The Columbia Plateau region straddles the American states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montanna, and the Canadian regions of Alberta and British Columbia. (British Columbia makes up more than forty percent of the Columbia Plateau.)
Natives of the area produced a variety of rock art images, carving them into basalt along the Columbia River and its tributaries and painting them on to cliffs surrounding the lakes and river valleys. Most travel was done by canoe, and this was how the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled west on their way to the Pacific Ocean. The area has a rich wildlife, including deer, elk, mountain sheep, a variety of small animals, salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, various types of small fish, and rattlesnakes. The sculpture to the left is of a timber rattlesnake.
The northern Columbia Plateau is the image most people have of the Pacific Northwest: dense strands of pine and fir, rushing rivers with rapids, and long, narrow, deep, clear lakes. The land was carved by glaciers twelve to twenty thousand years ago, and the mountain ranges still reflect the effects of glacial erosion. The southern and central portions lie on a basalt plateau produced ten to thirty million years ago by by volcanoes, and have a different ecology.
Rivers there have cut deep canyons and gorges through the basalt, but the land is more arid than that of the north. Vegetation is typically short grass and sagebrush prairie, with scattered forests near the mountains.
Humans have lived in the Columbia Plateau since the paleolithic, and have been dated with certainty to 30,000 B.C.
The first humans in the Columbia Plateau are known as the Clovis Culture, and are famous for their fluted and lanceolate projectile points made from flaked stone. Today, their beautiful points are avidly sought by collectors.
The Clovis peoples had a rich, unspoiled land filled with a variety of large animals. Numerous herds of mastodon, mammoths, and wooly bison, not to mention other animals like ground sloths and camels, filled the area. Archaeological records show that they were nomadic, and that they hunted mastodon and mammoth extensively.
So extensively, in fact, that they drove these species into extinction. Archaeological records suggest that enormously wasteful kills -- far in excess of what anyone could eat -- were conducted.
Unlike their counterparts in Europe who left an extensive pictographic record -- in such places as France
and Spain -- the early inhabitants of the Columbia Plateau left no graphical record.
The Windust Phase
followed the Clovis Culture. During this period some of the natives lived semi-nomadically, with some moving into the rock shelters available throughout the central Columbia Plateau while others lived in open campsites. Game animals included elk, deer, birds, small mammals. Evidence shows that salmon fishing near the Dalles
began about B.C. 6,500.
Their projectile points had a stem and a simple leaf shaped point, and they also made chipped stone knives, choppers, scrapers, and drills. Bone and antler implements include awls, needles with eyes, barbed fishing points, hammers, atlatls, wedges, and fleshing tools.
The Old Cordilleran Culture, also known as the Cascade Phase, followed the Windust Phase. Like the Windust Phase, they hunted and fished, but they also ate fresh-water mollusks, berries, and tuberous roots, like camas, onions, lillies, and bitterroot. Their projectile points are similar to the Windust Phase, but added edge ground cobblestones for food processing and a bi-pointed spearpoint.
This phase produced the first evidence of rock art on the Columbia Plateau. A abstract line petroglyph was found partially buried by ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama about B.C. 4,800, establishing a reliable date. In addition, a piece of rock covered with pigment was found buried in a dateable layer.
The Cold Springs Phase followed the the Old Cordilleran Culture. Housing became more permanent, as people moved into pit house villages along the rivers. This phase saw improvements in tools for hunting and fishing, and those for cooking. Some of the petroglyphs in the the Columbia Plateau date to this period.
Cold Springs Phase projectile points are large, and have notches in the sides for better attachment to a shaft. The points, in fact, look like the stereotypical arrowhead or spearpoint. Notching the point means it can be made smaller than the lanceolate point introduced by the Clovis Culture.
The change in point design comes about because the lanceolate point must be long enough to have the end securely bound to the shaft, a requirement eliminated by the notching. The notched points were attached to short spears used in conjunction with an atlatl, greatly increasing accuracy and power. In addition to the change in points was the introduction of microblades, which have more cutting edge in a given area than for a flaked edge.
Improvements in fishing technology were also made. A modern fisherman would recognize the hooks, sinkers, and gorges introduced during this period. In addition to line based fishing was the use of a fishing spear.
