Between the Subarctic and Northwest Coast regions, you’ll find a small interior cultural area known as the Northwest Plateau. This region is situated in the interior of British Columbia as well as the non-coastal ranges of Washington state and Oregon with some of Idaho, Montana, and California. Topographically, you’ll find it between the Cascades and the Rockies. Nevertheless, this is an area with a very cold but semiarid climate which makes it nowhere near suitable for agriculture. However, it’s also home to 5 major volcanoes as well as 27 known to be active, which may good for soil content but not a place you’d want to live. Still, you don’t really hear much about this region except maybe when it comes to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. But it’s not a happy tale to tell. Yet, famed Native American author Sherman Alexie also hails from this region, too, and he’s perhaps the best known native literary figure to date. Not surprisingly these Northwest Plateau tribes tended to move around a lot following various food sources. But they also lived in a prime trading location and often exchanged goods with other tribes. Oh, and they also were prolific basket weavers, relying on many local fibrous plants to make them.
Location: Area between the Cascade, Sierra Nevada, and Rocky Mountains that covers central and southern British Columbia, northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington state, eastern Oregon, and northeastern California.
First Peoples: Region has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years and save for the grinding stone and the bow and arrow, way of life remained mostly unchanged until the 18th century.
Environment: Consists of rivers, lakes, mountainous evergreen forests, and grassy valleys in the Canadian area with heavy rainfall. The US area is semiarid. Though summers are hot, winters are long and cold. Elevation ranges from 5,000 feet to 14,000 feet and is home to 27 active volcanoes as well as Mount St. Helens.
Subsistence: Hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence. Fish were a main staple in their diets (particularly salmon) along with roots and berries. Also hunted deer, elk, caribou, antelope, mountain sheep, bear, rabbit, squirrels, marmot, beaver, raccoon, porcupine, and other small game. Another major staple were Camas lily bulbs which were dug up (though the white ones are known to be poisonous).
Housing: Pit houses were primary winter residences that were mostly built below ground with an entry via ladder on the roof that could either be flat or domed shaped. Several families lived in these houses while the chief’s could be twice as large. And these pit houses during the winter could sometimes be connected with tunnels. For summer shelter, some would reside in teepees, especially if they lived near the Plains. But unlike their Plains neighbors, they mostly used bulrush reed mat floors. Another shelter was the Tule mat lodge that were essentially large, oblong shaped teepees and constructed with the same materials. Lean-tos would also be constructed from poles and tule brush mats and were very temporary. Sweat lodges were built from grass and earth covering a wooden frame. Those who lived around the Lower Columbia lived in plank longhouses that could be 20-60 feet long and 14-20 feet wide (with each village there consisting about 5-20). These were built over a pit that was 4-5 feet deep and roughly the same size as the dwelling.
Clothing: Generally made from bark, grass, animal skins, and fur. Men and women wore breechcloth aprons, ponchos, and moccasins. Men wore shirts while women donned dresses or skirts. Men donned fur leggings in winter while women’s were of hemp. Ornaments were made from shell and bone while beads were derived from soapstone. Clothes were also painted. Headdresses were used to represent a person’s status within the community with the most elaborate being made from feathers and beads. Women were also well known for wearing basket hats. Sometimes the leaders wore feather headdresses. Both sexes left their hair long, sometimes in two braids.
Transportation: Water transport consisted of dugout, animal skin, and bark canoes.
Society: Largest estimated pre-contact population is said to be around 50,000. Primarily nomadic with most groups following regular migratory routes to obtain foods at their greatest productivity to both meet immediate need, build surplus for winter, and trade (the largest being at the Dalles and Celilo Falls, at the head of the Columbian Gorge). Villages were politically autonomous and village chief authority lay more in their ability to persuade and adjudicate than in their power to make rules and enforce decisions. Both men and women can be chiefs of many bands though family chiefdoms were usually inherited. Specialized leaders like salmon and war chiefs only exercised leadership on special occasions. Only the far western groups practiced hereditary slavery and a caste system like the Chinook with the upper castes practicing social isolation. However, there was always a reluctance to engage in warfare.
Family Structure: Most people married outside their own village and many of these marriage networks survived after a spouse’s death as widows and widowers often married their spouse’s sibling afterwards. Men hunted, fished, as well as had a greater voice in politics, diplomacy, and military affairs. Women, meanwhile cooked, gathered plants, and tended to young children. However, both men and women were considered socially and economically equal in every way. Some Chinook Indians in the area were known for subjecting their kids to cranial deformation. Lower Columbia tribes buried their dead in raised canoes with all their worldly possessions and never spoke of the deceased again by name for fear of summoning a ghost. Boys from 5-10 were subject to a whipping ceremony in order to prevent sickness during the winter months.
Practices: Grass baskets, animism, shamanism, bone carving, controlled burning, vision quests, music, dance, rock painting, weaving, quillwork, and beadwork.
Tools and Weapons: Cordage, nets, bow and arrow, spears, clubs, rawhide and wooden slat armor, weirs, deadfall traps, slings, fish hooks and lines, pestles, snowshoes, a variety of knives, and mauls. Tule bulrush was used by these people for almost everything from mats, bedding, nets, rope, house coverings, flooring, and corpse shrouds. Coiled baskets of spruce and cedar root were used for household utensils, water and burden containers, cooking vessels, drinking cups, cradles, and numerous other purposes.
Notable Tribes: Chinook, Interior Salish, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Yakama, Cayuse, Spokane, Kalapuya, Flathead, Kalispel, Nicola, Nlaka’pamux, Methow, Molala, Palus, Upper Cowlitz, Umatilla, Okanagan, Sanpoli, Wenatchi, Kutenai, Tenino, Fort Klamath, Chelan, Entiat, and Coeur d’Alene.