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Introduction to Anthropology

19.1 Indigenous Peoples

Introduction to Anthropology19.1 Indigenous Peoples

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Name different terms used for Indigenous peoples and describe the history and current connotations of each.
  • Explain what is meant by the statement that Indigenous peoples have become minorities in their own lands.
  • Define blood quantum and explain its current application.
  • Explain what is meant by the phrases “urban Indian” and “reservation Indian” and describe social and cultural characteristics associated with each.
  • Provide two examples of 20th-century challenges experienced by Native peoples in the United States.
  • Explain the need for Native perspectives in studies about Native peoples, using the debate over oral histories as an example.

Indigenous peoples are those peoples who are the original human populations of a land. They are also referred to as Native peoples, tribal peoples, tribes, First Nations peoples, and Aboriginal peoples. In the United States, they are often referred to as American Indians or Native Americans. The terms used to refer to Indigenous peoples are contextualized by the nation or territory they are a part of. For instance, in the United States as a whole, the more general term is currently Native Americans, but in the southwest portion of the United States, American Indians is quite common, while in Alaska and Canada these peoples refer to themselves as First Nations. Hawaiian Indigenous peoples prefer the term Hawaiian. In Mexico, Indigenous peoples are called la gente indígena de México. In Australia, the commonly accepted terms are Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples, referring to two broad but distinct cultural groups, and Indigenous Australians, referring collectively to both.

Terms used for Indigenous peoples often reflect political, social, and economic systems. Indians is a term that was once very commonly used in the United States to describe the nation’s original inhabitants. The word is a significant part of the legal and political history of these peoples, appearing in hundreds of treaties and thousands of federal documents pertaining to legal rights. But many “Indian” people do not like the word because it was first imposed by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly thought that his journey across the Atlantic Ocean had landed him in India. Pointing out that the term Indian is a case of mistaken identity, many Indigenous peoples prefer to be labeled by their specific tribal names. There is not one mind about which terms to use for Indigenous peoples. There are scholars who refuse to use words such as Indian and scholars who embrace the word. Some scholars advocate changing the use of the term Indian in history books and historical documents. However, changing historic texts alters the original expression and the meanings associated with it. To change terms in this context would literally change history and mislead students of this history.

There has been another tendency in American culture to misuse the term Native American to refer to a single monoculture. The majority of Americans have never spent time with Native individuals or engaged in any studies of Native peoples and thus do not have any true knowledge of actual Indigenous cultures. Until recently, Native cultures and Native history have not been accurately covered in educational institutions. Only in the past decade has there been significant movement toward offering accurate characterizations of Native peoples in public schools in the United States. While this is a positive development, stereotyping of and even racism toward Native peoples remain. The most accepted and appropriate way to refer to any Indigenous person is to use their actual tribal association, if known, rather than a general term such as Native American.

The scholarly debate over these words is somewhat separate from the way the terms are used in Native communities. Many Indigenous communities have no issue with the word Indian and think the whole debate over word choice is a distraction from the real-world problems that affect their communities, such as poverty, substance use issues, poor health care, and inadequate education.

Minorities in Their Own Lands

Indigenous peoples have become minorities in most countries because many colonizing peoples sought to eliminate them and practiced various strategies to reduce their power to control land and natural resources and even to maintain their cultures and identities. Historically, adult Indigenous people, and even some young people, were forced to work for colonizers, often doing hard labor or other menial tasks, without any opportunities to accumulate wealth or claim a position of higher class. Christianity in various forms was forced on Indigenous peoples through government policies. Children were either not offered any education at all or forced into boarding schools where they were required to adopt the colonial culture. In this manner, many Indigenous people lost touch with their cultural heritage, and most Indigenous groups dwindled in number, some disappearing altogether. This trend was particularly pronounced in Latin American countries. Most people living in these countries today have some Indigenous ancestry, but as Indigenous identities have been so discouraged, few openly identify with this portion of their heritage, choosing to focus on their White and/or Spanish identities. It is evident that assimilation pressures, the process of changing the culture of a person or group of people to some other culture, through socialization or education, have largely succeeded when remaining peoples who identify as Indigenous become minorities within their own native territories.

