Cascades Winter Villages in the Wapato Valley

Documentation in the Lewis and Clark journals, those entries of 1806, is about the Cascades tribe’s seasonal round, the seasonal lifeways of the tribes of the lower Columbia. Reading broadly through the journals, there does not appear in the experience of the travelers one established model for the seasonal resource movements of the tribes. Each tribe, perhaps each village, had its own pattern based on where they maintained claims and where they had rights, and who they were related to. The contemporary anthropological notion of rigid boundaries and land claims for the Chinooks shown in numerous ethnographic maps then is not a valid model based on the observations of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who found an interlaced tribal pattern of seasonal settlement. Instead, there is a shared land-use model, a model that appears to approach what we today call the commons when addressing public lands, where tribes would make claims and claim locations because of familial rights, perhaps traditional and long-term occupancy, etc. There were overlapping claims and there did not appear to be any conflict toward other tribes if they had a winter village or even a permanent site close by.

Annotated Lewis and Clark map, north is down, showing locations of two winter villages.

The Cascades peoples lived in the Cascades rapids area on both banks, between the rapids and Dog River area (Hood River today), and would return to this area of the Cascades, for the salmon runs in April. But they would winter over in a set of winter villages in the “Columbia Valley” also called the “Wapato Valley” by Yvonne Hajda, now the area of the south riverbank of the East Portland metro area.[1] There are several reasons for this move to winter village. First, because the gorge would be bitter cold with Chinook winds and much snow fall and it would be more temperate and warmer in the Wapato Valley, in the vicinity of Neerchokikoo[2] and Nichaqwali villages. They would arrive after the fall runs of salmon and would then begin harvesting wapato during the fall in the inland wetlands and braided river passages where the plants grew best. The prodigious number of small “wapato canoes” found at one site, as recorded by Lewis and Clark, assumed to be made for women, suggest that this was a large harvesting operation for the Cascades people.

Wapato, arrowleaf in bloom

On the bank at different places I observed small canoes which the women make use of to gather wappato & roots in the slashes. Those canoes are from 10 to 14 feet long and from 18 to 23 inches wide in the widest part tapering from the center to both ends in this form and about 9 inches deep and so light that a women may with one hand haul them with ease, and they are sufficient to carry a women and some loading. I think 100 of these canoes were piled up and scattered in different directions about in the woods, in the vicinity of this house. The pilot informed me that those canoes were the property of the inhabitants of the Grand Rapids who used them occasionally to gather roots. I entered one of the rooms of this house and offered several articles to the natives in exchange for wappato. They were sulkey and they positively refused to sell any. (237)[1]

[1] Thwaites, volume 4

Wapato Canoes drawn into L& C journals

They would then live on wapato and salmon stores and perhaps some hunting or whatever they could get in trade through the winters on the south shore of the Columbia. There are as well numerous mentions of sturgeon, which was the white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), who seems to appear in the same environment as the wapato, and would be fished through the fall and winter, a very large fish that could feed a village if hauled to shore. Then in February, there would be ooligan smelt runs[3], especially noted for the Sandy River, yet another resource to gather in mass quantities and dry and trade to needy people who by January and February would be needing a new food source, their winter stores gathering in the summer and during the salmon runs, now depleted. In late March they return to the Cascades in time for the salmon runs and the cycle would begin again.

White Sturgeon

Lewis and Clark also documented in their 1806 journals hundreds of starving peoples from further upriver, perhaps Wasco and other peoples, who were starving because they had run through their winter stores, and so in March were traveling downriver on the Columbia and into the Columbia Valley to find food. They would trade whatever they had for wapato and ooligan, which had begun early runs in some locations in February in sandy bottoms of tributary rivers like the Cowlitz, Sandy, and Lewis rivers.[4] The junction of the Willamette and Columbia, appears to be “the” major wapato harvesting area of the Columbia River, and it is not remarkable to suggest that the numerous villages are here because of the wapato, so that many tribes can easily access wapato during the best season, October, before bitter winter temperatures.[5]

Ooligan Smelt,

Lewis and Clark also documented some of these Cascades peoples who were leaving the Cascades during the same time that others were arriving, to go to Willamette Falls in time for the next big fish run. The expedition notes that the Cascades people removed their whole houses, boards, and all, to whatever location they were going to in that season.

