Daily Life Of The Plateau Indians:



The daily life and culture of the Plateau Indians was very interesting and unique. The following paragraphs explain the basic cycle of their lives.You will find out about the clothing they wore, the food they ate, the celebrations they had, the shelter they lived in, and the tools they used. If you want to find out more about these incredible people, read on.


The Plateau Indians had special celebrations for their children as they grew up. They had ceremonies for things such as the first game killed or the first fish caught for the boys, the first root or berry picked for girls. At such celebrations the people would sing and dance.

There was also a celebration for when a girl reached puberty. There was much praying, singing, and dancing to be practiced as part of her isolation on the occasion of the first menses. Southern Okanogan girls danced and sang "Help me dawn" and "Help me twilight" as they prayed and mourned during puberty isolation. A communal dance was also a ritual.

The Plateau tribes also held a ceremony when they were ready for winter. It was called a whipping ceremony. All boys from age 5 to 10 lined up and the Indian doctor who had a long whip, had the boys crouch on the ground. The boys were then whipped to prevent becoming sick during the winter.

Another ritual was spirit quests. The tribes believed adolescents could acquire supernatural power for guidance and protection through life. A spirit quest lasted seven days on a mountain. The young person could have no food or drink until the spirit came. When the spirit came as a vision it usually had human and animal characteristics. The spirit taught the youth his secret power and ability and a song to use in times in need.

Funerals usually lasted 5 days and 5 nights. During the funeral people would circle the body and sing accompanied by a drumbeat. They believed this would send the spirit to it's final resting place. Then the person's lodge was burned along with most of their belongings. This was done so their family wouldn't have to put up with the grief when they saw them.

Weddings were simple. At a dance when a man came opposite the woman he desired he placed a stick on her shoulder, and leaving his line he danced by her side. If the woman refused him, she threw the stick off, and he had to fall back into the first line. If the woman allowed the man to dance with the stick on her shoulder until the end of the dance she accepted him and they were considered married.


The availability of natural food sources depended on the time of year. These times caused the Indian families to follow a semi-nomadic annual cycle of fishing, hunting and gathering. This involved wintering at the band's permanent village site, usually in a lower valley by a river. In spring there was root gathering, in summer there was salmon fishing, and in fall there was hunting and berry gathering. Less predictable were the specific root digging and berrying areas visited each year by a specific group. Certain locations were favored by different families of each band. The region abounded in edible plants and game.

The hunting in the plateau tribes was done by the men and was considered work, not sport as we do today, for privation and death came from failure from hunting. While hunting, the men were armed with double-curved or flat type bow and arrows; they also used spears, harpoons, clubs, bolts, and slings. Commonly killed animals included bear, goat, deer, and elk. For smaller game they took beaver, rabbit, marmot, geese, ducks, and grouse. As for fish, they commonly took salmon along with steelhead trout, sturgeon, suckers, and lampreys. To trap the animals the men used nets, deadfalls, snares, lassos, pits,and game corals. Indians also drove game over cliffs, stampeded them with fire, or drove them into water to be speared from a canoe.

Berries were a big part of the Plateau Indians' diet. Their main berries were blackberries and huckleberries. The women and girls gathered the berries and dug roots and bulbs with the women's tool. The camas and biscuit roots were dug in June and July. Bitterroot and bulb-like roots were dug with a pica or a root digging stick with the top of which was sometimes made of the antler of an elk or deer. The roots were then gathered into woven baskets. Each April was bitterroot digging time along with other important roots. These roots were boiled and dried to be pounded into cakes. The people demonstrated their thankfulness with the root feast each spring. The first roots gathered were ceremonially distributed and eaten by all in reverence to the Creator.


One of the tools the Plateau Indians used was the Pebble Tool. It was a smooth and water-worn tool. There are ten general types of pebble tools. Large ones are used for heavy-duty work such as cutting, chopping, crushing, cracking, shredding, pulping, scraping, and smoothing.

Another well-used tool was the ulna tool. It was made from the bone of a deer, the Wapiti and small mammals. The ulna tool was made in a variety of shapes and sizes. The knife was used for splitting open herring and cedar bark for bisecting and other uses. They were pointed to serve as an awl.