Left: A sign on a lamp post reading “Chemawa School” in front of a large, two-story brick building.; Right: A group of 14 young men dressed in military uniform posing for a picture. All are holding swords.
Figure 19.2 Chemawa Indian Training School in Salem, Oregon (left) and members of the Chemawa Indian School battalion in 1914. (right) This boarding school was created in 1885 and is still operating today. Education policy before the 1970s focused on assimilating Native peoples. Current policies are more supportive of Native culture. (credit: left, “Chemawa Indian School, Winowa Hall, 5495 Chugach Street Northeast, Salem, Marion, OR” by Steve Viale/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; right, The Chemawa American/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Many Native Americans, along with members of other Indigenous groups such as the Maori of New Zealand, do not like to be categorized as minority groups in their own homelands. Native Americans in the United States and the Maori tribes of New Zealand have treaties and sovereign rights that accord them access to and ownership of resources that other immigrant minority groups do not have. Some federal funding for programs is allotted to “minority groups” as a whole, including Native peoples. The Native peoples meant to benefit from this funding have commented that this approach does not recognize the special relationships the treaty-bound Indigenous peoples have with the state. The Maori especially have asked not to be considered a minority group. Instead, they wish to claim rights granted them by the Treaty of Waitangi to the services and resources of the federal New Zealand government.

Drawing of a gathering of people in front of a tent - most are Maori, several are White. A Maori man bends over to sign a document on a table, while others look on. A White man in a military hat sits at the table watching the proceedings.
Figure 19.3 This illustration, done by Maori artist Ōriwa Tahupōtiki Haddon, depicts Maori chiefs signing the Treaty of Waitangi with representatives of the British Crown in 1840. This treaty is recognized as granting the Maori people rights to the services and resources of the federal New Zealand government. (credit: “The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi” by Ōriwa Haddon/Archives New Zealand/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Membership in a Tribal Community

Tribal relations among mixed-race Indigenous people in the United States are governed according to a series of rights first created through federal laws and policies, then later adopted by individual tribal nations. Tribal nations now have the right to manage their own membership laws and policies, with each tribe setting its own blood quantum rules for membership. Blood quantum refers to a genealogical relationship to one’s original tribal people. Full-blooded Native people issue from parents who are both full-blooded members of a tribe, while half-blooded Native people have parents or grandparents who have at least 50 percent Native blood. A person can even be a full-blooded Native, with parents from two tribes, but be considered half-blooded by the tribe they are enrolled in because the tribe only acknowledges the Indigenous blood from the enrollment tribe (Ellinghaus 2017). Some of the terms for people of mixed heritage in the Americas are mestizo (common in Latin America) and Métis (common in Canada). Some nations, such as Canada, assign different rights to people of mixed Indigenous heritage; Métis communities are accorded different rights from First Nations communities.

Although Indigenous heritage is preferred in most Native communities, the rate of outmarriage is such that pure Indigenous bloodlines are becoming rare. In the United States, most Native people have mixed heritage. An exception is the Navajo Nation, which has a significant number of full-blooded Navajo members due to its large population of more than 300,000 members.

Normally, individuals have to prove they have a blood quantum of a certain percentage to enroll in a tribe. Some tribal policies require a strict accounting of only the bloodlines that originate within that tribe. Other tribes allow for any Indigenous blood as counting toward membership requirements. The latter policy is closer to the cultural practices followed by many Native peoples before they became wards of the federal government. It was common for many tribes to adopt people who moved into their area and took up their culture. In addition, marriage customs of all tribes, which disallowed marriage between individuals too closely related, encouraged members to marry outside of their village or tribe. Spouses brought into a village would be adopted without discrimination. In tribes in Oregon, women would more commonly go to their husbands’ villages. In other cultures, such as that of the Seneca of the Northeast, men would move to their wives’ villages.

