The Native American West: A Case Study of the Columbia Plateau

NEH Summer Institute for College and University Teachers

DATES: June 17—July 1, 2018   |  LOCATION: Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA  |  STIPEND: $2,100
APPLICATION DEADLINE: March 1, 2018 (notification date: March 28, 2018)

The two-week Institute, “The Native American West: A Case Study of the Columbia Plateau,” will explore a variety of perspectives on the Native American West, the Columbia Plateau, and U.S. history. Just as Plateau peoples’ religion, subsistence practices, politics, and aesthetics were inextricably intertwined, this NEH Summer Institute will emphasize an interdisciplinary approach required to fully comprehend Indigenous experiences and perspectives on American history. To help Summer Scholars create syllabi and/or modules for undergraduate history courses, morning activities will typically emphasize discussion of new content, and afternoons will blend discussion of content with classroom implementation strategies inspired by participants’ questions and observations. Site-visits will punctuate the programming throughout the Institute, in order to meaningfully locate this Institute in its region and to highlight place-based learning. Summer Scholars will leave with new ideas about Western and American Indian history, enhanced theoretical and methodological skills, and new syllabi and/or modules for immediate adoption at their home institutions. The co-Directors and Institute faculty will work with participants to create a broadly accessible web-based repository of teaching resources, as well as identify fruitful avenues for new scholarship, making the experience a distinctive opportunity for academic professional development.

Framed by scholarly historical works about Native Americans, about the Lewis and Clark expedition, land, religion, conflict, and about ongoing tribal and personal self-determination, the Institute seeks to expand, complicate, and sometimes contradict accepted U.S. history narratives about the West. To offer more nuanced interpretations of the Columbia Plateau region, we will draw upon both published and oral accounts by members of local Native American communities. This content will reveal spiritual and cultural practices in the eras prior to American and European immigration, and it will contextualize Indigenous and colonial American responses to each encountering the “other.”

Background and Context

Homeland is vital to Native American lifeways and cultural perspectives. This place-based Institute will not only educate participants about recent exciting developments in scholarship about the Plateau, it will also demonstrate how Summer Scholars can apply lessons learned through this Institute in the Native American homelands where they live and teach, while pointing to resources and questions ripe for further research. Whitman College is an ideal location for this Institute because of its access to tribal partners, tribal cultural institutes, and tribal historic sites in and around Walla Walla. The Yakama Treaty of 1855 was signed on a spot within today’s Whitman College campus, and it is located centrally between Celilo Falls on the Columbia River in Oregon and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) in Spokane, Washington, both sites that are included in the Institute’s intellectual design and schedule.

The Columbia Plateau begins in British Columbia and extends across eastern portions of Washington and Oregon, and western portions of Idaho and Montana. Roughly the same size as France, this region is often referred to as being “interior” because it is several hundred miles from a coastline and much of it was also beyond American overland migration routes. Lewis and Clark famously traveled across the southern Plateau in 1805, and British fur traders began to make incursions on the northern Plateau in the 1810s, but missionaries did not arrive to the region until the 1830s and they did not make serious cultural inroads until the 1840s and beyond. So while eastern and Midwestern tribes had experienced displacement by colonial immigrants for as long as two centuries prior to formal Indian removal in the 1830s, the Columbia Plateau remained primarily an Indigenous space into the mid-nineteenth century. Further, because Native tribes and bands of the Plateau never left this place, it persists as an Indigenous space co- occupied by non-Native people.

Because the Plateau was left largely undisrupted by the U.S.'s development, when expansion—economic, cultural, or residential—occurred, colonial processes ultimately moved at a much more accelerated pace than in other regions of the U.S. For example, a mere fifty years after Lewis and Clark entered the region, territorial governor Isaac Stevens coerced fourteen bands and tribes to sign the Yakama Treaty, a document that ceded nine million acres of ancestral homelands to the United States. The Nez Perce Treaty, also negotiated in 1855, ceded 7.5 million acres of ancestral homelands to the U.S. To quash tribal unrest resulting from these treaties, Stevens engaged a volunteer army; these “soldiers” harassed and killed Native peoples in the region, and their actions went unchecked. A few years later, Colonel George Wright overwhelmed Plateau tribes and bands during the 1858 Plateau War, a conflict which began in answer to an Indian ambush of an army scouting party, and which ended with the slaughter of 800 horses and the hangings of a dozen Indian men.

While Plateau tribes that negotiated treaties did not win many concessions—and in 1863 the Nez Perce Treaty was changed to further reduce the Nez Perce lands by more than five million acres—Plateau tribes that did not participate in negotiations were deemed “non-treaty tribes.” Eventually Executive Order reservations were created for these bands and tribes in the 1870s and 1880s, without tribal consultation or consent. During this same era, the Wheeler-Howard General Allotment Act was designed to surround Native American communities by White Christian neighbors, in order to accelerate Native American assimilation into the dominant U.S. culture. Allotment reduced Plateau reservation land bases by at least an additional two million acres. After the process of loss and change, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 promised to revitalize the tribal self-determination that had never disappeared. Columbia Plateau tribes fought legal battles to restore lands, to receive promised government benefits, and to restore fishing and hunting rights compromised through settlement and hydropower. Because many contemporary Plateau tribal members still live on or adjacent to their ancestral homelands, languages, cultures, and cultural practices remain intact and have once again become part of everyday community lifeways.