The Kalapuyan tribes were about 19 tribes and bands in the Willamette Valley. The tribes and bands in the Tualatin valley were the Tualatin Kalapuyans. Historical documents also called these people Twalaty or Atfalati.
Many Tualatin villages were situated around Wapato Lake. The lake provided a vast amount of resources, reeds and sedges for basketry, fish, crayfish, waterfowl, and wapato as the major staple of the tribes. In the early 20th century the lake was drained to make more croplands. Water management in the little valley at Gaston, OR proved so expensive that in the 1990’s, many agriculturalists opted to ask the government to buy back the land and restore the original lake. The Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge is being developed at this time, administered out of the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge at Sherwood.
The Tualatin lived throughout the Tualatin Valley and used trail systems that took them over the Tualatin Range (Portland Hills now) and into what is now the Portland Metro area. The trails would be taken by them on regular visits to the Multnomah Chinook territory at Wapato Island (Now Sauvie Island) and to Willamette Falls and the villages of the Clackamas and Clowewalla Chinookan peoples. Much of their interactions with neighbor was economic, they would trade large amounts of wapato for products available in the Columbia River trade network. These included dentallium (shell money- Hiaqua from Vancouver Island), bison skins (from the eastern buffalo hunting tribes), Clamels (Tough elk skin shields for stopping arrows) and wind-dried salmon (from Willamette Falls peoples). Additional trade networks with the Clatsop Chinookans at what is Astoria now, and with the Tillamooks on the Oregon Coast are also well documented.
The Tualatin practiced the seasonal rounds, a lifeway where these people lived within the seasons, subsisting off what the natural world and the natural cycles of the land and environments produced. Tribal groups traveled about their traditional territories to different environments in the different seasons to gather, hunt, fish, and trade with others for the foods they wanted.
The Kalapuyan wintered in central villages, plank houses normally made of cedar planks, built into the ground. These were permanent dwellings which could last a long time and provide safe, warm, and comfortable quarters for the winters. In the winters, much of the time was spent indoors, weaving, making tools and telling stories. Winters were a time for oral histories. Basketry and nets would be woven to provide the tools and storage containers for capturing, containing, carrying and cooking foods gathered the rest of the year.
Weaving materials were gathered in many environments. The valley plains, foothills, wetlands, rivers, and mountains all offered different types of plants for weaving and eating. During different seasons, when the plants have reached their natural growth limit, bands of tribal people would travel to their favorite localities and harvest weaving materials. Root gathering camps and fish camps were a good time to gather weaving materials, as much of this was carried out by women. At mountain berry gathering camps, some people would gather berries while others accessed the weaving materials like cedar bark, hazel shoots, and spruce roots.
Wetlands and prairies of the valley hosted many weaving plants. Juncus was one of the most used as it grows nearly everywhere. This sedge likes wetlands best, and is easily harvested in mid-summer. Juncus is one of the weaker weaving materials so much of the time it was used as the weft, or weavers, around the sturdy warp. On many baskets of the region, hazel shoots were the warp and juncus is the weft.
The native hazel is a small nut bearing tree. The nuts were harvested, dried, cracked open and eaten. The branches, or shoots, would be tended by the Kalapuyans. They were burned or snipped, to spur new growth. The next year the new branches would be straight, perfect for basketry. Once gathered, dried, and rehydrated hazel is very strong.
Most weaving materials would be dried and stored for a year (on overhead racks in the houses) before being used in weaving, then rehydrated for weaving. Most sedges and reeds are too brittle when green, but after being dried completely they would be immersed in water and then are strong weaving materials. Weavings of baskets, tools and mats provided the household tools for daily living. Many weaving products were valued trade items. Woven cattail mats were valued for floor coverings, interior divisions in houses, and for making a quick campsite when traveling.