Some scholars view blood quantum as a means for the United States government to prevent people from claiming tribal heritage, ultimately causing tribes to self-terminate. This view is not shared by all tribal peoples. Blood quantum was written into most tribal constitutions in the 1930s as a means of determining tribal citizenships. This policy has caused numerous problems in contemporary communities, where tribal members sometimes attempt to marry their cousins in order to “marshal” their blood—that is, raise or maintain the percentage of blood quantum in their offspring (Nenemay 2005). Scholars have noted that most tribes will continue to lose members due to outmarriage unless membership requirements are changed, even though most blood quantum requirements are currently well below one-half. Many tribal communities are shifting policies so that individuals can claim tribal membership by establishing descent from an enrolled tribal member (Thornton 1997).

Membership in the Grand Ronde tribe of Oregon requires a 1/16 blood quantum of Grand Ronde blood and an ancestor or parent who was on a tribal roll or record in the past. The tribe counts only genealogical connection to original tribal residents of the reservation. Unfortunately, many people have moved on and off the reservation over the years, and records have not been accurately maintained. Proving past residence on the reservation is difficult. In addition, more restrictive changes to the membership requirements since 1999 have reduced the number of members. One controversial change made in 1999 requires that the parent of a potential new member must have been enrolled in the tribe at the time of the prospective member’s birth. This change denies membership to the children of those who became members after having children and the children of those born during the period between 1956 and 1983, when tribal rolls were not maintained. One result has been split families, in which younger children born when their parents were on the tribal roll are deemed members, while their older siblings are not eligible for enrollment.

The issue has become politicized at the reservation, with some enrolled members fearing that a flood of new enrollments would impact services and funds and others wanting to expand enrollment to allow more descendants into the tribe. These questions of identity, both political and social, will likely continue to excite debate in the coming decades, as many tribes acknowledge that unless they change membership requirements, they may cease to exist in the future.

Tribal Groups and Communities

Most Indigenous communities are extremely poor and face a number of challenges resulting from centuries of colonization, settlement, and exploitation. In the United States, Canada, and Australia, Indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated to reservations, often marginal lands “set aside” for Native peoples after European settlers and colonists claimed their original homelands. Many North American reservation communities have been, and continue to be, kept in a state of perpetual poverty. Reservations typically have few employment opportunities, high substance addiction and alcoholism rates, and high morbidity rates caused by long-term persistent poverty. Some tribes have been successful in making good education available to young people through successes in casino development and effective management of federal education grants, but there is a significant disparity of completion rates at all levels of education. A 2011 report by the Higher Education Research Institute found that among those enrolled in four-year degree programs, approximately 17 percent of Native students completed the degree within four years, compared to 45 percent of Asian students, 43 percent of White students, 26 percent of Latinx/Latina/Latino students, and 21 percent of Black students (DeAngelo et al. 2011, 10; see also Al-Asfour and Abraham 2016).

In the United States, tribal reservations were historically prevented from developing their own industries by the Nonintercourse Act sections of the Trade and Intercourse Acts. This legislation made it illegal to sell products beyond the borders of a reservation, which were viewed in the same way as state borders. Tribes can petition Congress to approve a reservation-based industry, but the petition can take decades to be approved. Many reservations have languished for two centuries with few or no jobs or opportunities for Native peoples (Miller 2012). Those who leave reservations for jobs rarely return as full-time residents. Still, Indigenous people on reservations in the United States enjoy the comfort of living within their own cultures and face less discrimination in their communities than they would in White-dominated communities.

