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100.030 Native Americans

Humans arrived on the Columbia Plateau, encompassing the watershed of the Columbia River and its major tributaries, about 12,000 years ago, making the region one of the longest-inhabited in the Western Hemisphere.  ...  ...these first arrivals "encountered a virgin land filled with herds of mammoth, mastodon, giant bison, ground sloths, and mastodon," [Forest Service Archaeologist James D.] Keyser writes.  Projectile points left behind by those early hunters have been documented in the gorge and throughout the Columbia Plateau. (Keyser, qtd. in Durbin 15)

The cliffs along the north rim of the gorge, near the present site of The Dalles Dam, tell a story of human habitation dating back at least 11,000 years
.  (Durbin 13)

Near Horsethief Butte, the indigenous rock art is the most extensive in the Northwest.  Until the end of the nineteenth century, these dry bluffs were the heart of a heavily populated trading hub.  (Durbin 13)

"There were dozens of villages," said Forest Service Archaeologist James D. Keyser, an expert on the Indian rock art of the Columbia Plateau, on a tour of the painted cliffs at Columbia Hills State Park, east of Dallesport, Washington.  "You were probably never out of sight of houses in the 20 miles between The Dalles and Biggs Junction."  (Durbin 14)

...archaeologists can still draw on a trove of stories and legends from descendants of those who carved their stories into these cliffs.  "We have 150 years of Indians across the Columbia Plateau telling us who made them and how they made them," Keyser said.  "The ethnography of the Columbia River Plateau is the most extensive in the world."  (Durbin 20)

The Columbia River is a ribbon of life for native cultures that have called the Gorge home for over 10,000 years.  This river highway transported people by canoe and carved a pedestrian corridor through the mountains.  It provided a connection between coastal and plateau peoples.

The Chinookian-speaking people of this area and their up river neighbors who spoke Sahaptin occupied an ideal setting for extensive trade.  Summer gatherings drew traders from all over the Northwest.

The river's teeming fish and verdant shores were rich resources.  The native peoples knew the best sites to harvest and when each food would be at its peak of quality.  This was not haphazard, but required a year-long travel itinerary.  Social and spiritual events were closely linked with the sites of these food sources.  

Paddles and Paths Interpretive Sign, Bridal Veil State Scenic Viewpoint

The area that would become the City of Portland was populated by Chinook-speaking tribal groups prior to settlement by European Americans. Like much of Portland’s low-lying west side, the area now called the Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary was swampy and not especially favored by the indigenous Multnomah people. Early explorers and fur traders noted the existence of Multnomah villages on Sauvie Island and across the Willamette River to the south, in what would become Linnton and Northwest Portland. In the 1830s, diseases brought by white traders decimated the indigenous population, with death rates as high as 90 percent in the lower Columbia basin. (Guild's Lake Industrial Sanctuary Plan, 15)

Under 1855 treaties, reservations were set aside for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, the Yakima Nation, and the Nes Pierce.  The tribes were promised they would retain their right to hunt, fish and gather wild foods on "usual and customary" lands they had ceded to the U. S. Government.  (Durbin 16)

When the Yakima Indian War erupted in 1856, Chief John (aka "Indian John"), leader of a band of the Multnomah tribe who formerly lived in the area, warned settlers living west of the Sandy of the danger.

Indian John's tribe had been decimated by epidemics of smallpox, measles and other communicable diseases caught from early traders. According to stories repeated by descendants of early settlers, his band had also suffered a catastrophic loss when an overhanging cliff face (part of Broughton Bluff) gave way suddenly and buried his people's camp. According to the story, the slide took the remainder of his small band, leaving Indian John and his wife the sole survivors. When Indian John's wife died, he laid her to rest among the native dead at an island up the Columbia River.


Indian John's story is given some credence by the number of artifacts found by road crews constructing the highway, which included a carved stone "turtle" recovered by roadboss Charlie Bramhall in 1914.

