Archeological research has revealed evidences of numerous successive cultures in many parts of Oregon. Surviving the wear of centuries on canyon walls and cliffs are rude designs daubed in red ochre or outlined in primitive carving. Although often the subject of fanciful interpretation, most of these pictographs and petroglyphs are devoid of symbolic or esoteric meaning, being merely the groping efforts of prehistoric man to give graphic expression to his experience. Burial mounds in irregular patterns mark the places where the dead, with their crude artifacts, lie buried. Along the coast, numerous kitchen middens—heaps of shells, bone and stone fragments, and miscellaneous refuse, overgrown with grass and trees—indicate the existence of prehistoric homes. Where the Coast Highway cuts through such a kitchen midden, as it does at several places, varying levels or strata in the heap are revealed, denoting successive occupations of the locality.
Stone and obsidian weapons and bone fragments, frequently discovered beneath layers of lava or volcanic ash, indicate human existence in Oregon at a remote period. Near Abert Lake in Lake County, and at the base of Hart Mountain in Warner Valley, are excellent examples of prehistoric painting and carving. A local legend associates Abert Rim with the retreat of an "Indian army" that ended in a plunge over the cliff, at the foot of which are scattered many relics. Near The Dalles, Arlington, and Forest Grove, and in the Cascadia Caves, are diverse examples of prehistoric pictorial representations. The Linn County mounds, the Deschutes region, the Malheur and Catlow Caves in Harney County, and numerous other sites, have yielded weapons, utensils, and other Indian artifacts.
The Indians who inhabited Oregon at the coming of the first white men were members of twelve distinct linguistic families. Along the south side of the Columbia, from its mouth to the Cascades, the Chinookans held sway. Important branches of this family were the Clatsops, who lived along the river to Tongue Point and along the coast to Tillamook Head, and the Cathlamets, who dwelt a short distance farther up the river; while numerous bands on Sauvie Island and about the mouth of the Willamette were known by the collective name of Multnomahs. The Clackamas tribe lived in the Clackamas Valley and about the falls of the Willamette. In all, some 36 tribes of the Chinookan family occupied the south shore of the Columbia, and as many others dwelt near the north bank.
The Athapascans occupied two widely separated regions. On the Clatskanie and upper Nehalem Rivers lived the Tlatskanai, a warlike tribe. It is said that the early Hudson's Bay Company trappers did not dare to traverse their lands in a group of fewer than 60 armed men. In southwestern Oregon dwelt the other Athapascans the Tututni, the Upper Coquilles, the Chastacostas, and the Chetcoes. Also in the southwestern region were the Umpquas and the Siuslaws, who together form a separate family.
The Salishan family, although more numerous north of the Columbia, was represented south of that river by the Tillamooks and the Siletz. The Yakonians, consisting of the Yaquina and the Alseas, lived on the two bays thus named; and on Coos Bay and the lower Coquille dwelt the three tribes of the small Kusan family.
One of the most important families was the Kalapooyan. This numerous people occupied the whole of the Willamette Valley above the falls, practiced flattening of the head, and lived on game and roots. A dozen tribes of this family inhabited the Willamette region at the coming of the white man. The Atfalati or Tualati, numbering more than 30 bands, occupied the beautiful and fertile Tualatin Valley. Other tribes of this group were the Yamhills, the Chemeketas, and the Santiams. The southern part of Oregon was occupied by divisions of three families: the powerful Klamath and Modoc tribes of the Lutuamians or Sahaptians, the Takelmans of the upper Rogue River, and two "spillovers" from California the Shastas and Karoks of the Hokan family. The upper Columbia River country was the home of other Sahaptians. The greater part of this family lived in eastern Washington and the Lewis River district of Idaho; but four tribes, the Willewah branch of the Nez Perces, the Umatillahs, the Teninos of the Deschutes River, and the Tyighs of the Tygh Valley, inhabited the uplands of eastern Oregon. The Waiilatpuan branch was represented by the powerful Cayuse or "horse" Indians, dwelling on the headwaters of the Umatilla, the Walla Walla, and the Grande Ronde Rivers. A small offshoot of this branch had in times past wandered over the Cascades into western Oregon, and under the name of Molallas lived along the Molalla River. Over the high desert country of the southeastern region roamed the nomadic Snake and Paiute tribes of the Shoshoneans.
