32 kinship and linguistic groups. Walla Walla is near the middle of this region, and its story is inextricably tied to that of these first people, particularly the bands of the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Palouse and Cayuse people. Their stories, in turn, are inextricably tied to the land.
In its pristine abundance, the Columbia Plateau was almost ideal for human habitation. The rivers and streams, the lush hillsides and forested mountains provided not only an endless supply of clean water, but also a huge variety of raw materials for food, medicine, tools, clothing and shelter. Even the barren scrublands were utilized. The variation in habitat gave rise to an active trading economy among the different groups.
The network of rivers and tributaries was a natural highway system, allowing people to travel great distances by canoe to obtain what they needed through barter and exchange. This economic activity fostered other interactions – of languages, arts, customs, stories, marriages, political alliances and inevitable conflicts. Warfare, and even slavery, also affected the development of culture in the area.
Although the region may have seemed like an Eden, subsistence was hard work. Winters could be severe, and blazing summers could bring deadly drought. Survival depended upon strict divisions of labor and the maintenance of disciplined social groups. Every member had meaningful work that contributed to the well-being of the band as a whole, whether it was fishing and hunting, gathering and preparing provisions for winter, making baskets for carrying water and storing food, tanning leather for clothing, gathering firewood, or tending to the children and the sick. The continuation of the culture further depended upon an oral tradition of storytelling and song, upon ritual and dance, and upon education of the young.
For thousands of years, survival for the Cayuse, Walla Walla, Palouse and Umatilla people also depended upon traveling to seasonal food sources in an annual round of fishing, hunting, gathering and preserving food for winter. Beginning with a spring celebration of the return of the salmon, the cycle began at bountiful fishing sites along the Columbia River (Celilo Falls was a center of fishing and trade for an estimated 11,000 years). The men fished with hooks, spears, traps and dip nets from wooden platforms built into the rocky bluffs, and the women cleaned and hung the fish on racks to dry. In early summer they dug for roots in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, traveling higher as summer progressed, to pick berries and hunt for game such as deer and elk. Venison was also dried for later use. Roots were either dried whole or pounded into small cakes, often mixed with dried meat or fish. Returning to the lower regions for the fall salmon run, the Native Americans would remain there in winter camps until spring and the start of a
Their semi-nomadic way of life required portable dwellings, which eventually developed into the hide-covered teepees adopted from the Plains Indians. But for most of their history, Plateau tribes constructed longhouses. These were cleverly designed to allow the permanent placement of an underlying structure of poles at regular campsites. This was then covered with mats made of tule reeds, sewn together and overlapped to provide sheltering walls, which could be easily moved from camp to camp. Accommodating large family groups, the longhouses sometimes reached lengths of 80 feet.
Although they share basic customs and means of survival, the four tribes also developed some major differences, primarily the Cayuse, who spoke a linguistically independent dialect and were the first to develop a horse culture. They acquired their first steeds around 1730, through trade networks with Spanish New Mexico, and eventually developed huge herds which they used for recreation, trade, travel and warfare. The close association of the Cayuse with the Nez Perce brought them into increasing contact with the Plains Indians to the east and resulted in greater and greater influence of Plains culture, specifically the linking of horses to wealth. With increased mobility over long distances, hunting and trading became more efficient, and tribes were able to form large, powerful alliances.
This blend of the ancient fishing culture with the more recent — and more combative — horse culture is what the non-native explorers, traders and settlers found when they began to arrive in the region in the 19th century.