Food preparation was advanced during this period. The ground cobblestones were replaced by the mortar and pestle, resulting in greater efficiency. Below ground, rock lined ovens were used for roasting roots like camas, onions, lillies, and bitterroot. After roasting the roots were mashed, formed into cakes, dried, and stored for winter food.
The Early Riverine Phase followed the the Cold Springs Phase. It is marked by a change to a more sedentary life, with pit house villages becoming common, and food based on salmon, shellfish, and roots. Trading with other groups became increasingly common. Items traded included slate, galena, and nephrite. The nephrite being used for adze blades.
Toolmaking expanded, and adzes, wedges, gouges, graving tools, and stone mauls were commonly used to make wood and bone artifacts. Whetsones were employed to sharpen tool edges. Hunting with spears was still important, and the points were large, stemmed, and corner notched. Atlatls were weighted to give greater throwing power.
Portable art, including such items as beads with mountain sheep head and objects carved with human and animal motifs, became common. So did rock art. Some of the geometric petroglyphs, mountain sheep hunting scenes, and other designs date to his period.
The Late Riverine Phase followed the Early Riverine Phase. It lasted until the introduction of horses and Old World trade goods. During this period trade expanded.
Materials like shells, stone for arrowheads, and other minerals were traded. Other trade goods, such as those incorporating wood, hides, or feathers, woven baskets, and textiles, were likely traded, but these have not survived to be studied.
The bow and arrow were introduced sometime about A.D. 1,000. Arrowheads became small-stemmed, with side or corner notching. Toolmaking expanded, and a diverse collection of tools for cutting, chopping, and carving were developed. These tools were used to make bone harpoons, awls, and needles, but were also used to make luxury items like hairpins, beads, pipes, pendants, and dice. Many items were decorated with designs featuring humans or animals.
The Historic Period followed the Late Riverine Phase. The introduction of the horse inaugurated a revolution in transportation, since distance was no longer limited to human endurance or carrying capacity. For example, summer buffalo hunting expeditions could easily be made to the northwestern plains. War parties and raids could also be made. Continued contact with Old World traders and settlers altered the culture, both through the introduction of new ideas and by way of diseases for which the natives lacked any immunity.
The Reservation Period followed the Historic Period. During this brief period the native peoples were confined to reservations.
Fishing was a key element of the native peoples food supply. The Columbia Plateau has a rich variety of fish, including salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and a number of small fish. Fish were caught using spears, hook and line, nets, and traps. The fishing season lasted from early May until late October. Fish were dried, smoked, and processed for oil, with the preserving being done to ensure a food supply in the winter months.
All aspects of the fishing season, including the distribution of fish, were overseen by the salmon chief. The salmon chief was usually a shaman or someone whose guardian spirit was the salmon.
At the end of the fishing season the men journeyed to the hills to hunt deer, elk, and mountain sheep. Waterfowl were hunted during their spring and fall migrations. Hunting was overseen by the hunt chief, who was chosen as a result of his skill and his having the appropriate guardian helper.
Meat, fish, and fowl were dried or smoked, and then grounded and mixed with fat and berries to make pemmican which could be stored.
Women gathered wild cherries, strawberries, huckleberries, serviceberries, and other wild berries and fruits. These were dried or used for pemmican.
During the spring, summer, and fall there was hunting and gathering to be done, and this kept the people busy. Once winter came, there was little to do, and this time was filled with ceremonies, shamanistic rituals, and dances.
Villages often coordinated their ceremonies to allow participation in different rituals in different locations. This served to dispel the interminable boredom, as well as to forge ties between villages.
The Columbia Plateau natives performed rituals to appease the spirits that inhabited all things, and to celebrate the place of the people in the natural world. Different types of spirits inhabited all living things, and there were spirits for animals, birds, insects, and plants. There were also spirits for inanimate things like rocks. Mythical beings also had spirits.
The First Salmon Ceremony
in early May celebrated the value of the salmon. The First Fruit Ceremony
celebrated the return of berries.
Each individual had at least one guardian spirit
. These guardians were essential to survival, and each one aided in a different part of life. The sculpture to the left is of an eagle.