April 9th 1806 – This village appear to be the winter station of the Wah-clel-lahs and Clahclellars, the greater part of the former have lately removed to the falls of the Multnomah, and the latter have established themselves a few miles above on the North side of the river opposite the lower point of brant island, being the commencement of the rapids, her they also take their salmon; they are now in the act of removing and not only take with them their furniture and effects but also the bark and most of the boards which formed their houses. 14 remain entire but are at this time but thinly inhabited, nine others appear to have been lately removed, and the traces of ten or twelve others of ancient date were to be seen in the rear of their present village. They sometimes sink their houses in the earth, and at other times have their floors level with the surface of the earth; they are generally built with boards and covered with cedar bark. Most of them have a devision in their houses near the entrance which is at the end or in the event of its being a double house is from the center of a narrow passage. Several families inhabit one apartment (258-259)[1]

[1] Thwaites, volume 4

And Lewis and Clark note that they witness people arriving from the Wapato valley to the west, where they had just come from, with wapato, and anchovies (ooligan smelt) likely wind dried like most tribes did to preserve them.

During our halt at this village the grand Chief and two inferior chiefs of the Chil-luck-lit-te-quaw nation arrived with several men and women of their nation in two large canoes. These people were on their return up the river, having been on a wappetoe voyage to the Columbian valley, and were loaded with wappatoe, dryed anchovies, with some beads etc. which they received in exchange for dryed and pounded salmon shappelell beargrass etc. (260)[1]

[1] Thwaites, volume 4

Vicinity of the Cascades rapids showing villages on both sides, Lewis and Clark maps 1805-1806

Boyd and Hajda (Hajda 1984, Boyd and Hajda 1986) suggest that these people may be aided by familial relationships. They suggest that some resource rights are carried in families and since the Willamette Falls may be a superior fishing location, that they would relocate for the Spring Chinook run at the Willamette Falls.[6] In addition, the Cascades people serve as the middle traders (between the lower and upper tribal areas of the river), collecting wapato, camas, ooligan, and sturgeon in the Columbia Valley then transporting many of their stores to their Cascade villages at the great rapids. They in turn would trade with the Wasco peoples of the Great Falls (Lewis and Clark name), Celilo, passing on their collective resources to the eastern tribes in exchange for eastern products, perhaps bison furs, antelope, basketry, and salmon. Some tribes like the Klickitat who did not live on the Columbia but were traders on the Columbia and would bring their well-made and unique baskets and elk hide armor called clamels (hardened rawhide) to the Columbia to participate in the trade. The trade too was part of the seasonal round of distributing and re-distributing products from a wide range of environments to other tribes in the Columbia trade network.[7]

Wapato bulbs

Much of the native histories of the Lower Columbia and the Wapato valley have been about the chase of salmon runs by the tribes. But this does not appear to be the case for the people of this Wapato Valley. There were prodigious wapato supplies in this area of the Columbia, so much so that it appears to have been the major reason for removing whole villages, houses, and everything they possessed to this location in the fall. Wapato was the defining food of the area and there were also sturgeon and smelt so this made the area very attractive to tribes during the winters. This may also explain why there were so many permanent villages grouped around Sauvie Island, normally called the Multnomah or Wapato Island peoples, because of the vast quantities of wapato in the Willamette Slough and in the lakes , ponds and slow water sloughs of the area. Wapato harvest and trade from this area was the most important resource during the winter for the lower Chinookan tribes.

likely wapato gather locations in the vicinity of Ne-cha-co-lee village (Blue lake)

Later accounts of wapato do not appear very often because it was never a significant crop for the American settlers.  There are a few accounts, however, that suggest wapato persisted into the latter part of the 19th century. 
” Away from the inlet of the sea clear to Portland, on either side of the Columbia, grows the rich wapato plant- the favorite food of the wild fowls that visit the North Pacific coast. Lake after lake on either hand is studded thick with this dainty food of the webfoot family” (the West Shore March 7, 1891, p 158).

[1] Hajda 1984, Boyd and Hajda 1986.

[2] Note various spellings.-

[3] Referenced in Lewis and Clark and known to still exist to the present day.

[4] Boyd and Hajda 1986, they note that Eulachon runs in March and April, but since Lewis and Clark party is travelling through the region in March and people already have dried “anchovies” (ooligan smelt) hanging in their houses, then the smelt ran earlier, likely in February as it is known to do on the Columbia area today.

[5] Boyd and Hajda 1986 for the initial analysis, but they do not suggest that the Wapato attracted large-scale settlement of many permanent and seasonal villages to this area.

[6] Boyd and Hajda 1986.

[7] Stern, Theodore, Columbia River Trade Network, Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 12 Plateau, Smithsonian Institution 1998. 641-652.

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