When the first Euro-American explorers arrived in the Columbia River Basin in the early 19th century, they encountered Indians living in distinct bands from the headwaters in British Columbia to the mouth of the river. A total of 32 separate people groups and six major language groups have been identified in the Columbia River Basin, and there is evidence of human habitation in parts of the basin dating back 10,000 years.

The traditional lifestyle was one of hunting and foraging, with winter villages and seasonal camps that would be established for fishing or gathering purposes. Indians who lived along the lower Columbia River maintained more permanent settlements than those who lived farther upriver, where food supplies were more seasonal, the winter climate was harsh and the lifestyle accordingly was more nomadic. Roots, berries, animals, fish, wildlife — all were important to the tribes both as food and as elements of their spiritual beliefs. Land and water, which supported life, were sacred.

The earliest inhabitants were nomadic hunters who relied on big game animals as an important part of their diet. Fishing began to be important to the subsistence pattern at least 8,000 years ago. By about 3,000 years ago, fish, animals and root crops were important in the diet, and shared food resources, particularly fisheries, may have led to cooperative political, social and religious structures among bands in shared geographic areas.

Lower Columbia River Indians lived in large villages of multifamily plank houses; in the interior Columbia Plateau, houses constructed of mats and poles were more common, as fit the more nomadic lifestyle. Celilo Falls and Kettle Falls were major fishing and trading areas for Indians from throughout the Northwest and also were the home localities of several tribes. The introduction of the horse to Columbia River Basin tribes in the mid-1700s greatly expanded the range of hunting and trading, which for some included annual expeditions east of the Rocky Mountains to hunt for bison.

By the mid-1800s Columbia River Basin Indians had developed complex societies in discrete geographic areas, each with seasonal rounds of foraging, hunting and fishing. When necessary, tribal territories were defended aggressively against outsiders.

Into this ancient and dynamic mix of unique cultures came Euro-American explorers and, later, settlers, beginning in the early 1800s. The earliest were engaged in the fur trade. Soon these were followed by entrepreneurs who exploited natural resources including minerals and fish and who established farms and ranches, and all of this activity was on land that had been occupied or claimed by Indians for centuries.

In 1850 Congress passed the Donation Land Act, which gave settlers large tracts of land claimed by the federal government. The Act significantly boosted non-Indian settlement of the Columbia River Basin. In Oregon, the Oregon Donation Land Act caused hundreds of thousands of acres of Indian land to be given away. The law expired in 1855, by which time more than 7,000 settlers had filed on more than 2.8 million acres in Oregon. This was before any indian treaties between Indian tribes and the United States government had been ratified.

The land rush was particularly intense before December 1, 1851. Couples who could marry before that date could claim up to 640 acres — 320 apiece; afterward, the allowable amount was cut in half. Settlers rushed into the interior Columbia Basin, east and west of the Cascades, and claimed farms in widely scattered areas and often in odd shapes to take advantage of springs, valleys or other desirable locations and avoid less-desirable areas. Many of these claims intruded on Indian lands, inciting hostilities.

The land rush of the 1850s, the gold rush of the 1860s and the completion of transcontinental railroads in the 1880s brought successive waves of settlers into the Indian country of the Columbia River Basin. Christian missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, located missions and began working among Indians in the 1840s. Generally, Protestant missionaries saw the spread of Christianity and the spread of Western civilization as coincident. The ill will that led to the Whitman murders in November 1847 grew in part from this clash of cultures and the steady flow of immigration from the East, which to many Indians was a form of trespass.

Disease, specifically, was at the root of the suspicion and distrust that led Cayuse Indians to attack the Whitman mission. The murders of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 12 others prompted the organization of a temporary militia, and also a peace commission to negotiate with the Indians. This was one of the first acts of the provisional legislature of Oregon Territory and the first military act in the Columbia River Basin. More than 400 men organized at Oregon City in December and marched from the Willamette Valley to Fort Walla Walla and then on the mission site. There were skirmishes, the peace commission was unsuccessful, and the Indians responsible for the murders could not be found. By September 1848 the volunteers returned home. Two years later, five Cayuse surrendered and were tried and executed for their role in the murders.

There were no further military campaigns in the Columbia River Basin until 1856, when hostilities again erupted, this time over the interpretation or implementation of indian treaties signed by the United States and some, but not all, of the Columbia basin tribes. In the treaties the government established reservations (these included the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla Warm Springs reservations), and the tribes reserved certain rights, including the right to fish at their usual and accustomed places and to hunt and pasture animals on open and unclaimed lands. Many Indians were reluctant to give up their homelands for the reservations, not the least because in some cases the government forced ancient adversaries to locate to the same reservations. Frequent trespasses by non-Indians and the lack of respect for the rights reserved by the tribes led to new hostilities and, through 1858, a series of wars in the middle and lower Columbia basin. Hostilities between Indians and non-Indians also led to the Snake War of 1866-68, the Nez Perce War of 1877 and the Bannock-Paiute War of 1878.

After 1870, additional reservations were created by presidential order, as opposed to treaty. These include the Colville, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai (Idaho), Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute and Burns Paiute reservations.

