Kalapuyans: Seasonal Lifeways, TEK, Anthropocene

Kalapuyan History (summary)

From original 25,000 Kalapuyan people (estimated) in 19 tribes and bands, they were reduced to about 800 by 1850 through diseases like malaria. The loss of population caused cultural collapse and the confederation of many different villages to a very few. This left the land open to settlement from other tribes and American settlers. Americans encountered a park-like setting, a vast flat clear prairie with a mild climate and plenty of water, perfect for agriculture. The collapse of Native culture caused the collapse of most maintenance of the environment.

Section of Western Oregon map showing Kalapuyan territories
Section of Western Oregon map showing Kalapuyan territories

The Tribes were removed to the Reservations in 1856, after signing treaties, the tribes of Western Oregon signed away 19 million acres for 1.16 million acres for reservations for collectively .02 an acre.

Labeled as Hunter-Gatherers by Anthropologists; under examination, the Kalapuyans appear to be more complex than that simple definition.

Kalapuyan Seasonal Round

All tribes in Oregon had the practice of the seasonal round. This is a complex annual system of family groups or whole villages moving to where resources are ready for harvest, hunting or fishing. Many resources, processed in the field, would be returned to winter villages for storage. Families owned specific gathering locations, traded at trading centers in a cultural pattern existed for an estimated 8,000-10,000 years.


The Kalapuya calendar, gathered in 1877 by Albert Gatschet at the Grand Ronde Reservation, emphasizes the seasonal round of the Tualatin Kalapuyans. They followed the annual cycles of the wapato and camas food plants. There is one mention of hunting on the calendar and numerous months mentioning the plants, suggest that they followed the plant cycles, more than the cycles of hunting or fishing. This suggests that they ate a plant-based diet and augmented their diet with meat and fish when they could, but their mainstay was the starchy bulbs of the wapato and camas. Acorns would have also been a staple as they are plentiful in the valley.


Tualatin Kalapuya Calendar, Albert Gatschet 1877
Tualatin Kalapuya Calendar, Albert Gatschet 1877

It was/is common around the world for indigenous peoples to depend mainly on a plant-based diet and ingest few meats. Americans, and contemporary culture may be biased towards thinking that meat-based diets are the best for human consumption.  The majority of cultures in the world, through time, only had meat occasionally, not as the main course.


The Camas cycle, emphasized in the Kalapuya Calendar above, is here revealed in the ways that ther Kalapuyans traveled about their lands in the annual cycle. Many of us follow these cycles today in Oregon. We have grown up learning the seasonal cycles of the berry plants and agriculture in our valley. We grew up knowing that strawberries are ready at the end of May, after them, cherries, blackberries, blueberries. Many people still follow this cycle and access u-pick opportunities, and many have grown up canning all manner of fruits and vegetables. So we already understand the fundamentals of the plant cycles, and can understand  and empathize with the camas cycle below.


Camas Cycle

April-May: Camas flowers

June: Camas goes to seed

Late June: seed pods are dried

July: Travel to Root Digging Camps

July-August: Dig Camas

July-August: dig cooking pits and cook camas

August: Return to Main village, store processed camas

September-Fall- Travel to Trading villages at Willamette Falls and trade Camas for dried Salmon or other products, resources, wealth items

Annually: Repeat

Graphic of a Camas oven, dug in the ground, layered with hot rocks, blanches, leaves, and camas layers, sections could be subdivided for families, , oven would be covers with earth and hot rock replaced ever day for abotu 3 days to create an oven. the Camas would cook and be carmelized, the starches transformed to useable proteins for human consumption
Graphic of a Camas oven, dug in the ground, layered with hot rocks, blanches, leaves, and camas layers, sections could be subdivided for families, oven would be covered with earth and hot rock replaced ever day for about 3 days to create an oven. the Camas would cook and be carmelized, the starches transformed to useable proteins for human consumption.

Various different plants would be harvested at any of the camps. Staples would have been the most important and drawn the people annually to a camp site, but at the gathering camps many other plants would be available and known. Similar for fishing and hunting camps; the days to weeks spent in these camps would be filled with a variety of activities for the various family members. 3-horticulture 4berries 5-weaving

From the rushes would be woven baskets and clothing and tools for the Kalapuyan households. Tule and cattails would be made into mats for a variety of uses. Cedar is the wonder plant, the bark could be woven into all manner of products, including waterproof clothing and hats, the wood was used for making plankhouses. Bark and wood could be harvested from living trees. Large fallen trees would be made into canoes. Dogbane was twisted into cordage, rope.


