Indigenous People: Interior Plateau Foragers
In studying indigenous people, the Interior Plateau Foragers traditionally inhabited the high plateau region between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Cascade Range and Canadian Coast Ranges on the west. It includes parts of the present-day U.S. states of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The Plateau is drained by two great river systems, the Fraser and the Columbia. The landscape includes rolling hills, high flatlands, gorges, and mountains. Most precipitation falls in the mountains, leaving other areas rather dry. Some mountain slopes are forested, but grassland and desert are more common in the region.
Interior Plateau Foragers’ Language
Most peoples of the Plateau traditionally spoke languages of the:
Tribes that spoke Salishan languages are collectively known as the Salish. They are commonly called the Interior Salish to distinguish them from their neighbors, the Coast Salish of the Northwest Coast culture area. Among the Salish tribes were the:
- Coeur d’Alene
- Kalispel (or Pend d’Oreille)
Early European explorers incorrectly used the term Flathead to identify all Salishan-speaking peoples. Some of these groups flattened the foreheads of their babies with cradleboards. The people now called the Flathead did not do so, however.
Speakers of Sahaptin languages included the:
- Nez Percé
- Walla Walla
The Kutenai and the Modoc and Klamath language families include the Kutenai and the Modoc and Klamath peoples.
European Contact and Cultural Changes of the Interior Plateau Foragers
Direct contact between Plateau peoples and Euro-Americans was relatively brief at first. Indians provided boats and food to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which crossed the region in 1805 and again in 1806. Early in the 1800s, the fur trade brought Native American and Euro-American trappers from the east into the area, particularly to the northern Plateau. These groups included a number of Iroquois men who had adopted Roman Catholicism. They spread Christianity among the Flathead, who thereafter visited St. Louis to ask for missionaries to be sent to the Plateau. Missionaries were a strong force in the area from the 1820s to the ’50s.
By the 1830s, a religious movement known as the Prophet Dance emerged in the area. The participants danced to bring about the return of the dead and the renewal of the world, particularly the world as it was before European contact. The movement arose largely out of despair over the devastating loss of life caused by epidemic diseases brought by the colonists. The Prophet Dance was a precursor of the Ghost Dance movements of the 1870s and 1890s. Like the Ghost Dance, variations on the Prophet Dance continued into the 21st century.
By the 1840s, thousands of Euro-American settlers were heading west to what would become the Oregon Territory. Many of them traveled through the Plateau, often trespassing on tribal lands. Some tribes resisted, and by the 1850s the United States had begun to negotiate land treaties with them. The treaty process was disrupted in 1857, when the discovery of gold on the Thompson River spurred a great influx of settlers and miners. Gold strikes were soon found on several other rivers in the region, bringing more settlers and increasing tensions.
Economic Struggles of the Interior Plateau Foragers
The rest of the 1800s was a difficult period during which many Plateau tribes struggled economically. The United States and Canada introduced policies to assimilate, or integrate, native peoples into Euro-American culture. Tribes were confined to reservations, and they were forced to give up hunting and gathering in favor of farming. Native children were sent to boarding schools where they were often physically abused. In addition, mining and large-scale commercial fishing depleted the salmon that were so important to the Indians.
As these changes took their toll, some native groups became more resistant to government policies. In the early 1870s a band of Modoc left their reservation and returned to their original land in far northern California. The federal government tried to force the band to return to the reservation in the Modoc War of 1872–73. The Modoc held off far greater numbers of U.S. troops for several months before they were forced to surrender.
In 1877, hostilities between settlers and the Nez Percé in Oregon led to the Nez Percé War. When a band led by Chief Joseph tried to flee to Canada, U.S. troops tracked them through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Though greatly outnumbered, Chief Joseph’s band held off the pursuers before finally surrendering.
In the 1880s, in a process known as allotment, tribal lands were divided into parcels that were assigned to individual Indians. The remaining land was then sold, greatly reducing native landholdings in the Plateau. The policy began a period of increasing poverty for many Plateau tribes. Allotment ended in the 1930s, when new federal policies authorized tribes to create their own governments. Many tribes wrote constitutions and elected councils during this period.
In 1954, the U.S. government terminated its relationship with the people of the Modoc and Klamath reservation. This meant that the tribe lost its federal recognition and the benefits that came with that status. Termination was a national policy; its hope was that eliminating the special relationship between the federal government and native peoples would encourage economic development on reservations. However, the loss of federal support for health care and schools devastated the Modoc and Klamath community. The tribes sued to regain federal recognition, which they achieved in 1986, but they did not regain their former lands.
Many other Plateau tribes also sued the governments of Canada and the United States to reclaim territory. They generally claimed that the land had been taken illegally due to treaty violations or very low compensation. A number of these suits resulted in awards in the tens of millions of dollars. Tribes also used the courts to defend their fishing rights, especially after major dam construction on the Columbia and other rivers destroyed traditional fishing sites. Again, the tribes usually won compensation for their losses.
By the late 20th and early 21st centuries many Interior Plateau tribes had regrouped from the economic devastation of the previous 100 years or more. Several had added tourist resorts and casinos to their existing timber, ranching, and fishing operations. Funds from these businesses were used for a variety of community purposes, including education, health care, rural development, and cultural preservation.
- Chief Joseph (1840-1904). (n.d.). The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History – HistoryLink.org. https://historylink.org/File/8975
- Conflict of 1877. (n.d.). 404 – University of Idaho. https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~rfrey/422NPconflict1877.htm
- Dancing in the Shadowlands with coyote: The prophetic rhetoric of native dreamers. (n.d.). Mesa Community College. https://www.mesacc.edu/~bruwn09481/voicewld/coyote-dance.htm
- The economic history of the fur trade: 1670 to 1870. (n.d.). https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-the-fur-trade-1670-to-1870/
- History. (n.d.). The Klamath Tribes – Klamath Modoc Yahooskin. https://klamathtribes.org/history/
- James Mooney recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance songs, 1894. (2017, November 17). Library of Congress Blogs. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/11/james-mooney-recordings-ghost-dance-songs/
- Modoc war. (n.d.). The Oregon Encyclopedia. https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/modoc_war/#.X02wHjvYrrc
- Our documents – Dawes Act (1887). (n.d.). Welcome to OurDocuments.gov. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=50
- Plateau Indians. (n.d.). Britannica Kids. https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/Plateau-Indians/480467