The Political and Economic Status of the Tribes of the Columbia Plateau

By Maria Flores

The Columbia Plateau Culture Area


The Columbia Plateau culture area is located in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, northeast and central Oregon, southeast British Columbia and a small portion of northern California.  The Plateau is defined by its diverse and majestic landscape, with the Cascade mountains to the west, the Rockies to the east, the desert country of the Great Basin to the south, and the cold forest and hill country of the upper Fraser River to the north.  It is a land intricately veined with rivers, the life blood of the indigenous peoples of the area.  The largest of all the rivers in the Plateau’s drainage system is the Columbia, which is fed by numerous tributaries, including the Thompson, Okanagan, Deschutes, Umatilla, Snake and Willamette Rivers.  The Native American tribes within the general vicinity of Whitman College and the city of Walla Walla include the Yakama, Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla. 

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR)


The Native American tribes represented on the Umatilla Reservation include not only the Umatilla, but also the Cayuse and Walla Walla, along with a few Palouse and Nez Perce that were brought together under the Treaty of 1855.  Under the guidelines of the Treaty of 1855, the conglomerate of these tribes ceded over 4 million acres of land to the federal government.  Initially, they were allotted a large land base, which was later drastically reduced, by various actions of the federal government, to 245,000 acres, which now composes the Umatilla Reservation.  This reservation was one of the first in the Northwest to be opened by federally sponsored allotment to white settlement.  The Umatilla Reservation is located in Umatilla County in northeastern Oregon, east of the city of Pendleton.  In 1993, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation had an enrollment of approximately 1,300 members, 800 of whom live on the reservation. 

Political Status:
The tribes currently operate under a Constitution and Bylaws that were adopted in December of 1949, after a rejection of the Indian Reorganization Act.  Under this legislation, tribal government and business are executed by an elected Council of nine members.  From this group, a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary and treasurer are selected.  The majority of tribal business is carried on through committees that handle issues including scholarships, credit, fishing and enrollment committees.  The CTUIR have been active participants in current issues involving reserved treaty rights to fish and hunt on the rivers and on the open and unclaimed lands within their traditional range.  They are members of the Umatilla Basin Project, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Basalt Waste Isolation Project, the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project, and the Columbia Gorge Commission.  In addition to the restoration of traditional fishing and hunting habitats, the Umatilla have also built the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, an interpretive center and museum that presents the history and culture of the tribes represented on the reservation.

Economic Status:
The CTUIR, like the Yakama and Warm Springs, “benefited” from the Celilo Falls Settlement, in which each member of the tribe was paid $3,494.61 for lost fishing sites that were inundated by the Dalles Dam.  In addition, four claims have been filed with the Indian Claims Commission and have provided the tribes with an endowment for scholarships.  Aside from the revenue generated by tourist activities at the Tamasktlit Institute and their many other interpretive centers, most tillable Umatilla Reservation lands are leased for farming.  The Umatilla tribes obtained title to the McNary Dam town site under provisions of Public Law 85-186, and they currently lease the site to S&S Steel Productions, Inc., of Los Angeles, a manufacturer of mobile homes.  Under the provisions of the lease, tribal members are given first preference for employment. In 1993, over 50 percent of the S&S employees were Umatilla members. A major revenue-generating enterprise of the Consolidated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation is the Wildhorse Casino Resort.  Other indications of economic revitalization include tribal programs providing credit, recreation and summer work programs.  The reservation has an office for general and adult education, a daycare center, a health center and employment facilities.  A forest-and-range enterprise is tribally owned, as are a store and a recreational lake. 

The Yakama Reservation


The Yakama Indian Nation consists of formerly autonomous bands, much like the Umatilla Nation.  The major bands that compose the Yakama Nation are the Kittias/ Upper Yakama, the Lower Yakama, the Klickitat, the Wanapam, the Wishham, the Palouse, and the Wenatchi.  The Yakama Treaty Council, convened by Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory in 1855, led to land cessions of 10.8 million acres and removal to a reservation.  The new political entity of the Yakama Indian Nation was allotted a reservation of 1.2 million acres set aside in Lower Yakama territory, a rough rectangle composed of approximately 1.4 million acres.  The Yakama reservation is one of the largest in the United States, roughly one and a half times larger than Rhode Island.

Political Status
The Yakama Tribal Council is composed of 14 members, symbolizing the original 14 tribes, bands and villages that compose the Yakama Nation.  In order to be enrolled in the tribe, a person is required to have one-quarter degree of Native blood from one of the bands listed in the Yakama treaty.  In August of 1992, 8,315 members were enrolled, with about two-thirds of all enrolled members living on the reservation. One of the biggest political struggles that the Yakama Nation faces is the loss of traditional fishing. Both subsistence and commercial fishing are and continue to be vital economic resources to the Yakama.  In the first fishing rights case ever, Taylor v. Yakama Tribe in 1887, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe's treaty rights to fish at accustomed places, regardless of the white settler’s (Taylor's) fence, which blocked access.  This case was just the beginning of the Yakama tribe’s legal triumphs.  In United States v. Washington, 1974, Judge George Boldt ruled that Native Americans were entitled to “fair and equitable” share of the fishing catch, which meant 50 percent of the fish that swam in traditional fishing places.  The Yakama-Klickitat Fish Production Project, a joint effort with the Yakama Nation and the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Departments, has become the largest fishery conservation program in the United States. 

Economic Status:
Land- based enterprises are the major source of revenue for the Yakama Reservation.  The tribe has established an industrial park to expand job opportunities, housing both tribal and private industries.  The Yakama Land Enterprise Program develops fruit orchards, runs outlet fruit stands and operates an RV park.  As of 1992, some Yakama were employed by logging companies or sawmills, or in home and road construction.  Six hundred were employed at the Yakama agency headquarters, while many others leased their farming and grazing lands or supplemented their income by seasonal employment.  However, the single highest-grossing enterprise of the Yakama Nation is their tourist activities.  The Yakama Nation Heritage Center supports a restaurant, gift shop, theater, library, cultural interpretive center and RV park.