John Day Fossil Beds
Historic Resources Study
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Chapter One:

The John Day Band

The various units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument were all part of Sahaptin country in the nineteenth century. While some Indians lived in the region throughout the year, many moved in an annual "seasonal round" shaped by the availability of resources and their skills in extracting a living from the land. In their annual round, the John Day band engaged in three primary activities: fishing, gathering, and hunting.

The culture of the John Day band in the contact period responded directly to the environment of the Columbia River, its tributaries, the surrounding sagebrush-steppe plain, and the more distant mountains. The region was an arid landscape in the midst of one of the continent's largest rivers. Abundant fish, large mammals, and bountiful root crops — more than twenty-five species — as well as berries and other plant products provided diversity and nutritional balance in their subsistence. The harvest of nature's commodities was carried out within the rich, ceremonial life of these people. "First fruits" ceremonies, root festivals, and "first salmon" rituals date from pre-contact times and persist to the present. Among these are the spring Root Feast in April and the Huckleberry Feast in early fall (Hilty et al. 1972: 3).

Important plant resources for the Tenino (Warm Springs), and undoubtedly for the John Day band, included the following:

  • Blue Camas (Camassia quamash), "Wakamo."
  • Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), "Pe ah ke."
  • Wild Celery (Lomatium nudicaule), 'Cum-see."
  • Biscuit Root or Bread Root (Lomatium cous), "Coush" or 'Cous."
  • Canby's Desert Parsley (Lomatium canbyi), "Luksh."
  • Indian Carrot or False Caraway (Perideridia gairdneri), "Saw-wictk."
  • Field Mint (Menthia arvensis), "Shu-ka, Shuka."
  • Blue Huckleberries ( Vaccinium), "We woo no Wash."
  • Chokecherries (Prunus demissa), "T-mish."
  • Black Lichen (Alectora), "Koonts" (Hilty et al. 1972).

The root and berry harvests occurred between April and October. The mid-summer months drew families to the mountains to harvest the succession of ripening berries as well as acorns, hazel nuts, pine nuts, seeds, and "black moss," the tree lichen. The plant resources included also the flower stalks of balsam roots — eaten raw — and the stems of Cow Parsnip (Hunn and French 1998: 381-382).

The rivers were filled with life. Salmon, sturgeon, steelhead, trout, lamprey, suckers, and freshwater mussels insured food surpluses. The people harvested these at falls, narrows, and eddies. They held the greatest fishery in the Pacific Northwest, fabled Celilo Falls, where the Columbia surged over ledges of basalt before entering miles of narrows. Here the stream literally turned on its side before entering the main cleft of the Gorge. The men positioned wood platforms on pole footings over the roily water and with dipnets harvested immense quantities of fish. These were filleted, skewered with cedar sticks, and wind-dried in fish-processing sheds lining the banks of the Columbia. They also fished with seine nets and, in smaller streams, employed weirs, hook-and-line, gaffs, and fish clubs. The fishery was so productive that it made the Tenino and their neighbors wealthy. Preservation of their catch was extremely important, for between October and April — a period of over five months — there were no salmon runs in the rivers. Weeks of intense work to catch and preserve fish were critical to cope with lean times and getting through the long and often bitterly cold winters of the Plateau (Hunn 1990: 90, 119-130).

John Day band men were avid hunters. They pursued mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer, bear and pronghorn. They also hunted western gray squirrels, ground squirrels, coyote, gray fox, red fox, mountain lion, bobcat, lynx, otter, long-tailed weasel, raccoon, porcupine, yellow-bellied marmots jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, ducks, geese, grouse, and swans. The hunting techniques were varied: bow and arrow, net traps (for birds), and snares. These animals provided not only food but hides for clothing, decorative materials robes, sinew for lashings and bowstrings, and cases for quivers (Hunn and French 1998: 382-383).

The shelters of the Indians of the western Plateau were varied. They constructed conical or A-frame, pole and mat-covered lodges. These included both individual units such as for a family as well as communal lodges, joined together with a series of hearths and activity areas along a single axis. Banked earth around the lower outside walls and an excavated floor two to three feet below the ground provided insulation from both the summer sun and winter winds and snow. In the summer they constructed circular, mat-covered tepees or open-walled brush surrounds. Their sweat lodges were low, dome-shaped structures constructed with willow branches and covered with wild rye grass and earth, the floor scented with fir boughs. They also built low huts, often covered with mats but sometimes with cedar planks, as drying sheds for curing fish (Hunn and French 1998: 384-385).

Warm Springs Indian woman
Fig. 3. Warm Springs Indian woman and traditional lodge of vertical poles with cattail matting, hides (and later canvas) (OrHi Lot 467-29).

On islands and promontories overlooking the river they erected burial houses. On October 20, 1805, while near the mouth of the John Day River, William Clark described one of these buildings:

[T]he Vau[l]t was made by broad poads [NB: boards] and pieces of Canoes leaning on a ridge pole which was Suported by 2 forks Set in the ground Six feet in hight in an easterly and westerly direction and about 60 feet in length, and 12 feet wide, in it I observed great numbers of humane bones of every description perticularly a pile near the Center of the vault, on the East End 21 Scul bomes forming a circle on Mats — ; in the Westerly part of the Vault appeared to be appropriated for those of more resent death, as many of the bodies of the deceased raped up in leather robes lay [NB: in rows] on board covered with mat, &c. . . .