People of mixed Indigenous heritage who can “pass” as White have often done so, thus abandoning their Indigenous ancestry. Many took advantage of opportunities to move to cities and get jobs as “White” people, enjoying the pay and social benefits that went along with those jobs and social identities. This path was followed by many Native people in the United States beginning in the later 19th century. The exodus to the cities reached a peak in the 1950s and 1960s following the United States’ termination of the status of 109 tribes. Termination refers to a US federal policy adopted in 1953 that voided the treaty agreements between the federal government and Native peoples. The US government then repossessed and sold reservation property in a process called liquidation. Terminated tribal peoples were released from reservation lifeways with no money or resources. They were no longer federally recognized Native peoples and had no rights to ask for federal services or assistance. Most of the tribes that underwent termination were restored beginning in the 1970s.

Many of those who underwent termination moved to urban environments in search of work, resulting on populations of “ urban Indian” communities. During World War II, the Keiser Shipyards in Portland employed a number of Native people, many of them women, who left regional reservations for work. The twentieth century trend of Native peoples moving to cities creating has resulted in significant populations of “urban Indians.”

Today, the majority of Native people in the United States live in urban environments. This movement has created tensions within Indigenous communities. The phrase “urban Indian” has taken on negative connotations within some Indigenous contexts. Some “reservation Indians” accuse urban Natives of willingly giving up their status, land, and culture. While some urban Natives struggle with feeling disconnected from their tribal identities, many maintain a connection with reservation communities by visiting on weekends and holidays and participating in special events such as tribal government meetings.

Urban Native communities typically include groups to benefit Native people, such as educational and culture-based organizations and civic-minded business associations. Many of these groups include people from various tribes who work together to plan community spiritual activities such as powwows, support urban Indigenous food systems, or serve on culture-based committees. Tribal nations often have offices in urban communities that offer services to their citizens and serve as a site of sovereign activities of the tribe. Indigenous-language learning groups are now quite common in urban centers, especially at universities and tribal offices. Universities in many ways form cultural centers for urban Indigenous people, offering Native centers, employing Indigenous scholars, and funding cultural activities and events.

There are several tribal offices in Portland, Oregon, which has one of the largest concentrations of off-reservation Native people in the United States, with an estimated 40,000 people of Native descent. On the west side of town is the Portland-area office of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. This office hosts weekly cultural education programs called Lifeways, which are free to tribal community members, along with classes in wood carving, drawing, storytelling, and the Chinuk Wawa language. Other services offered to tribal members living in the Portland metro area include jobs programs, food distributions, and a large boardroom equipped for hosting formal meetings. Also in Portland are the offices of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Native American Youth and Family Center education organization, the Oregon Native American Chamber of Commerce, and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. Portland is the site of community organizations such as the Bow and Arrow Culture Club, which hosts annual cultural gatherings and the large intertribal Delta Park Powwow. The radio station KBOO (90.7) consistently features Native programming.

The Native population of Portland is a broad mixture of enrolled tribal people and unenrolled descendant people from throughout the United States. There are also large numbers of Indigenous peoples from other countries, with concentrations of Latina/Latino and Pacific Islander peoples. In addition, the Hawaiian community has deep roots in the region due to the inclusion of Hawaiian labor in the 19th-century fur trade of the Pacific Northwest.

20th-Century Challenges

In the 20th century, some tribes grew self-sufficient or even wealthy by harvesting or extracting the natural resources on their reservations. The land of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma was found to contain vast reserves of underground oil. Members of the nation who had oil under their allotments became wealthy, so much so that some were among the wealthiest people on the planet during the height of the oil boom. But soon after acquiring this wealth, White neighbors began marrying into the tribe. Tribal members began being murdered, and authorities were slow to launch any investigations. Eventually, White relatives ended up owning much of the Osage lands. The story of the Osage murders is documented in several books, including Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, which was made into a motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese.