Summers collection Kalapuyans baskets at the British Museum
Summers collection Kalapuyans baskets at the British Museum

11-trade 1-tech

Many tribes had unique products they traded into the extensive regional trade network. The Chinookans had master canoe carvers, some tribes were living next to waterfalls and had lots of salmon, sturgeon, eel, and developed unique dip nets for fishing. Different tribes had different basketry styles.

Regional Trade Economy

The Kalapuyans participated in the Columbia Trade network. Their major products were camas and wapato. After the bulbs were processed and packed, they would travel to Willamette Falls and trade for dried salmon or all manner of wealth trade goods. Ocean products (shells, whale products) and prairie products (buffalo hides) would converge in the Columbian trade network. In turn, the Kalapuyans would trade with more southern tribes for what they had. Some reports of the Umpqua valley Kalapuyans, the Yoncalla, suggest they traded buffalo hides with the Coos Bay Indians for shells (Harrington).

11-trade 11-canoes

The rivers were literal highways of trade throughout a wide region. Native traders did not have to remain in their small region, and could travel with canoes widely on the Columbia to find what they wanted. Evidence of the extensive intertribal trade network is first recorded in the Lewis and Clark journals (1805-06). Their maps, suggest a great number of villages and peoples in the lower Columbia, and they encountered many traders in other villages.

Unique arrangement  (D. Lewis 2014) of the Original  Lewis and Clark maps, from the Digital collections at the Beineke Library, Yale U.

The inter-tribal networks were inter-connected by inter-marriage in the region. Intermarriage created good trade relations between chiefs and headmen, and peace in the region.




The Willamette had its own trade network, and a series of Kalapuyan villages which were accessed in the fur trade era.


The Salem area had extensive trade and travel from the Kalapuyans. Salem was known as a camas gathering site. The Chemeketa Plains had the Chemeketa Kalapuyans, aligned with the Santiam, and Lake Labish likely was a huge resource gathering area. Some of the original features of the Chemeketa plains may be preserved at the State fairgrounds and Bush Park, who both feature extensive camas fields and oak savannah. Lake Labish was drained in the early 20th century for more agricultural lands, so that environment was severely impacted.


The Kalapuyans, like all other regional tribes heard of the coming changes to their lands well before the first white men came exploring. Stories of changes would have passed and been told at each trade gathering. Below is a story of a prophesy of change that was told at the Grand Ronde reservation by Mose Hudson (pictured).

Translated and transcribed story, with Kalapuyan below. Kalapuya Texts, Melville Jacobs 1945.



  • Human cultural effects on the land
  • Anthropogenic fires are set by many tribes
  • Annual harvesting of specific plants | berries, acorns, roots, bulbs, weaving plants causes these plants to produce more, causes choosing of these plants for preferential treatment, perhaps spreading of them, replanting, planting of seeds, bulbs, etc.
  • Horticultural practices of allowing plants to grow to a specific size before harvesting and not taking all of the fruit of a plant.
  • Practices maintain the land, create collective knowledge of the landscape or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), normally created by and obtained from the previous generations and passed on through the culture.
Oak Savanahs were/are fire resistant
Oak Savanahs were/are fire resistant

Oak Savannah

Settlers in the mid-19th century encountered a park-like setting where the valley, which appeared to be cleared and ready for their farms. Settlers and later industrialists and business men sought to exploit the environment for their own uses, to save and preserve the naturally occurring timber for industry, and Oregon became one of the largest producers of wood in the world.

Anthropogenic Fires- effects and benefits of the Kalapuyan cultural practices

  • Long term anthropogenic fire
  • Chooses specific plant for survival and for destruction likely causing evolutionary change in plant and animal communities
  • Constantly putting nutrients into the land, increasing the rich nutrient content of the soils of the valley
  • Keeps fire fuels at a nominal level, eliminating the possibility of catastrophic fires
  • Creates and allows for diversity to exist on the landscape for thousands of years by preservign an environment that a diversity of plants survive and eliminating catastrophic fires which would destroy vulnerable communities.
  • Controls, cleans excess diseases, insects, other pests by keeping down populations.
  • Creates important new growth for the plant and animal communities
  • Clears the land of excess vegetation for human travel, human harvest, animal forage, sight lines and vistas.

