Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Plateau

Yakama woman, photographed 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 mainly 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]

There are several distinguishing features that differentiate plateau culture from the surrounding native cultures. These include a high reliance on roots, such as biscuitroot and camas, as a food source, a high reliance on short duration salmon and eel runs, and long-term habitation of winter villages at fixed locations along rivers or lakes. There was a lack of social stratification and a lack of tribal organization beyond the village level.


Kutenai Woman, 1910 photogravure by Edward Curtis

In Canada, the greater part of the Interior Plateau was inhabited by Interior Salish peoples: 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, the upper parts of the Thompson River basin, and areas further east; the Okanagan of the Okanagan River Valley and its vicinity; also the Lakes people of the Arrow Lakes. The Kutenai tribe, who live in the southeastern parts of British Columbia and formerly extended to southwestern Alberta, speak an isolate language. Athapaskan-speaking people, the Chilcotin and Carrier, occupy the northernmost part of the Plateau region.

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 bandsEdit

Plateau tribes include the following:

Chinook peoplesEdit

Interior SalishEdit

Sahaptin peopleEdit

Other or multipleEdit


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]

Material cultureEdit

Indian camas, Camassia quamash


Traditional Plateau cuisine 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 textilesEdit

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.[2] 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.[3]


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. 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.


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.[4]

Interior Salish winter homes are distinct from those of First Nations in the area. They were semi-subterranean pit-houses, with well insulated roofs. Logs were carved into steps at the entrances. Dried food was stored outside these winter houses. In the summer, the Salishan people lived in tule mat houses.[5]

Other tribes made their homes out of pieces of cedar or spruce bark. The slanted roofs of cedar homes extended near to the ground, while the spruce-bark houses resembles to adjacent tents.


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.


Sherman Alexie, Spokane/Coeur d'Alene novelist, screenwriter, and poet[6]

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. ^ Pritzker, 250
  3. ^ Connelly, Tom. "The World's Oldest Shoes" Archived 4 April 2012 at WebCite, University of Oregon (retrieved 31 March 2010)
  4. ^ Pritzker 269
  5. ^ "Interior Salish". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  6. ^ "Official Sherman Alexie Biography" Archived 2 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Falls Apart, 2009 (retrieved 23 Dec 2009)


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