An aerial view of many long buildings lining a main street. Approximately two dozen oil derricks are visible in the background.
Figure 19.4 An oil field in the town of Denoya, on the Osage Reservation. Although the discovery of oil on their lands initially brought some members of the Osage Nation considerable wealth, it also made them the target of unscrupulous White neighbors. Many Osage were murdered, with their White relatives coming into possession of their land and the petroleum beneath it. (credit: Oklahoma Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In a similar story, the Klamath tribe of Oregon established a very successful logging operation on their reservation in the early 20th century. The reservation included a million acres of ponderosa pine. The Klamath people established sawmills and sold the timber off the reservation, becoming quite wealthy. They even built an airfield on the reservation. But their prosperity did not last. The federal government had been serving as the bank administrator of the Klamath money and managing their profits. It became apparent that some money had gone missing and that the land was being poorly managed by federal agents. The tribe successfully sued the government for mismanagement, but they only received a percentage of the money they were owed.

In the 1940s, tribal liquidation/termination began to be discussed with the Klamath people. Some Klamath people initially liked the idea of termination because it would free them from control by the federal government. They were initially told they would receive their reservation land, but the government later told them the land would be sold. Termination began in 1954. In 1961, the remaining unsold reservation lands were turned into the Winema National Forest. Klamath members were forced to leave their homelands and find employment in regional cities. The result of termination was that the Klamath lost their land and many rights as Native people. Their population was dispersed, making it difficult to keep the culture alive. By the 1960s, most of the tribal languages were extinct, and many people had lost connections with their tribal past. In the 1970s, some of the tribal elders, many who had remained in the vicinity of the original reservation, began activating for restoration. The tribe was restored in 1983 (Lewis 2009).

An extreme example of the disenfranchisement of Native people is the movement of Indigenous peoples who were part of the Okie migration of the 1930s. The Okie migration was to the movement of people out of Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl crisis, in which agriculture yields collapsed due to drought and poor land management practices. Topsoil blew away in large clouds, and thousands lost their land and their jobs. These thousands included a large percentage of mixed-blood Native people. Those who could no longer earn a living farming the degraded land moved west in search of work in Arizona, California, Oregon, and other western states. These migrants led difficult lives, working at low-paying jobs and moving constantly in search of seasonal work. One result of this movement westward was a shift of Native populations to the West and a related collapse of tribal populations in Oklahoma. Among the artifacts of the Okie migration are photographs taken by federal workers who visited the migrant encampments. Likely the most famous of these images is the one now known as Migrant Mother, taken in 1936 by photographer Dorothea Lange. The subject of Lange’s photo has been identified as Florence Thompson, a Cherokee woman.

A woman with a concerned look on her face stares off into the distance while two children huddle against her, their faces hidden.
Figure 19.5 Migrant Mother, one of the most famous photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, features a Cherokee woman, Florence Thompson. Like many people during this period, she and her family moved from place to place following farm work during the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s. (credit: “Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of Seven Children. Age Thirty-Two. Nipomo, California” by Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress, Public Domain)

By the 1970s, most Indigenous people in the United States were still very poor. In this period, a number of laws were passed to help Native people. These laws gave tribes the rights to control their cultures, educate their people, and administer their own foster care. These rights were difficult to act on, however, without financial resources. In the 1980s, tribes began seeking new ways of making money to take care of their citizens. In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This law allowed Native peoples to establish casinos on their reservations. The caveat is that tribes must “compact” with the state they reside in to secure the right to operate a casino. Many Indigenous people have criticized this stipulation, stating that needing to ask permission places them at a lower level of sovereignty than the states. According to the federal government’s own laws, tribal reservations are federal trust lands with sovereignty on par of that of the states. Still, most tribes have compacted with the states they reside within, agreeing as part of the compact to cede a percentage of casino profits to the state to aid with funding for services such as education and road maintenance. Tribal casino profits have made it possible for many tribes to establish fully operational governments that offer services and programs for their members in areas such as health care, housing, education, and jobs.

There have been challenges to tribes’ rights to establish casinos, the most notable occurring in California during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure as governor. Governor Schwarzenegger refused for years to meet with Native representatives to discuss a statewide casino compact, even after voters overwhelmingly approved tribal casinos twice. The tribes felt that Nevada casino operators, who could lose significant revenue from the competition, were influencing the California government. The tribes won a lawsuit in 1999, and many tribes subsequently signed compacts with the state. There have been continued lawsuits against California stating that the compacts require too large a portion of casino profits. Still, tribes in California now have the right to establish casinos, and the income is greatly improving services to tribal members.