The Tualatin did not manipulate the land as agriculturalists did in other regions of the world. But they did annually set fire to the prairies. The fires they set would clear the extra brush and help the land renew itself. The environment of the region is a rainforest with plenty of sunlight and water to create a lush landscape. However, for humans to move across the unmanaged lands, it would be very difficult if the plant overgrowth was not checked in some manner. The fires would clear the land of overgrowth and begin a cycle of renewal where plant corms, bulbs, roots and seeds safe underground could then begin sprouting, creating new growth. The many benefits of fire included depositing nutrients, cleaning overgrowth, efficient management, and eliminating insect pests. Then after regrowth, the young tender shoots would attract deer to come down from the hills to eat. Native people would also be able to see unobstructed across the land, which has many benefits. Within a month, it would be tough to see that a fire had come through. Fire management for at least 8,000 years, created the parklike setting of the Willamette Valley that we enjoy today.
The two most important prairie plants were camas and oaks. Camas is a flowering bulb, a member of the lily family, that flowers in fields of many valleys in the region. They are usually blue to deep purple in color. There are two principle varieties Camassia quamash (common camas) and Camassia leichtlinii. There are some prairies that host both varieties. Normally in spring, beginning in April, camas will erupt in the valley and flower in large purple patches for about a month. By June they are going to seed and well-dried by the end of the month. The bulbs of the camas are harvested in mid-summer and cooked in large underground shallow pits. The pit bottom is covered with hot rocks, and the natives lay layers of camas and leaves and branches. The pit is then covered to make a reduction oven, for at least 3 days. The pit will remain hot and occasionally the rocks are replaced. Camas will cook to a light brown color, meaning the starches of the bulbs are caramelized. This cooking process makes the camas proteins available for human consumption, because raw camas will cause gastral issues. So much camas is prepared that the camas blocks or wheels, are traded with neighboring Clackamas tribes for dried salmon. The camas has become a symbol for the Kalapuyan peoples.
The other major food plant is the acorns from the valley Oak savannahs. The acorn culture is dominant from California to Washington State. Acorns were ground down and cooked into a gruel, and eaten. The fresh picked acorns would be leeched in a running stream (about a week) to leech out the tanins (bitter poisons). Regular fire management caused Oaks to produce more acorns.
The wealth of food available to the Kalapuyans was immense. There was always food when they needed it. At various time the Kalapuyans would display their wealth with a potlatch giveaway. Individuals and leaders would display their wealth and give away their property, which would be a great display of wealth. The potlatch ceremonies would last for days and would be hosted in a plank house. Potlatches can occur for the birth of a child, for naming a person, after the death of a person, and during tribal spiritual gatherings. Summer and winter solstices would be times to have a dance, host family giveaways for new births and new namings, and renew the land for the next season.
The land as a living being. This is a common notion in many cultures, and is somewhat embraced in the environmental movement. Tribes believe that the animals and plants and rocks as all living being with their own spirits. Some spiritual leaders could talk with some of these beings of the world. Even the things people make have a spirit. Which is why when women passed, their family would break their favorite bowls, to release the spirit. When native people hunt or fish, the first catch or kill is subject to a ceremony to return the spirit of the animal to the land, so that the people show their respect for what the land gives to them. Successful hunting or fishing means the land has given freely of themselves so that humans can live.
Oral histories are tribal history that the people have passed down to each generation. Storytellers were respected for their ability to pass down accurate stories to each generation. Some stories that are now written down have been scientifically verified to have documented actual events in history. Stories of the formation of Crater lake by the Klamath are proven to be accurate by geologists. Stories among many tribes of a great flood, are related to the Missoula floods 7000 to 12,000 years ago, which periodically washed across the land. The Missoula floods, likely several floods, washed top soils from the east to be deposited in the Willamette Valley. This helped create the lush soils that make the valley famous for agriculture. The richness of the soil was the main attraction for Americans to sell all their belongings in the east and travel the Oregon Trail to settle the valley in the 1840’s. While the Missoula floods created the foundation of the rich soils, the Kalapuyans setting fire to the land for 8,000 to 10,000 years or more deposited rich nutrients in the soil which made the valley what it is today.
The Kalapuyans lived in the same or similar pattern for a long time, a stable seasonal round of regular planned activities. Kalapuyans bands and families would harvest in the same locations every year, in many cases they claimed ownership over specific oak groves or camas fields, or lakes. Many village locations were inhabited by tribal descendants for thousands of years. Their stable lifeway pattern continued until interrupted with the pressures of colonization by Euro-americans in the 19th century.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.