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Native American

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What is the Umatilla Tribe?

By Bethney Foster
Updated: May 17, 2024

The Umatilla tribe is one of three Native American tribes, along with the Cayuse and Walla Walla, which live on the Umatilla Indiana Reservation in the state of Oregon in the United States. The Umatilla’s traditional homeland includes the Columbia River Plateau in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. The tribes came to the reservation in 1855 under provisions of a treaty with the U.S. government. In 1949, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla formed a single tribal government. Today there are more than 2,800 members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The Umatilla tribe referred to the Columbia as the Big River and historically shared it with several other indigenous groups of people, including those with whom they now form the Confederated Tribes. The three tribes shared the Sahaptin language, though there were distinct dialects. The Umatilla tribe lived on both sides of the Big River and had family, trade, and economic relationships with the other tribes along the waterway.

Only within the first decade of the 21st century have the people of the Umatilla tribe moved away from the nomadic lifestyle that included traveling to hunting and fishing camps in a yearly cycle. The traditional foods of the Umatilla tribe were salmon, roots, and deer. Living in longhouses, the tribe’s tent type shelter could be up to 80 feet (24 m) long. Horses were introduced to the tribe in the 1700s, and the people had large herds that were used to make their constant travels easier.

The families of the Umatilla tribe were extended and often had aunts, grandparents, and cousins all living in one home or band. Men were primarily responsible for hunting, making weapons and tools, and caring for the horses. Women were responsible for cooking, picking berries, and making clothing. Women also had responsibility for setting up and taking down the longhouses when the people moved.

Drumming and singing are an integral part of the religious and ceremonial aspects of the Umatilla tribe’s culture. Beads and porcupine quills were used in decorations. The history of the tribe was passed from generation to generation in song or storytelling. Most often the grandmother of a particular band was charged with the storytelling responsibility.

Today, the Umatilla tribe uses the longhouse solely for ceremonies and celebrations. The traditional language has been mostly lost, although there is a resurgence of interest in teaching it to the young people. The traditional extended family isn’t common on the reservation, and most family units are nuclear in structure.

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Discussion Comments
By CellMania — On Oct 29, 2011

I am a social work student and am currently taking a class called Cultural Diversity. We had to do a project on a particular culture and I was assigned Native Americans. Their culture is so fascinating and their resiliency is overwhelming.

Sadly, many Native Americans are not aware of the programs that are in place in the United States on their behalf. They can receive benefits that are only available to Native Americans. My internship will include visiting Native American families and making sure they know what is available to them.

By JaneAir — On Oct 28, 2011

I did a bit of research online, and it seems like the Umatilla reservation isn't that big-only around 200 square miles. Ironically, when the Louis and Clark expedition reached the Walla Walla tribe (now a member of the Umatilla tribe), they were welcome with open arms. I'm sure members of the tribe regretted that later on!

By starrynight — On Oct 28, 2011

@strawCake - It's interesting that the Umatilla don't live in their traditional family structure anymore. There are still plenty of places in the world where extended families all live together! Not really here in the US though, so I suppose that's the result of American influences.

I wonder if they still eat their traditional foods? It makes sense that they used to eat primarily salmon and berries, considering they lived near a river. However, now our food choices aren't limited to our local area. You can get food from pretty much anywhere in the world!

By strawCake — On Oct 27, 2011

I think it's interesting that the Umatilla tribe consists of a few tribes that used to be neighbors, so to speak. I think it's unfortunate that their reservation isn't on their traditional lands though. However, I know when the US government placed the Native American on reservations, they didn't exactly have their best interests in mind.

I also think it's sad so much of their culture has been lost. As the article said, the traditional Umatilla language has been lost. And, they don't live in their traditional family structure anymore.

By Mykol — On Oct 27, 2011

I became familiar with the Umatilla tribe while I was visiting a friend who lived in Oregon. There is quite an interesting history involving these northwest native Americans, but they are also currently known for their casinos.

They have more than one in this part of the country, and while I was there went to one of them that was nearby.

I also had the chance to see some of their traditional art and craft work that was displayed. I have always been fascinated with the quality of their artwork when they have access to very few materials.

I purchased a pair of beaded moccasins that were very unique and beautiful.

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