Photograph of two people identified as Yo-Kosh and Wife in front of a structure identified as a "primitive teepe," circa 1912.
Primitive teepe, Yo-kosh (Horn) and wife, Yakima Reservation, Washington: This "primitive" home is what could be called one of the first "mobile" homes of America! It is made of tules, which are found in wet, marshy areas. Notice the long, slender poles used to tie mats onto on the exterior of the dwelling. These could also be used for tule mat tipis. This home is in the shape of a winter lodge, longer and larger than the space a tipi could provide.
Ceremonial life among the Plateau people of the Columbia River Basin is as ancient as the teachings of proper conduct by the Animal People to the Human People when the Creator first made Mother Earth.
Spirituality is an intregal part in the character of Plateau people. It is our laws we must follow, given to us by the Creator, to show respect and give thanks to those with whom we share this Earth. This is a task contemporary leadership in Plateau country is struggling to maintain in the hearts and minds of our children. Vivian Adams, Yakama
Oral Tradition Lessons
Coyote, the favored teacher of the Animal People, and his friends from the animal world have many stories that include dwellings made from natural materials. There are stories about how Coyote teaches the Human People to make utility items of natural materials provided by the bountiful Mother Earth. These materials deserve our respect and thanks and so Plateau people have prayer songs that are offered to the spirits of the plants and to our Earth before any gathering begins.
Plant material, roots, berries, nuts, leaves, etc. all help provide subsistence to the Plateau people and they are thanked in prayer songs as they are served in order of importance at first food feasts throughout the gathering seasons. Vivian Adams, Yakama
When the Creator made Mother Earth, He made the Animal People and then the Human People. Since that time long, long ago, the Plateau people have strived to keep the laws of good stewardship made by the Creator.
Assimilation, industry, the unbalanced economic layers of American society, unequal justice and government neglegence in treaty obligations have kept tribal communities at or below the poverty level of mainstream American society. The challenge to keep tribal customs, especially native languages is difficult. Tribal struggles include not only traditional practices but also contemporary concerns like health and education, conservation and preservation of tribal natural resources.
Times and "progress" have not been kind to tribal lands and Plateau people do not live freely on the millions of acres they once traveled during the seasonal gathering. Tribal customs like some rites-of-passage almost became extinct because of restricted and free passages to ancient and accustomed gathering areas. Plateau tribes struggle to maintain these rites of maturity and responsibility for up and coming gatherers, leaders, teachers and medicine helpers.
There are many tribal cultural centers and museums located throughout the Northwest and other institutions that include interpretive information, historical images, some drum/songs and artifacts. All Plateau tribes want to share their history and lifeways. Vivian Adams, Yakama
Songs in Plateau life begin with each new sun. A prayer song for the day can belong to an individual or be a common "honor" song shared by longhouse singers/drummers.
There are songs of thanks and respect for those beings with which we share our Earth: when we are cleaning ourselves with a sweat in preparation for family or community gathering tasks, ceremonial tasks, or individual challenges. Prayer songs can be to cleanse the spirits of an area where a dwelling will be placed, either temporarily or permanently.
A fine place to witness this universally shared native spirituality is at a social gathering, a pow wow. A flag song begins the event with an honoring and prayer, and celebratory songs to enjoy. Usually every event held by Plateu people begins and ends with a blessing prayer song: a sharing of a meal, a tribal meeting or conference, a rodeo, a basketball game, and so on.
A common custom is to give your own prayer song when you sweat, and when you end the day, another song/prayer of thanks for that day. Vivian Adams, Yakama
Historically, a village greeted each day with a prayer. A camp "news" keeper rode around the village giving daily events and updates on village concerns.
Before reservation times, villages were temporary during the gathering seasons and dwellings that were easily portable protected from the elements. Earth lodges were semi-permanent structures that many families returned to after the gathering/trading seasons. There were also multi-family dwellings used in the cold season called winter lodges. These were longer structures, made of long, curved, taller tule mats. They could be covered with hides to help keep out the rain, snow and wind but the tules woven together also constricted with the wet weather to help close out these elements. Cold season weather resistent winter lodge bases were made of mud and straw-like grasses dried into an adobe-like lining at the bottom of the lodges. Several entries allowed different families their own doorways and several family fires served families along the length of the lodges.
Animals were taken care of while morning meals were prepared, the needs of the elderly and ill were attended to; families shared what they had with those who were in need. Children knew their morning tasks and performed them with little prodding. Those who had special gifts or talents used them to serve their community, groups of hide tenders, sewers, weavers and food processers as well as carving, daily hunting, fishing and wood gathering.
Rites of Passage
Historically, Plateau children were able to gain their rites-of-passage ceremonies once subsistence tasks were well learned. There were also ceremonies to honor a youth's special talents, perhaps as a horseman, or as a weaver or hide tanner and apprenticeships with masters in the various crafts would begin.
A young girl may have gathered her first roots and would receive a ceremony. A young man may have killed his first deer or caught his first salmon and would receive a ceremony. Perhaps their skills brought to mind an ancestor whose skills may have been inherited and naming ceremonies would also be given to mark the beginnings of maturity and special knowledge.
Today on all Plateau reservations, these ceremonies continue in many families. Restricted reservation boundaries however, keep gathering of natural resources limited to reservation lands, but all Plateau people have treaty rights to gather in "usual and accustomed" places. Vivian Adams, Yakama
Many familys comprised a village; relatives and spouses from other villages made up the families. These were the bands of a tribe and joined with larger tribes during trades and ceremonies.
Reservation life brought all these tribes and bands together; many times groups of people who never lived in close quarters with the people they now had to tolerate! Restricted travel, allotted lands, distant and individualized families greatly affected village living. Newer style "community center" brought people together for socical and ceremonial events and longhouses located throughout the Yakama Reservation, along with the contemporary Indian Shaker church were made to serve the spiritual land healing needs of the people.
Many of these changes in daily life are interpreted at tribal cultural centers and museums throughout the Plateau northwest. Vivian Adams, Yakama
The slender tubular stems are cut during a particular season when they are long and pliable. They are processed to weather the elements in strong conditions, sewn and woven with Indian hemp (dogbane) string. The mats for homes are more curved and much larger and longer than the individually owned mats. Such a plain utilitarian item served so many purposes: it was slept on, medicine food is placed on them at feasts, a person stands on one when given a new name or taking a partner in marrage, it built a dwelling, and then the mat covered its owner at death. The hollow stems used in the mats provided a comfortable home: expanded when wet so it helped keep out the rain and snow; contracted when it became hot so air could flow through. The mats are light weight and easy to pack up and carry, very transportable. They greatly suited the semi-nomadic travels of the Plateau people before the less labor intensive canvas tipis became favored construction material. They also served as large semi-permanent winter homes depending on how many families moved in together to share their foods during the cold season. So not only were these mats used as a home, but as served as a social building, a evening school for oral tradition storytelling, and private quarters for those separating themselves for special work or societal reasons.
Throughout the Plateau, there are special groups of tule mat makers known for their artistic mastery when making a mat, just as there are artisans known for their hide work, beadwork, basket coiling and bag twining. As always, prayers of thanks were given before gathering the natural materials and a balanced persona required when making an item. This conduct has been a part of Plateau spirituality since we were taught by the Animal People in ancient times. Tule mat making classes are still taught just before the season for gathering begins as an effort to ensure cultural continuity. But it becomes more difficult to find the natural materials needed to make traditional items.
Vivian M. Adams, Yakama