Clarence E. Mershon. The Columbia River Highway: From the Sea to the Wheat Fields of Eastern Oregon. Portland: Guardian Peaks Enterprises. 2006. 1st Edition. (64 - 65)

Pot-hunters in the gorge looted one of the Northwest's largest prehistoric cemeteries between the 1930s and 1950s.  (Durbin 20)

For tribal fishermen who depended on the great salmon runs to feed their families and provide goods for trade, the inexcusable delay, and the failure of federal dam-builders to anticipate the dire economic consequences of the new era of dam building, amounted to a slow, bureaucratic genocide.  (Durbin 19) 

As Bonneville Dam neared completion, the Corps of Engineers made a last-minute effort to photograph and document the many traditional fishing sites the Corps had promised to protect or replace in their treaties with the Columbia Basin tribes.  These sites were about to be flooded by the impound waters behind the dam.  The corps had promised to provide replacement or "in lieu" fishing sites for at least two dozen sites destroyed by the dams.  It would be seventy years before that promise was fully kept.  (Durbin 18-19)

The rising waters behind The Dalles Dam inundated Celilo Falls and tens of thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs in a canyon just upstream from Horsethief Lake.  In all, The Dalles Dam and John Day and McNary dams to the east, built between 1955 and 1968, drowned at least forty-five archaeological sites.  Records of many of these sites survive, thanks to early scientific interest and the foresight of amateur researchers who photographed and made rubbings or tracings of many designs before they were lost.  (Durbin 19)

[James D.] Keyser estimates that 4,000 [rock art] sites remain within a two-hour drive of Portland, all of them out in the open.  (Durbin 20)

Federal Courts in the twentieth century would affirm the rights of treaty tribes to half the salmon that returned annually to the Columbia River and its tributaries.  (Durbin 16)

The 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act recognized the sovereign status of the treaty tribes, stating that land use decisions on tribal lands in the gorge would not be subject to the act's mandates or restrictions.  (Durbin 16) 

From earliest times the Indians of the region were noted for their ugly and thievish natures. Lewis and Clark, on their return from the mouth of the Columbia, noted that, "the Wahclellahs we discovered to be great thieves . . . so arrogant and intrusive have they become that nothing but our numbers saves us from attack . . . We were told by an Indian who spoke Clatsop that the Wahclellahs had carried off Captain Lewis's dog to their village below. Three men, well armed, were instantly dispatched in pursuit of them, with orders to fire if there were the slightest resistance or hesitation. At the distance of two miles they came within sight of the thieves, who, finding themselves pursued, left the dog and made off. We now ordered all the Indians out of our camp, and explained to them that whoever stole any of our baggage, or insulted our men, should be instantly shot."

Washington Irving, in writing of Robert Stuart's passage of the rapids in 1812, calls the Cascades "the piratical pass of the river," and that "before the commencement of the portage, the greatest precautions were taken to guard against lurking treachery or open attack." However, in 1824, Sir George Simpson wrote in his Journal: "Left our Encampment at 2 A.M. and got to Cascade portage. . . . Here we found about 80 to 100 Indians who were more peaceable and quiet than I ever saw an equal number on the other side of the mountain; it was not so many years ago as on this very spot they attempted to pillage a Brigade under charge of Messrs. A. Stewart and Ja Keith when the former was severely wounded and two of the Natives killed; but since that time they have given little trouble and this favorable change in their disposition I think may be ascribed in the first place to the prompt and decisive conduct of the Whites in never allowing an insult pass without retaliation & punishment, and in the second to the judicious firm and conciliatory measures pursued by Chief Factor McKenzie who has had more intercourse with them than any other Gentleman in the Country."

Skilled Indian paddlers or French Canadian boatmen were sometimes able to shoot the Cascade rapids successfully, particularly during spring freshets, but customarily even the most daring disembarked and portaged their cargoes.
 Oregon State Archives - A 1940 Journey Across Oregon http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/across/thedalles.html

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