Fires were recorded in the History of Oregon

It was a custom of these Indians, late in the autumn, after the wild wheat was fairly ripe, to burn off the whole country. The grass would burn away and leave the pods well dried and bursting. Then the squaws, both young and old, would go with their baskets and bats and gather the grain. It is probably we did not yet know that the Indians were wont to baptize the entire country with fire at the close of every summer; but very soon the fire was started somewhere on the south Yamhill, and came sweeping up through the Salt Creek gap.  Jesse Applegate ( remembering 1844)

An anthropogenic pulse is occurring

The removal of Kalapuyan Management of the land, loss of fire management, is a catastrophic environmental event –  equating colonization and removal of Native people to an anthropogenic event. This pulse is happening now, we are in the midst of it, as Americans struggle to understand the deeper lessons of environmental management.

In recent years we have had massive catasrophic fires that have destroyed tens of thousands of acres of woodlands. These fires really began in the late 19th, early 20th centuries with fire suppression as the main way to manage the forests and save the wood for timber production. Now we have over 100 years of fuel build up in our forests. This combined with warmer temperatures overall and we have the makings of catastrophic events, caused by removing anthropologenic fires from our management of the forests and by suppression natural fires.

We are in this midst of an anthropologenic pulse, a change in our world, a change brought about by American actions, by suppression of native cultural practices and native peoples. We are seeing the results of the colonization of the western United States.



TEK- Traditional Ecological Knowledge

  • Knowledge of when specific plants will be ready to harvest
  • Knowledge of herbal and medicinal plants for preparing recipes and healing
  • Interlinked with knowledge of when fish are running, when animals are moving about the land, when birds migrate.
  • Practitioners can “read” the land and when camas is ready to harvest, afterwards its time to travel into the mountains to begin harvesting huckleberries, based on when specific plants flower, or fruit.
  • Salmon runs, Lamprey runs, steelhead runs can be predicted by when specific plants are ready to harvest or flower, a direct association is drawn
  • Similar for Ooligan (Smelt runs) on the coast or on the Sandy river.
  • Harvest (Root & Berry), hunting and fishing camps, are there for one primary resources, but there is knowledge of associated opportunities. (Strawberries at Smelt camp)

This knowledge is a valuable library of information about how to live a long time in harmony with our environment. Native people have been in this region for over 14,000 years. Through working with Native peoples, TEK practitioners, and archived knowledge sources was can find valuable information to return to many of these cultural practices as a society.


Five Directions | For Further Research

https://ndnhistoryresearch.com/ | History and culture of the W. Oregon Tribes

http://straubenvironmentalcenter.org/| Straub Environmental Center

Keeping It Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America By Douglas Deur

https://www.willametteheritage.org/  | Willamette Heritage Center- Methodist Parsonage- Kalapuya Exhibit

http://500nations.com/Oregon_Tribes.asp| connect with Oregon’s tribes


This presentation was originally presented on 11/3/2016 at the Straub Environmental Center, Willamette Heritage Center, Salem, OR. Many elements were added to make it understandable in this format. Elements were borrowed from previous presentations and graphically altered by myself.

4 thoughts on “Kalapuyans: Seasonal Lifeways, TEK, Anthropocene

  1. Nicely organized and presented.

    When the Atfalati informants were interviewed by Gatschet and this “calendar” was made — was it assumed that all the “Kalapuya People” used the same calendar?

    Have you read through the other tribes that interviewed: Yamhill, Luckiamute, Ahantchuyuk, Nestucca, Clackamas, Upper Umpqua [Molala], Klamath?

    Ginny Mapes 25185 NW Svea Drive Hillsboro, OR 97124

    503-647-2896 ginny@coho.net


  2. Thank you for this description of the “camas cycle”. I live in Glenwood/Camas Prairie Washington at the base of Mt Adams. I have been trying to figure out the cycle of Native Americans coming to this valley to dig Camas.
    I have asked many of the local Native Americans living in the area and they don’t know. By the way, I have dug the camas root and it is not easy.
    From what I have observed, the blue camas blooms first, those flowers die back and then the white death camas blooms. By that time, the ground has hardened, so the blue camas bulb, for me, was hard to dig. I have read that children went through the camas and bent over the stalks of the white camas. Which means the the blue camas was dug later after the flower died.
    I have read that one of the white settlers in this valley would let the Native women store their camas in his barn while they went on to the Columbia River to fish, then on their way back to the Yakima Valley, they would pick up their dried camas.

    Sorry for such a long reply, but there is so much I would like to learn about the camas season.
    I have also come to a personal conclusion that there is a symbiotic relationship between the camas flower and the Oregon Oak. We have both here. Camas, Washington with their Oak Park is another example. I believe the local Natives burned those prairie areas, preserving the large oak trees, acorns and camas. The oak grow on the fringes of the bottom ground.

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