Yakima (Native Americans of the Plateau)

Yakima (Ya ku mu), "runaway," the common name for the people who called themselves Waptailmim, "People of the Narrow River." The Yakima people may have originated from members of neighboring tribes such as the Palouse and Nez Perce.

Location The Yakima homeland is located along the Columbia, Wenatchee, and Yakima Rivers in southern Washington. It includes lands from the Cascade summits to the Columbia River.

Population The late-eighteenth-century (precontact) population was about 7,000. By 1805 the population had fallen to half of that. A 1910 reservation census noted the population at 1,362. Today, Yakimas are among the over 6,000 Indians enrolled in the Yakima Nation. Yakimas also live off-reservation and in regional cities and towns.

Language Yakima is a member of the Sahaptian division of the Penutian language family.

Historical Information

History Yakima bands acquired horses by the early eighteenth century and began hunting buffalo on the Great Plains. Horses brought them wealth, but even though the people acquired certain aspects of Plains culture, they did not become wholesale buffalo hunters as some other Plateau tribes did. In 1805 the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived; many trappers, missionaries, and traders soon followed. The missionaries found reluctant converts. By the early to mid-nineteenth century, the Yakima had suffered dramatic population reductions owing to disease as well as to warfare with the Shoshone.


In 1855, the governor of Washington forced local Indians to cede 10.8 million acres of land. Most tribes agreed to accept a 1.2-million-acre reservation. Shortly thereafter, gold was discovered north of the Spokane River. Although Indians retained fishing and gathering rights at their usual off-reservation places and were given two to three years to relocate after they signed the 1855 treaty, the governor declared their land open to non-Indians 12 days after the treaty council.

Friction was inevitable at this point. Miners killed some Yakimas, and the Indians retaliated in kind. When soldiers arrived, a large group of Indians drove them away. In response to the treacherous murder of a Wallawalla chief and negotiator, the Wallawalla, Palouse, Cayuse, and Umatilla Indians joined the Yakimas in fighting non-Indians. The war spread in 1856. Seattle was attacked, and southern Oregon tribes joined the fighting; that part of the conflict was called the Rogue River war. The Coeur d’Alene war of 1858, in which Yakimas also participated, was essentially another part of the same conflict.

In 1859, following the end of the fighting and the execution of 24 Yakimas, the Indians agreed to settle on a reservation. The future Yakima Indian Nation included, in addition to the Yakima bands, the Klickitat, Wanapam, Wishram, Palus (Palouse), and the Wenatchi. Reservation Yakimas entered a brief period of relative prosperity under a worthy Indian agent. Soon, however, facing the usual pressures to sell their land, most Indians were forced into poverty, mitigated in part by some seasonal work.

By 1891, about one-third of the reservation land had been allotted to individuals, but the Yakima Nation, under Chief Shawaway Lotiahkan, retained the "surplus" usually sold to non-Indians in such cases. Still, much land that had been allotted to Indians was soon lost, including some of the best irrigated land. Around the turn of the century as much as 80 percent of the reservation was in non-Indian hands. Some Indians also established homesteads on original village sites off of the reservation. Despite government attempts to eradicate it, Indians retained their Wdashat (Longhouse) religion.

Dams (Bonneville, 1938; Grand Coulee, 1941; Dalles, 1956) destroyed the native fisheries. During the course of the twentieth century, the number of salmon and steelhead that returned to spawn in the Yakima River declined by about 99 percent. The issue of fishing rights remained an important and controversial one from the beginning of the reservation period through its resolution in the Boldt decision of 1974.

Well into the twentieth century, Yakimas continued much of their traditional subsistence and ceremonial activities. In the 1950s, their longstanding fishing place, Celilo Falls, was lost to a dam. A tribal renaissance began around that time, however. It included the development of several tribal industries such as a furniture factory, clothing manufactures, and a ceramic center as well as an all-Indian rodeo.


Religion Yakima Indians believed in a creator as well as the existence of animal spirits. The latter could be helpful in life and were sought in remote places by adolescent boys. Shamans’ powerful spirits allowed them to cure illness. Most important ceremonies had to do with first food (salmon, root, berry) feasts.

Government Autonomous bands were led by leaders selected partly by merit and also by heredity. The bands came together under a head chief in times of celebration and danger.