Intercourse between the various tribes and later with the white men made it necessary for the Indians to supplement their many dialects with a common language. Among merchant Indians at the mouth of the Columbia there grew up a pidgin language based upon Chinook, and later intermixed with French and English words. This language became known as Chinook jargon, and was widely used by all tribes, as well as by the early settlers, traders, and missionaries. When the Indians were removed to reservations, many who had not adopted the jargon were obliged to learn it in order to speak with their neighbors. The local customs of Indians in the western valleys and coast region differed greatly from those of the interior. The western tribes, because of the density of the forests, usually traveled by canoe. They subsisted chiefly on salmon, roots, and berries. The opening of the salmon season in June was attended with great formality. The first salmon caught was sacred, and was eaten ceremonially in a long-established ritual intended to propitiate the salmon and insure future runs. Before the arrival of the whites, the coastal Indians were scantily clad. The men went entirely naked in summer, and the women wore a flimsy skirt of cedar bark fiber or grasses. In winter, the men wore a robe made of skins reaching to the middle of the thigh; the women added to their costume a similar robe reaching to the waist; or either might wear a fiber cape.
Among the Chinooks, distinctions of rank extended to burial. The bodies of slaves were tossed into the river or gotten rid of in some other way, while the free born were carefully prepared for box, vault, tree, or canoe burial, and were honored with rituals of mourning which included periods of wailing during a certain length of time, cutting the hair, and refraining from mentioning the name of the dead. Entombment varied according to the tribe and locality. Columbia River Indians utilized Memaloose Island near The Dalles, Coffin Rock near the mouth of the Cowlitz River, and other islands and promontories, with ceremonial dressing and storing of bones. The coast Indians used canoes supported on decorated scaffolds, and placed the head toward the west so that the departed spirit might more easily find its way to Memaloose Illahee, or the land of the dead, which lay somewhere toward the setting sun. Valley Indians often placed their dead, wrapped in skins, in the forks of trees.
The houses of the western Oregon Indians were of the communal type, from 40 to 60 feet long and 20 feet wide, constructed of large cedar planks and roofed with bark or boards. The interior walls of these great lodges, scattered in clusters along the coast, the Columbia, and the lower Willamette, were tiered with bunks. Along the middle of the floor ran a firepit, the smoke escaping through a gap left along the ridgepole of the roof. Men, women, children, and dogs mingled in the dusky interior. These houses were put together with lashings, and when fleas and other vermin became intolerable the houses were dismantled and the planks removed to a new location, supposedly leaving the fleas behind.
The Indians of river and coast were skilled in fashioning canoes. Each of these was made from a single log, their size varying from the small craft capable of sustaining only one person to the great war canoe in which as many as 60 warriors might safely put to sea. For these graceful vessels, cedar and spruce were usually preferred, though fir was also used.
The native bow, like the canoe, was beautifully and skillfully formed. It was generally made of yew or crab-apple wood. The string was a piece of dried seal-gut or deer-sinew, or consisted of twisted bark. The arrows, about a yard long, were made of arrow-wood or cedar. Household utensils included baskets of cedar root fiber or tough grasses often woven so closely as to be watertight, and stone mortars and pestles for pulverizing seeds and wild grains. The principal art displayed was in the carvings on house posts and canoe figureheads, and in the fashioning of woven mats and baskets. Basketry was a highly developed art, many examples of which, richly colored with intricate and pleasing designs, today grace museums or are offered for sale in Indian curio stores.
The culture of the northeastern Oregon tribes had undergone a definite change a few decades before the invasion of the whites. Through the introduction of the horse they had become a more or less nomadic people. The Snakes, Nez Perces, and Cayuses counted their wealth in horses, and because they were thus free to move about they evolved a culture based largely on the chase and warfare. Buckskin ornamented with dyed porcupine quills formed their dress, their moccasins, and their shelters, and skins dressed with the fur intact made their robes and blanketsiGame, supplemented by roots and berries, was their food. The Shoshonean culture of the southeast plateau was of a lower order, owing to the nature of the barren and forbidding country. The Klamath and Modoc culture, influenced by the same factors but modified by the tules (reeds) and wocus (yellow water lily) of the Klamath and Tule Lake marshes, presented a definite departure from the culture in other sections of Oregon. The Klamaths and Modocs have been termed "pit Indians" because their dwellings were little more than roofed-over pits sunk about four feet below the surface of the ground. These houses appeared as mounds of earth about six feet high, with a circular hole two and a half feet in diameter at the top, from which a ladder led down into the circular space below. The interior was 20 feet across, with sleeping bunks and arrangements for storing dried meats, seeds, acorns, and roots. The whole was substantially built, the roof being of poles covered with rushes and with earth taken from the pit beneath. On hooks from the rush-lined ceiling hung bags and baskets, laden with such luxuries as dried grasshoppers and berries. About the bunks hung the skins of deer and other game.