A large, modern building in a desert with several wing-like structures in the shape of nets surrounding it.
Figure 19.6 Morongo Casino Resort and Spa in Cabazon, California, operated by the Morongo Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians, is one of hundreds of tribal casinos across the United States. Many have incorporated cultural elements into their design, such as Morongo’s woven net design. (credit: “Morongo Casino Resort & Spa Is an Indian Gaming Casino, of the Morongo Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians, Located in Cabazon, California” by Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress, Public Domain)


Indigenous peoples have undergone some five centuries of colonization. During this time, the societal structures of the colonial states have emphasized the perspectives of non-Indigenous peoples, broadly identified as White people. Histories have been written to benefit White people, to support their colonizing cultures and to legitimize their takeover of vast territories from Indigenous peoples. Minority perspectives, including Indigenous perspectives, have not been emphasized and have even been sometimes intentionally repressed. Indigenous peoples have struggled with disempowerment in their sovereign relations with state systems and in legal proceedings over their sovereign rights. Many Indigenous peoples still struggle to prove that they are part of a legitimate nation. State-sponsored erasure of Native culture and history has caused losses of and changes to tribal cultures and languages.

Beginning the later 20th century, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have noted that history has long been presented in a way that is biased toward a White perspective. This bias has been critiqued as a form of systemic racism. In most academic institutions, until relatively recently, most if not all professors were White. There were few opportunities for Indigenous people to establish positions of influence over the presentation and study of Indigenous history and culture. Native studies programs began to be developed at various universities in the United States in the 1970s, a movement that coincided with greater opportunities for Indigenous scholars to conduct research on their own peoples. Indigenous people are now actively working to write their own histories and describe their cultures and philosophies from Indigenous perspectives. Indigenous scholarship has made great strides, but there is still a hesitancy in academia to allow Indigenous people to establish positions of authority or introduce Indigenous ways of thinking. Among the academic disciplines, anthropology in particular has made strong progress in recognizing the value and validity of Indigenous perspectives.

An interesting example of recent changes in approaches to Indigenous perspectives is the ongoing debate over oral histories. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous “myth texts” were collected from tribes and studied by anthropologists, linguists, and folklorists. Studies of this material typically utilized a linguistic or philosophical framework. The texts were understood, much like Greek mythology, as supernatural stories with a special focus on the godlike animals appearing in them, such as Coyote, Raven, and Blue Jay. Also of interest to early scholars of such texts were their performative aspects and the metaphorical commentary they offered about human existence. A debate emerged between some scholars such as Dell Hymes, who noted that the texts were most valuable as “original texts” or direct ethnographic translations, and others such as Claude Levi-Strauss, who concluded that there was no original text and every version was plagiarized from a previous storyteller. In this authenticity debate, the texts were treated as literature, with little recognition of the historical events appearing in many of the stories (Hegeman 1989). This inability to see the historical value of these texts reflects a bias toward written material and against knowledge presented via oral tradition.

Read about how translations of oral histories are analyzed and updated in the online journal Quartux.


David Lewis, the author of this chapter, discusses the loss of many native languages and reads translations of "A Kalapuya Prophecy".