Deposited with the bodies were wood bowls, baskets, skins, fishing nets and trinkets as well as horse skeletons (Moulton 1983-[5]: 311-312).

The women tanned hides and manufactured leather dresses, leggings, shirts, breechclouts and moccasins for clothing. Rabbit skins, dried with the fur, became mittens and stockings. Rabbit skins, cut into strips and twisted, were made into warm blankets. The women usually wore a basket hat woven of Indian hemp or, by the end of the nineteenth century, a cap made of corn husks (Hunn 1990: 141, 143). Contact with Euro-Americans and the Sahaptin speakers' hold on trade at Celilo Falls, provided a steady flow of new commodities by the end of the eighteenth century. Entering Sahaptin-speaking country on October 20, 1805, William Clark described the natives:

The men are badly dressed, Some have scarlet & blue cloth robes. one has a Salors jacket, The women have a Short indiferent Shirt, a Short robe of Deer or Goat Skins, & a Small Skin which they fastend. tite around their bodies & fastend. Between the legs . . . (Moulton 1983 — [5]: 309- 311).

Basketry was one of the most expressive and elaborately developed art forms of the Tenino. Utilitarian cedar bark baskets, devices manufactured from a piece of bark bent and stitched, might serve for berry-picking or hauling materials. Beautifully decorated work, however, dominated. The women collected hazel basket, bear grass, Indian hemp and other materials. They manufactured a large inventory of baskets: twined hats, twined root-digging bags, flat twined bags, coiled cedar baskets, and round twined bags. They also manufactured hide parfleches or flat cases for carrying dried food and household goods, especially on horseback (Schlick 1994).

Men made whistles out of bones, steamed and bent bighorn sheep horns for spoons and bowls, and hunted eagles and flickers for decorative and sacred feathers. They wove nets from Indian hemp, carved juniper logs for hide-covered drum frames, manufactured stone pestles, ax heads, adzes, and net sinkers. They used canoes, but probably obtained most of these by trade with people living to the west who had easy access to cedar trees for construction of dugouts (Hunn and French 1998: 382-383).

The Indians of the western Plateau were arbiters of commerce. From central Oregon they obtained prized obsidian. In the mountains they picked and preserved berries, gathered bear grass, and tanned hides and furs. Along the rivers they caught and preserved vast stores of dried fish. They captured or bartered for war captives and kidnap victims. They traded these "wealth items" at the falls of the Columbia — the center of a regional economy. The commodities passed down the river in exchange for dried smelt, olivella shells, dentalium shells, wappato roots, dugout canoes and paddles, and, after Euro-American contact, cotton and wool clothing, firearms, metal tools, glass beads, brass kettles, metal fishhooks, and other items of utility and decorative value (Stern 1993: 22-23).

They founded their social organization on both maternal and paternal kinship connections. Over time this created a web of relationships, bonding siblings, generations, and communities. Hunn and French (1998) have identified four levels of connection: nuclear family, hearth group, winter lodge household, and the village. Polygynous marriage created yet another set of connections. Village headmen achieved their positions through ability, eloquence, generosity, and devotion to others. The position passed from father to son, provided the son possessed the virtues necessary to have standing among his relatives and others. Celilo village had a "salmon chief' by the early twentieth century. His role was to open and close the season or stop the fishery for escapement or ceremonial reasons. Some villages had a "whipper," an elder who was to mete out punishments with willow withes to unruly children (Hunn and French 1998: 386-387).

Spirit quests at puberty for boys and days of sequestering in the menstrual hut for girls marked rites of passage. These were not noteworthy times of public rituals but activities for all as they passed from childhood into adulthood. Shamans facilitated communication with the spirit world and, through repeated vision quests, gained powers which they displayed publicly when curing the sick or seeking to inflict misfortune on the unwary (Hunn and French 1998: 388-389). Benjamin Alvord, stationed at Fort Dalles, wrote in 1853 about a young Indian male who possessed "elk" spirit power. "The novitiate wished to imitate the elk, who has, from his youth, been the good spirit or guardian of his life. At certain seasons the elk has a habit of wallowing in the mud. The Indian poured several buckets of water into a low place, in the ring in which they were dancing, and after whistling like the elk, laid down to wallow in the mire" (Alvord 1855: 653).

The oral literature of the Wasco and Wishram, Upper Chinookans living west of the Deschutes River, contains numerous cycles of stories involving Coyote, an animating as well as disruptive force in the myth and transition ages. Coyote stories were recounted during the cold months of the long moons in winter as well at the summer berry-picking camps. The oral literature explained how the land came to be and why certain creatures looked as they did and yielded themselves to meet human need (Sapir 1909).

The world of the John Day band was similar to that of the Wasco, Wishram, Wayampam, Tenino and other peoples of the western Plateau. They lived intimately with the land, followed its rhythms with activities attuned to securing a maximum of subsistence resources, and held tenaciously to their pivotal position as key players in the flow of trade and commerce along the river and through the Columbia Gorge. Those people who resided along the John Day River possessed these same lifeways and values. While those who lived away from the main Columbia were less involved in trade and commerce which moved along its waters, they were certainly beneficiaries of its impact.

To the south, however, lived the Northern Paiute and Bannock who sometimes pushed down the Deschutes or into the upper John Day country.

There were thus unsettling times and tensions, especially with the expansion northward of these Indians when they acquired horses in the eighteenth century.

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002