The dress of the women consisted of a skirt of deerskin thongs fastened to a braided belt, the men wore breechclouts of deerskin, and the children went entirely naked. When grasshoppers were abundant the Indians scoured the valleys, gathered the insects in great quantities by driving them into pits, and made preparations for a feast. A fire was kindled in one of the pits, and after the latter had been thoroughly heated the harvest was dropped in, covered with damp tules and hot stones, and baked. Prepared in this fashion the insects were eaten with great relish. They were also powdered and mixed with wocus meal in a kind of bread baked in the ashes.
All tribes believed in an existence after death, and in a soul that inhabited the body yet was distinct from the vital principle and capable of leaving the body in dreams, faints, and trances, though if it stayed away too long the body died. Other living things were also similarly endowed. So it was that a canoe builder deferentially addressed the tree from which he obtained his log, as though it were a conscious personality, and a fisherman spoke apologetically to the first catch of the season as he took it from the water.
Creation myths varied from tribe to tribe. The creation of men and animals was ascribed by one to Echanum, the fire spirit, by some to Coyote, the transformer, who is given credit for creating the tribes from the legs, head, belly, and body of his vanquished enemy, the beaver. Stories of Coyote and Thunderbird were common to many tribes. The Thunderbird was ruler of the storm, avenger, originator of numerous taboos, and creator of volcanic activity. Coyote in a hundred grotesque forms was the hero of many roguish stories, emphasizing his trickery, selfishness, and prurience, and the source of rigid taboos regarding foods, domestic economy, and ceremonial observance. Legends were invented by the Indians to explain the origin and form of many geographic features. The story of Loowit, a beautiful Indian girl, who was the subject of a quarrel between rival lovers, and who dwelt on the natural rock Bridge of the Gods which once spanned the Columbia River at the Cascades, tells of the destruction of the bridge and of Loowit's transformation into Mount St. Helens, while her lovers became Mount Adams and Mount Hood. Another legend has it that Neahkahnie Mountain on the coast reached its present form from a single blow of the hatchet of Coyote, who built a fire on the mountainside, heated rocks and threw them into the sea, where the seething waters grew into waves that have been crashing against the shore ever since. Mitchell Point, once called the "Storm King" by the Indians, was believed by them to have been built to part the storm clouds that hurried up the Columbia.
In 1938, Oregon's surviving Indian population was distributed as follows: Klamath Reservation, 1,201; Warm Springs Reservation, 1,094; Umatilla Reservation, 1,117; Siletz River district, 1,140; and on the public domain, 2,220. The population on the Umatilla Reservation is composed of Cayuse, Nez Perce, and Walla Walla tribes, with many full bloods and many mixed breeds, all of whom speak the Nez Perce language. Wascos, Teninos, and Paiutes are chiefly concentrated on the Warm Springs Reservation. Klamaths, Modocs, Yahooskins, Snakes, Shastas, and Pit River Indians are gathered on the Klamath Reservation. Rogues (or Tututinis), Chetcos, Tillamooks, and other mixed tribal remnants dwell in the Siletz River region. There is an independent village of Paiutes a few miles north of Burns The Indians living on reservations dress in much the same way as their white neighbors, live in the same kind of houses, and carry on the same domestic and industrial pursuits. Their native handicrafts include tanning and decorating of skins, fabrication of baskets, beadwork on buckskin, and the making of cornhusk bags and mats. Each reservation is served by church mission schools or by the public school system of the State, the only government Indian schools being on the Warm Springs Reservation and at Chemawa near Salem.
Four canneries care for the output from 5,000 acres of upland peas on the Umatilla Reservation, and on the Klamath Reservation contracts between Indian owners and commercial interests have resulted in the cutting and marketing of much timber. Fine horses, cattle, hay, and grain are produced. All land has been allotted, and a business committee for each reservation has superseded tribal government.
Although Oregon Indians have abandoned most of their tribal ways, at times drums still throb above the music and words of tribal songs and busy feet pattern the ceremonial dances. The salmon festival on the Columbia River is generally held in secret each year; but the annual root feast at Simnasho in the spring, and the Warm Springs and Klamath Reservation huckleberry feasts in the fall, are open to the public. The Umatilla Indians form an encampment at the Pendleton Roundup and participate in the parade and Westward Ho pageant. The Round-up, though colorful, is not a true picture of Indian life, but a dramatized version of what the Indian thinks the white man wants to see. As many as 2,000 natives in ceremonial trappings participate as paid performers.