Customs Groups of families lived together in permanent winter villages, where they raced, gambled, and held festivals. During the rest of the year individual families dispersed to hunt, fish, and gather food. Corpses were buried in pits where they were sometimes cremated as well. Graves were marked by a ring of stones. More than one individual may have been buried and cremated at a time. Burials also occurred in rock slides, where they were marked with stakes.

Dwellings The winter lodge consisted of a semi subterranean, rectangular, pole-frame structure covered with mats and earth. Skin-covered tip is were adopted during the eighteenth century.

Diet Fish, especially salmon (five kinds), steelhead trout, eel, and sturgeon, was the staple. Fish was eaten fresh or dried, ground, and stored. People also ate game, roots, berries, and nuts.

Key Technology Men fished using platforms, weirs, dip nets, harpoons, and traps. They hunted using bow and arrow and deadfalls. Other technological items included skin bags, baskets (some watertight), and carved wooden utensils.

Trade Yakimas participated in aboriginal trade activities as well as the early-nineteenth-century fur trade. Prominent trade items included skins, shells, beads, feathers, baskets, and reed mats.

Notable Arts Fine arts included tanned skins, decorated with shells, beads, and feathers, as well as baskets and reed mats.

Transportation People negotiated their territory using dugout canoes and snowshoes. Horses arrived in the early eighteenth century.

Dress Breechclouts, aprons, vests, and moccasins were made of skins. Fur robes were added in cold weather. Plains-style leggings and dresses became popular in the eighteenth century.

War and Weapons In the early nineteenth century the Yakima fought many wars with the Shoshone.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Yakima Reservation and Trust Lands (1859) are located in Klikitat, Lewis, and Yakima Counties, Washington. They contain roughly 1.4 million acres. The 1990 Indian population was 6,296, of a total population of well over 27,000. The Yakima Nation is governed by a 14-member elected tribal council of both sexes.

Yakima Indians are also members of the Columbia River Indians, who live primarily in Priest Rapids, Cooks Landing, Billieville, and Georgeville, Washington; in Celilo, Oregon; and in non-Indian communities. The Council of Columbia River Chiefs meets in Celilo, Oregon. The community at Priest Rapids is directly descended from that of Smohalla, a founder of the Dreamer or Longhouse religion.

Economy Timber is the Yakima Nation’s main income producer; its forest products industry includes a furniture manufacturing plant. The nation maintains extensive range and farmland. However, 80 percent of irrigated land remains leased by non-Indians. The Wapato Project provides the Indians with control over their own water. The tribe has spent over $50 million to purchase former lands.

The Yakima-Klickitat Fish Production Project, a cooperative effort between the Yakima Nation and Washington State, is a major fishery restoration/ conservation venture. An industrial park contains Indian and non-Indian industries. The Yakima Land Enterprise operates fruit orchards and stands and a recreational vehicle park. Other employment is provided by the government and the nation as well as by small business enterprises. Still, unemployment fluctuates between about 30 and 60 percent, and up to 75 percent of the people live below the poverty level.

Legal Status The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Indian Nation is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Columbia River Indians are not federally recognized. Lawsuits over water use from the Yakima River system are pending.

Daily Life Many people follow the Longhouse (Seven Drums) religion as well as sweat house customs and first foods feasts. The four reservations longhouses serve as the locus of Indian identity and are used for ceremonial occasions. Longhouse families throughout the Plateau region are linked together, mostly through marriage. The Indian Shaker religion is also active on the reservation, as are several Christian churches.

Yakimas maintain many aspects of traditional culture, including family customs, service, and leadership. Although most live in nuclear families, elders remain of key importance to Yakima society. The language is alive and well, especially as part of religious ceremonies and among more traditional people. Adults and children may take classes to strengthen their native language skills. Yakima basketry is still an important art and craft.

The Yakima Reservation boasts a huge, full-service tribal cultural center, museum, and restaurant in addition to two community centers and an elders’ retirement center. There is an emphasis on education, with the tribe providing incentives such as scholarships and summer programs. Children attend public school on the reservation. The reservation also sponsors a tribally run school; a private, accredited, four-year liberal arts college; tribal newspapers; and a radio station. It hosts an annual all-Indian rodeo, a powwow, a huckleberry festival, and several basketball tournaments. In 1972, the government restored about 22,000 acres of land to the Yakima Nation, including the sacred Pahto (Mt. Adams).

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