Guardian spirits were acquired by going on a vision quest as a rite of puberty by both boys and girls. Boys undertook the rite in their early teen age years while girls undertook it when menstruation began. The individual would go to a secluded place where spirits were known to reside. For three days the individual would try to induce a vision quest using fasting, praying, and certain ritual tasks including sweat baths and, for girls, flagellating themselves with fir branches.
During the vision quest a spirit would appear in a dream or vision and would promise the individual of its assistance in a particular area of life, such as hunting, fishing, healing, warfare, love, and even gambling. The individual would be given certain rituals, dances, and songs that could be used to summon it in times of need.
were often painted to commemorate a successful vision quest. The rayed figure to the right represents the supernatural power which a human could gain through a vision quest. Sometimes a rock structure, such as a circle of stones, was assembled in addition to the rock art. Over time, the presence of pictographs indicated a sacred place where powerful spirits resided.
Twins were thought to have special shamanistic powers, and were feared for this reason. Some Columbia Plateau tribes thought that shaman caused the birth of twins, and that this predisposed the children to become shamans. Others thought that twins were "salmon people" who had special influence over salmon runs.
The birth of twins was not a fortuitous event, as the parents of twins had to observe certain rituals and taboos in order to counteract the power of their children. One of the taboos was discussing the subject of twins, as this was seen as bringing bad luck.
Twins are represented as jointly holding an object between them or holding hands. They have rayed arcs above their heads or wear headdresses. One image shows twins sharing a leg and an arm; this may represent siamese twins.
These figures may also represent mythological figures. Some stories tell of two heroes who, while not twins themselves, possessed supernatural powers and used them to aid mankind. The powers included the ability to turn evildoers to stone. When the world ends these heroes were to return and judge the people.
Pictographs were usually painted to commemorate a successful vision quest
were obtained from red and yellow ochre, and were applied with fingers, brushes, feathers, and frayed sticks. Petroglyphs were pecked.
Figures of Indeterminate Sex
The area's rock art represents both males and females, although the sex of many anthropomorphs
cannot be determined. Since women painted many pictographs during their vision quests, the difficulty in determining a figure's sex is understandable.
Much of the rock art is of animals like deer and mountain sheep, and appears to have been sympathetic magic intended to aid in hunting. The sculpture to the right, for example, depicts a mountain sheep with stylized internal organs.
There are few images of the salmon, despite its importance to the food supply, because fishing was relatively easy given the abundance of salmon, and there was no need to invoke supernatural aid to catch fish.
Some rock art represents mythology. The sculpture to the right is of Spedis Owl whom the Wishram use as a clan symbol. In their mythology, Spedis Owl married a cannibal woman who steals children.
Some rock art was instruction on proper behavior. The image below and to the right is from the Dalles, Oregon, and appears next to one of the best fishing locations. Before the Dalles Dam was built, the river narrowed for several miles and turned into a channel of boiling, white water several hundred feet wide that was an excellent fishing ground. This is the origin of the name "Dalles", which derives from the French les dalles
, which means "the trough".
This petroglyph shows a man bent-over, signifying "old man", and without a belt or crotch line, signifying "poverty". The upper hand showing the palm at the same level as the heart signifies "good". The key to the meaning is given by the triangular symbol extending away from the buttocks.
Fisherman in the area had the custom of leaving their catch on the rocks so that those in need could take a fish to eat. Whenever someone came by, a fisherman who did not have any fish to spare would indicate this by slapping his buttocks loudly since speech could not be heard over the roar of the falls. The slap and gesture, however, were unmistakable.
The individual would then move along without taking any fish. This practice is known because of historical records and oral tradition. The reverse arrow on the petroglyph therefore signifies "please do not let those in need go hungry by slapping your buttocks". While two figures, that of an old man and that of a fisherman, would have been clearer, it would have taken twice as long to make the petroglyph.
Columbia River and its tributaries, or by roads and railroads. There are, for example, over ten dams between the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams. When Grand Coulee flooded the area most of the known rock art was lost, and there is no knowing how many undiscovered sites were destroyed. Some rock art from now-flooded Columbia River sites was salvaged and resides in museums, but most of it was obliterated.