Over time, Indian populations simply were overwhelmed by the tide of Euro-American culture that swept in from the East. Indian society was complex and well-established, but it was not civilization to the newcomers who judged Indian people and their lifestyles and cultures as backwards or uncivilized. Indians were viewed by many non-Indians as people who were in the way of progress. Civic boosterism bordered on racism.

In 1887, for example, Eugene V. Smalley, writing in the November issue of Northwest Magazine, commented on the rapid development of the city of Spokane Falls, which had been incorporated only six years earlier. The writer praised the “rattle and hum of varied industry,” which he described as “the music that western man loves the best.” Local Indians, he noted, were overwhelmed by it all:

“And gazing in stolid wonder upon this wonderful transformation scene stands the sullen, blanketed Indian, who but a few years ago looked upon the flowery Spokane plain as his choice and exclusive domain, and upon the river as created by the Great Spirit to bring fish to his nets.”

The Northwestern Industrial Exposition, which took place in bustling Spokane Falls during the month of October 1890, gave local Indians an opportunity to come into town to shop and view the accomplishments of modern American society. According to authors Robert Ruby and John Brown, in town the Indians “saw what progress white men had made in civilization. The women roamed, goods-hungry, through stores to purchase eye-catching calicoes and shawls, sometimes trading salmon for them.”

The era of military warfare against Indians in the Northwest had ended by 1880, but steadily the fighting shifted to courtrooms as Indians defended their treaty-reserved rights, particularly fishing rights. Beginning in the early 20th century, litigation over Indian fishing steadily defined and solidified a body of law that directs Columbia River fish harvests in the modern era.

Today 14 groups of affiliated tribes are officially recognized by the United States government in the American part Columbia River Basin. These are the Colville, Kalispel, Spokane and Yakama confederated tribes in Washington; the Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone Paiute tribes in Idaho; the Salish and Kootenai confederated tribes in Montana, and the Grande Ronde, Warms Springs, Umatilla and Burns Paiute confederated tribes in Oregon. There are three tribal groups, known as First Nations, in the Canadian portion of the basin, the Okanagan, whose homeland is along that river, the Ktunaxa, whose homeland is in the east Kootenay region in the Columbia headwaters area, and the Kinbasket, an eastern band of the Shuswap nation, whose homeland is in the upper Fraser River area north and west of the Columbia. A third First Nation group, the Sinixt, is distributed among other tribal groups in the West Kootenay area, where their homeland was along the Arrow Lakes. The Sinixt people, also known as Lakes Indians, have relatives among the Colville confederated bands.

Tribes operate businesses including saw mills, resort hotels, casinos and visitor centers and are major economic forces in the communities and unincorporated areas near their reservations.  The Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes in Oregon have plans to operate large power plants — the Umatilla Tribes are pursuing a natural gas-fired plant, and the Warms Springs Tribes are working to acquire the operating licenses for two hydroelectric dams on the Deschutes River.  The tribes co-manage wildlife and fisheries with the states, and tribal scientists advise regional decisionmakers about issues that affect reservations and tribal activities, particularly fish and wildlife management and dam operations.  Tribal police officers provide law enforcement on reservations and work with their county and city counterparts to enforce fishing regulations in the Columbia River between Bonneville and McNary dams.

The spiritual connection with salmon remains a vital part of Columbia basin Indian culture, even in areas where salmon are in low numbers or are extinct. In 1999, Lionel Boyer, an elder of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Idaho, a tribe that is working on salmon restoration in the upper Salmon River of central Idaho, commented on this cultural foundation in a speech to the member tribes and fish and wildlife agencies of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority.

“I look at the agencies, the states and the non-Indian society as not recognizing what we as Indian people have been presenting to you for many years — that there is a connection that we are lacking, that you are lacking. You do not have that spiritual connection that we as Indian people have. So, therefore, it is not important to you.

“You look at it as a means of economic gain until it doesn't exist anymore. We see that in all of your practices. Look at what has happened to the Northwest. Look at all of the actions that have caused a critical thing to happen to a resource that was plentiful at one time. We look at the actions that have taken place, that have caused a lot of problems, not only for the anadromous fish, but for the resident fish, the wildlife, the herbs, the medicinal plants, the things that are needed by us as Indian people to maintain our connection with the Creator.

“I do not know if I can characterize your religious beliefs to my spiritual beliefs. You do not pray the way I do. You do not have that connection. Our connection as Indian people is through those resources that we are talking about — the water, the air, the plants, the animals and, today what we are talking about, the fish, the salmon.

“We would do what has to be done to take care of the resources. We would stop much of the present pursuit of economic benefits to be gained, for the benefit of those yet to come into the world. We would find a way to take care of that, but not at the cost of the loss of a spiritual resource.

“That's why I ask the question in reference to the economic cost, the mitigation cost. How can you even determine, or try to determine, the loss of the cultural, traditional aspect that we as Indian people are losing? It is priceless!

“Those of us who have been speaking this way, we are falling by the wayside. Many of the elders who have come and talked to you are not with us anymore. I don't know who is going to be following me, to maintain the words that I present to you. But we as a group, if we keep that in perspective in reference to how we can take care of this problem, we would benefit the future.”