Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Plateau

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Kutenai Woman, 1910 photogravure by Edward Curtis

Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Plateau, also referred to by the phrase Indigenous peoples of the Plateau, and historically called the Plateau Indians (though comprising many groups) are indigenous peoples of the Interior of British Columbia, Canada, and the non-coastal regions of the United States Pacific Northwest states.

Their territories are located in the inland portions of the basins of the Columbia and Fraser Rivers. These tribes live in parts of the Central and Southern Interior of British Columbia, northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and northeastern California. The eastern flank of the Cascade Range lies within the territory of the Plateau peoples.[1]


In Canada, six main tribes occupy the Interior Plateau. These are the Interior Salish, the largest tribe; the Lillooet tribe whose homelands are in the Lillooet River Valley; the Thompson First Nations, whose homelands are in the Fraser River Valley from Yale to Lillooet; the Secwepemc (Shuswap) of the Fraser River Valley from Lillooet to Alexandria and the east part of the mountain; the Okanagan of the Okanagan River Valley (the Lake First Nation also lived here), and finally, the Kutenai tribe, who settled in the southeastern parts of British Columbia after the Blackfeet took over in the 1750s.

The First Nations of the Plateau were influenced by the First Nations of the Pacific Coast. The Plateau First Nations traded many goods with the Pacific Coast First Nations. The Pacific tribes believed in clan ancestors which were adopted by the Interior Salish groups, but they did not adopt the social system.

Tribes and bands[edit]

Yakama woman, photographed by Edward Curtis
Sherman Alexie, Spokane/Coeur d'Alene novelist, screenwriter, and poet[2]

Plateau tribes include the following:

Chinook peoples[edit]

Interior Salish[edit]

Sahaptin people[edit]

Other or multiple[edit]


Plateau tribes primarily spoke Interior Salish languages or Sahaptian languages. They also speak Chinookan languages, which are often classified as Penutian languages, but this classification is not universally agreed upon. The Ktunaxa speak the Kutenai language, which is a language isolate.[1]

Traditional cultures[edit]

Indian camas, Camassia quamash


Traditional Plateau include wild plants, fish, especially salmon, and game. Plateau peoples often had seasonal villages or encampment in different areas to take full advantage of the wild foods. Women gathered a large variety of edible vegetables and fruits, including camassia, bitterroot, kouse root,[1] serviceberry, chokecherry, huckleberry, and wild strawberry.

Camas lily bulbs were an important but dangerous staple. Common camas, camassia quamash, is a plant in the lily family with blue flowers, whose bulbs were dug for food. The white flowering death camas, zygadenus venenosus, is a different but related species also in the lily family, and can be deadly poisonous. For safety reasons, Plateau peoples gathered these bulbs while aerial parts were still growing in order to correctly identify the edible species. They dug these bulbs with deer antlers. Women in the tribe cooked the roots in a shallow pit filled up with hot stones. When the ground around the stones was hot enough, the stones were removed, and bulbs were placed in the hole to cook overnight.

Plateau women made berry cakes using Saskatoon berries. The berries were dried on racks covered with leaves. Gathering and processing of wild plants by the women is still a traditional way of life among many of the people of these tribes today.

The men supplemented the diet by hunting and fishing, with salmon making up a major part of their food supply.[1] When horses were introduced to the area, the world of the Plateau people expanded after they adopted use of horses, allowing them to trade with the tribes on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains for bison meat and hides. Groups of hunters rode far to hunt bison, deer, and elk.

In the summer, salmon would swim up to the Pacific Rivers. Plateau fishermen learned many ways to trap salmon. Stakes were lined up to make a wall, stopping the salmon from swimming any further, and then the fish were pulled out of the water with a scoop. Most salmon was smoked on a fire, and some of it was stored underground in pits. Other salmon was boiled in hot water to get oil.

Birds were often hunted with nets. Men used deadfall traps to capture larger animals such as deer. They dug deep pits in the middle of a path that deer might be running on. They would stuff the pits with branches and leaves. Once the deer walked on the bunch of branches and leaves, it would fall into the pit and it would trap the deer underground. People depended on deer so much that they followed the herds.

Basketry and textiles[edit]

Plateau tribes excelled in the art of basketry. They most commonly used hemp dogbane, tule, sagebrush, or willow bark. These materials were also used to make hats, bedding, nets, and cordage.[3] Ancestors of the Plateau Indians created the oldest known shoes in the world, the Fort Rock sandals, made of twined sagebrush and dated between 10,390–9650 years BP.[4]


Tools were made from wood, stone and bone. Arrows for hunting were made from wood and tipped with arrow-heads chipped from special rocks. Antlers from animals were used for digging roots.

Cathlapotel longhouse, Washington


Plateau housing included longhouses roofed with summer tule mats.[1] Tule, used for many purposes, is a tall, tough reed that grows in marshy areas and is sometimes called bulrush. For winter quarters, the people dug a pit a few feet into the ground and constructed a framework of poles over it, meeting in a peak above. They covered this with tule mats or tree bark. Earth was piled up around and partially over the structure to provide insulation to the semi-subterranean shelter. The large winter lodges were shared by several families; they were rectangular at the base and triangular above. They were built with several layers of tule; as the top layers of tule absorbed moisture, they swelled to keep moisture from reaching lower layers and the inside of the lodge.

In later years, the people used canvas instead of tule mats. Beginning in the 18th century, Plateau peoples adopted tipis from the Plains Indians. They were made of a pole framework, covered with animal skins or mats woven from reeds. Each month, women would stay temporary in round menstrual huts, measuring about 20 feet (6.1 m) in diameter.[5]

The Interior Salish tribe made their winter houses very differently from the other First Nations groups. They dug holes close to the river. The holes were similar to a tipis was then built over that. A log was made into steps and placed at the opening. Dried food was stored outside these winter houses. In the summer, the Salishan tribe lived in rooms covered with mats.

Other tribes made their homes out of pieces of cedar or spruce bark. The cedar homes had roofs that were slanted right down to the ground, while the spruce bark houses looked like two tents facing each other.


Plateau people wore many types of clothing for the First Nations of the Plateau. The women wore buckskin shirts, breech cloths, leggings and moccasins, and the men wore longer shirts. Winter clothing was made out of rabbit, groundhog, or other animals' fur.


In addition to their traditional tools, they later adopted the use of metal items such as pots, needles, and guns acquired from trade with Europeans.

Arts today[edit]

Today the Natives still make traditional clothing, bags, baskets, and other items. Although some knowledge of traditional arts have been lost as times change, practicing the fine skills are still an important part of their way of life. Mothers and grandmothers decorate their children's outfits for celebration and dancing. Beaded items, such as drums, woven bags and other crafts are used in traditional celebrations and special occasions. Such regalia is used for days during the Spirit Dance, which occurred once a year.


  1. ^ a b c d e Pritzker, 249
  2. ^ "Official Sherman Alexie Biography", Falls Apart, 2009 (retrieved 23 Dec 2009)
  3. ^ Pritzker, 250
  4. ^ Connelly, Tom. "The World's Oldest Shoes", University of Oregon (retrieved 31 March 2010)
  5. ^ Pritzker 269


  • Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1.