Plateau Region

The Plateau Culture

The term Plateau Indians is taken from the name of the Columbia Plateau. The Columbia Plateau is a region of highlands through which the Columbia River flows. Some 1,200 miles long, situated in both the United States and Canada, the Columbia River is one of the largest rivers in North America. It starts in the southeastern part of British Columbia, then flows a meandering route to the Pacific Ocean, forming much of the border between Washington and Oregon. It has many tributaries, including the Snake, Thompson, Okanagan,Deschutes, Umatilla, Willamette, and Kootenai Rivers. This system receives water from three mountain ranges—the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, and the Coast Range. Another large river, the Fraser— also starting in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia— is not part of the Columbia watershed.


What scholars define as the Plateau Culture Area is situated between the Cascades to the west and the Rockies to the east, the Fraser River to the north and the Great Basin to the south. It includes territory now mapped as southeastern British Columbia, eastern Washington, northeast and central Oregon, northern Idaho, western Montana, and a small part of northern California.

The mountains flanking the Plateau region—the Cascades and the Rockies—catch a great deal of rain and snowfall, making for the great number of rivers and streams. The mountains and river valleys have enough precipitation to support some of the tallest trees in the world. These are evergreen forests of needle-bearing conifers, including pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, and cedar. The giant forests are too dense and shady for much smaller vegetation to grow beneath them.

The Columbia Plateau has little rainfall, since the Cascades block the rain clouds blowing in from the ocean. The land consists mainly of flatlands and rolling hills. Grasses and sagebrush are the dominant vegetation in this part of the culture area.

The sparse ground vegetation of both mountain and plateau meant little game for the Native peoples living there. Some elk, deer, and bear could be found at the edge of the forest. Some antelope and jackrabbits lived out on the dry plains of the plateau. Yet the abundant rivers and streams offered up plentiful food. Among the many different kinds of fish were the salmon that swam upriver from the ocean to lay their eggs. The river valleys also provided plentiful berries, including blackberries and huckleberries. On the grasslands of the plateau, the Indians found other wild plant foods—roots and bulbs, especially from the camas plant, a kind of lily; bitterroot; wild carrots; and wild onions.


Through fishing, hunting, and gathering, Plateau Indians could subsist without farming. In cold weather, most Plateau Indians lived along rivers in villages of semiunderground earth-covered pithouses, which provided natural insulation. In warm weather, most peoples lived in temporary lodges with basswood frames and bulrush-mat coverings, either along the rivers at salmon- spawning time or on the open plains at camas-digging time. Plateau Indians also used the rivers as avenues of trade, with many contacts among different tribes.


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"A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting."
- Satanta, Kiowa Chief



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