Many of these assumptions about myth texts have changed in the past 70 years. One study of Crater Lake in Oregon, conducted by geologists in the 1940s, determined that the lake was on the site of what once had been a large volcano, Mount Mazama, known as Moy Yaina by the Indigenous people of the area. When the volcano exploded, the top of the mountain fell inside the cone and formed a caldera, which in time filled with water, resulting in Crater Lake. This event happened some 7,000 years ago. This established geological event is reflected in Indigenous oral traditions. A Klamath tribal oral history tells the story of two mountains, Moy Yaina and Mlaiksi (Mount Shasta in California), having a fight. The Klamath oral history clearly delineates a double volcanic event, with Moy Yaina and Mlaiksi erupting at the same time, but Moy Yaina erupted with a larger explosion and therefore lost the fight. Geological evidence of the explosion spoken of in this myth indicates that Klamath oral history does indeed reflect actual history. Similar oral histories of thousands of Indigenous peoples are now acknowledged to reflect many natural events, especially those that significantly changed the earth in some manner. Oral histories of tsunamis, Ice Age floods, volcanic eruptions, catastrophic fires, and other events are now acknowledged in the stories of many peoples. New understandings of the legitimacy of Indigenous oral histories are leading to increased research into numerous areas of Indigenous knowledge systems.

A large lake surrounded by rocky mountains, with a small island in the center.
Figure 19.7 Crater Lake, Oregon, and the remains of Mount Mazama. Wizard Island in the center is the original top of Mazama, having fallen into the volcanic cone some 7,000 years ago. A record of these geological events is evident in the oral traditions of Indigenous peoples native to this area. (credit: “Crater Lake National Park, United States” by Amy Hanley/Unsplash, Public Domain)

Ethnographic Sketches

Kalapuyan Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Written by David Lewis.

The Kalapuya of the Willamette Valley were native to the interior lands of western Oregon. The Willamette River and its tributaries drained the Willamette Valley and joined with the Columbia River in the vicinity of present-day Portland. The river served as a highway of trade and travel about the valley and to the trading center at Willamette Falls. The Kalapuya had salmon runs, but not the concentration of salmon fishery sites seen on the Columbia River. They did have expansive prairies and oak savannas that supported a vegetable-rich lifeway. Hunting of deer and elk was always a part of their lives, but they followed a lifestyle of camping at root-digging sites through the summers. Root camps would be established in midsummer near a camas field. They would dig camas for a week, then cook the camas in pit ovens while in the camp. The camas bulbs would cook for three to four days in the underground ovens, changing to a brown color. The cooked bulbs became sweet and were highly desired by the Kalapuya. Cooked camas would be stored in cool underground storage spaces or hung in plank houses for wintertime use. The Kalapuya would store many types of roots and grains in this manner and would also prepare dried salmon and meat for winter storage. In the fall, acorns and hazelnuts could be gathered, and in marshy lakes or the Willamette slough, wapato could be gathered in great quantities. Wapato, or Indian potato, would be stored or traded to other peoples for other foods and trade items. The Tualatin Kalapuya, a northern Willamette Valley tribe of Kalapuya, especially had much wapato at Wapato Lake as well as large amounts of oak savanna on the Tualatin plains. Almost all foods were gathered and prepared in the encampments and then brought back to the villages later. Acorns would be gathered, shelled, and left to rest in cool creeks to let the tannins leach out, then dried and ground into a meal. From this, the Kalapuya would create a mush cooked in woven baskets. Hazelnuts would be shelled and dried on hot rocks in the sun, then eaten on the spot or saved for later. Hazel switches would be harvested from the bushes to make strong baskets. At other times of the year, some Kalapuya would travel into the mountains to pick berries or gather weaving materials for making baskets. Baskets, hats, and large woven mats made from tules and cattails for sitting or lying on would be used by the maker or traded for other items. Most weaving materials would have to be dried for a year before being rehydrated and woven into a useful basket.

The Kalapuya were very community oriented. If other Kalapuya or neighboring tribal peoples were starving, they would help them and feed them. Trade could happen at any time of the year, but in the winters, Kalapuya might approach neighboring tribes to trade for additional food or wealth items they desired. Dried and smoked salmon could be acquired from the Clackamas and Multnomah, who would prepare plenty when the salmon ran. From the Coos, they acquired seashells. The Klickitat had exceptionally good baskets, and the Chinook had canoes and prepared salmon as well as items from throughout the trading sphere of the Columbia River. The Kalapuya specialized in camas and root digging and were dependent on other tribes for quantities of other products.

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