The Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla peoples comprise a confederation whose homeland is a 172,000-acre reservation in northeastern Oregon: 158,000 acres east of Pendleton as well as 14,000 acres in areas southeast of Pilot Rock. Their languages consist of English, Sahaptin, and Nez Perce dialects.
A brief history
The aboriginal story began thousands of years ago. The ancestors' homeland of nearly six and a half million acres encompassed the Columbia River Plateau in today's southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. Their religion has been variously called the Dream, Seven Drums, or Washat, which professes belief in one creator and the resurrection of the spirit after death, as well as the organic unity between people and the earth.
The original bands subsisted by fishing, hunting, gathering other foods and concocting medicines. In addition, they took part in trade with other bands that extended from the Pacific coast to Great Plains.
The advent of the horse, which Europeans introduced into the Americas at the end of the 15th century, extended the tribes' mobility and range, and improved trade by increasing contact with the region’s other tribes. The size of the herds they husbanded have been estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 animals. The Cayuse bred a small horse called the cayuse. The name eventually became the standard term for Native American horses.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the encroachment of such non-Indian outsiders as trappers, missionaries, settlers and U.S. soldiers, changed the land and significantly impacted the tribes' lifeways. Before the beginning of European hegemony and diseases, the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla population was believed to be 8,000. By the 21st century, descendants would constitute about one third of that number.
In 1855, the tribes and the U.S. Government negotiated a treaty that allowed the latter to legally claim the land and smooth the way for pioneers to settle on it. The tribes relinquished most of their 6.4 million acres in exchange for a reserved territory of 250,000 acres. The three tribes also reserved rights in the treaty that included the prerogative to fish at their customary places and to hunt and gather traditional foods and medicines on ceded lands. The tribes also reserved forever their rights to pasture livestock and maintain self-government.
As an outcome of congressional legislation in the latter 19th century, the 250,000-acre reservation was reduced to its current 172,000 acres.
The confederation today
Consistent with their traditional lifeways, the tribes endeavor to preserve the land, water, fish and other wildlife, their cultural lifeways and tribal autonomy. Like so many of their peers of other Indian nations, they straddle two worlds: one of the elders' languages, customs and teachings, and one of 21st century mass information and technology.
There are an estimated 2,446 tribal members. About 1,500 Native Americans actually live on the reservation, 400 of them from other tribes. Approximately 1,500 non-natives reside there as well, bringing the total reservation population to around 3,000.
In 1949, tribal leaders embraced the form of sovereign government that exists today. A general council consisting of members aged 18 and older elects a board of trustees, a nine-member governing body that attends to everyday confederation business. The board sets policies and makes decisions for their implementation by a staff of nearly 700.
Today, the confederation's economy consists of agriculture, commercial development, fishing, hunting, livestock, recreation and timber. In addition to tribal government employees, another 450 are employed at Wildhorse Resort, which includes the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.
Other tribal enterprises include:
Tribal Farm Enterprises
Lucky Seven Trailer Court
Indian Lake and Campgrounds
Oregon Trail Museum
Significant confederation activities
The Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla hold powwows at home and attend others in the Northwest during the year. An example is the Wildhorse powwow held in July, featuring drummers, dancers, food and craft booths. It is free and open to the public.
The annual Salmon Walk is a fundraiser festival for the local schools' natural resources curriculum. The day includes running and bicycle races, children's diversions, viewing spawning salmon, and a salmon bake. The walk is held in August at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.
The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development designated the confederation's Umatilla Basin Salmon Recovery Project as an Honoring Nations 2002 honoree:
"The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) initiated the Umatilla Salmon Recovery Project in 1980 to restore water and salmon to the Umatilla River while also protecting the local economy, which depends on irrigated agriculture. Remarkable both for its success in bringing salmon back to a river where they had been absent for 70 years and in the avoiding endless cycles of litigation frequently associated with natural resource and species restoration conflicts, the Project demonstrates the effectiveness of cooperative problem-solving."
The Tamastslikt Cultural Institute creates rotating exhibits that further reveal the history, culture and customs of the three tribes. An example is the Wildhorse Round-up, a photographic exhibit of personal photos.