Another kind of tool were bone points. These were tools that ranged in size from 3 cm to more than 20 cm. Some points were even shaped from splinters of bone. These bone points were mostly used for hunting and fishing gear, and were attached to hooks, lines and shafts.

The Plateau Indians also had a variety of useful knives. One knife was the utility knife. These people also had stone knives that were used for many different purposes. It was used for cutting nettles, or used for cutting fine hemp to make nets. The tool also could split cedar bark because of it's sharp edge. Another knife was a lengthy dagger. This was used more for ceremony and dramatic use. Sometimes it was carved with designs and inlaid with abalone shell.


The Plateau Indians' lodges/tepees were made of tule mats and spread on poles. To make one of these they would dig a hole about 2 feet deep. (Some of their houses were temporarily made of wood.) They would then place the poles in the hole around the outside and tie the poles at the top. They would then put the mats on the bottom and tie them at the top. The poles made them 4 feet tall. They would continue to put more mats on the poles. They would then tie this with wild hemp. These lodges were very movable, removable, and also provide a very good shelter. In the summer they lived in temporary brush houses where they would remove a few layers of their tule mat covered home, while in the winter they would add more tule mats to make the pit house warmer. During the winter, the Plateau Indians used the same outhouse. They made a path through snow to get there.


Of all the baskets the Plateau tribes made probably the coiled basket was the most popular. These consisted of tightly sewn cylinder coils. They wrapped flexible split cedar or spruce roots around a foundation of the same material. The foundations were bound/sewn together by thread from the inner bark fibers from the antelope brush, sage brush, or hemp. Dried fibers were scraped and rubbed between palms. Finally they were rolled and twisted to make cords. This material was kept moist to maintain flexibility while they worked. The construction began at the center bottom of the basket. A continuous coil was wound around to create a base. At the same time the piece used to wrap one bundle of roots also passed through the adjoining coil firmly sewing them together. The sides of the basket were then gradually built up. They were shaped into one out of about 7 shapes. To obtain desired colors of tan, brown or black the people frequently buried the baskets. The color green was obtained from boiled snowberry leaves, yellow from boiled alder bark or Oregon grape root. Black was made from horse tail roots. White came from the inner leaves of bear grass and blue was blueberry juice. Red was made from huckleberry, blackberry,or choke cherry juices and the inner bark of wild cherry. Common patterns were rows of triangles, rectangles, diamonds, and other geometric shapes. They even had more complex variations of these.


The men wore robes and the women wore dresses. Leggings, moccasins, shirts, dresses and skirts were made of buckskin before the introduction of fabrics. The Nez Perce and many other Plateau women usually made their clothes out of the skins of deer or mountain sheep or goats, but they could be made out of woven bark fibers. The clothing other plateau women became famous for was their basket hats. They wove these out of dried leaves. Men sometimes wore a breechclout and moccasins for an ordinary day. The main purpose of leggings was so the person would not get hurt by sharp brush. Early Native Americans wore sandals wherever traveling through sharp stones or thorns; the stones could cut up even the most hardened feet. Boots and moccasins may be the development of the days when early men wrapped up their feet and legs to keep them from freezing and to protect them from bruises and cuts. During celebrations all Plateau Indians, even children, wore decorative and fancy clothes. Men wore fancy pants and shirts and moccasins. Women wore fancy dresses, necklaces, moccasins, gloves, etc.

Plateau mothers had to diaper their child, so how did they do it? Using cattail fluff inside the buckskin pants. It was considered wealthy to have this buckskin. When mothers needed a cradle, they used drift-wood that was the right size and shape. Cat-tail fluff was used to absorb moisture between the buckskin on board that was used to support the baby.


Horses made it possible to trade more bulky and valuable items, such as buffalo robes, dried berries, and root cakes. Smaller items included stone pipes, tobacco, Indian hemp, and dressed skins. Plateau tribes participated in great inner-tribal gatherings at the Dalles. There they traded items such as furs, roots, pemmican (smashed meat and berries), feathers, clothing and horses. These items were transported north to the Okanogan, Sanpoil, and other tribes of the upper Columbia.


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