Wishram and the Expedition

Masters of the Mart

"Tsagiglalal, the Guardian of Nixluidix"

Tsagiglalal: an rock etching in the shape of a face

Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana, Missoula

Sepia-toned photogravure print from The North American Indian, Vol. 8, Frontispiece Original size, 18.6 x 13.3 cm (c. 7-1/4 x 5-1/4 in)

Curtis recounted the legend of Tsagiglalal, the Rock Woman:

A woman had a house where the village of Nihhluidih [Nixluidix] was later built. She was chief of all who lived in this region. That was long ago, before Coyote came up the river and changed things, and people were not yet real people. After a time coyote in his travels came to this place and asked the inhabitants if they were living well or ill. They sent him to their chief, who lived up in the rocks, where she could look down on the village and know all that was going on. Coyote climbed up to her home and asked: "What kind of living do you give these people? Do you treat them well, or are you one of those evil women?" "I am teaching them how to live well and to build good houses," she said. "Soon the world is going to change," he told her, "and women will no longer be chiefs. You will be stopped from being a chief." Then he changed her into a rock, with the command, "you shall stay here and watch over the people who will live at this place, which shall be called Nihhluidih."2

Curtis added that the petroglyph must have been extremely old, since all those dwelling in the village believed that even long ago, the oldest of the old thought of it only as something done by Coyote. "All the people know," he reflected, "that Tsagiglalal sees all things, for whenever they are looking up at her those large eyes are watching them."3

"Wishram Maid"

Edward S. Curtis (1910)

Historic photo of an Indian women looking at the Columbia River

Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana, Missoula

Photogravure print from The North American Indian, Vol. 8, Plate 284

Edward Curtis's caption for this photo reads: "Clad in her deerskin dress of the plains and her basketry hat of the coast, the girl pauses on the grim lava rocks above The Dalles, looking out across the thundering rapids, perhaps observing the activities of her friends in the village Wasko." Indians west of the Rockies abandoned the practice of flattening their babies' heads after about 1850.

At The Dalles lived Upper Chinookan people, the Wishrams on the Columbia's north (Washington) side—and their allies the Wascos on the south (Oregon) side—who were the main masters of the regional trading center. The Lewis and Clark Expedition encamped on the north side, in Wishram territory, when they passed through The Dalles in both 1805 and 1806. The captains believed that the people called themselves "Echelutes," which modern linguists say actually was i-c-xl˙it, identifying the speaker as a resident of Nixluidix, the Wishram's main village and trading spot.1 Chinookan people identified themselves by villages rather than tribes.

The expedition camped by Nixluidix on October 24, 1805, without learning its name, at the head of the Long Narrows; Clark's advance trading party returned April 16, 1806, with Lewis and the main command arriving on the 19th; the united Corps portaged the Long Narrows and left the village the following day. Their experiences here are detailed under Westward Through the Gorge, 1805 and Back Through the Gorge.

The Wishrams and other Chinookans, the captains complained, helped themselves to tomahawks, knives, spoons, and other items left out. Historian James P. Ronda explains these acts as the Indians' way of delivering a two-part message. First, the Corps obviously had more things than they needed and could well pay for services rendered, such as advice and demonstrations of how to run the rapids and where the portages lay. Second, the Wishram expected the takings to result in a meeting, a council in the captains' terms, where the latter could "offer respect and attention to the trading lords of the Columbia."4 Notably, when Clark pushed to purchase horses (still in relatively short supply here) for three days in the spring of 1806, many portable items disappeared from camp. This pattern, however, was common during visits to many other Chinookan villages beyond Nixluidix.

It had been only two decades since whites had found their way into the lower Columbia and inserted themselves into the regional trading network, purchasing furs there with muskets, ammunition, beads, and metal tools and ornaments. The news had arrived in an alarming manner when Lower Chinookans, including Chief Comcomly5, canoed to upstream villages (defended solely by bows and arrows), demanded cut-rate prices, and then fired their new muskets to reject unacceptable deals. But no previous whites had come in to trade at The Dalles, challenging the Wishrams' supremacy face to face. Guns were still scarce, as were horses that were being traded into the area from the Nez Perce and other tribes to the southeast.

The trade in goods would continue comfortably until 1813. In 1825, the Hudson's Bay Company of Great Britain opened Fort Vancouver. It sat across the Columbia and a bit upstream from the mouth of the Willamette River, precursor to the city of Vancouver, Washington. Agriculturally self-supporting, the fort was administrative headquarters for Hudson's Bay trappers from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. Its proximity was the beginning of the end for The Dalles' trading mart.

For Lack of an Interpreter

The Lewis and Clark Expedition, with no Chinookan speakers in their company, managed only minimal communication with the Wishrams. At Fort Clatsop on March 1, 1806, Lewis noted that the Tillamooks held slaves, which were adopted into families and treated like relatives. He did not learn that Chinookan custom allowed killing slaves to accompany their late master into the afterlife, or that slaves could also own slaves. While they noted head-flattening, they did not learn that only the upper of three or four castes were privileged to perform this beautifying practice and that it was forbidden to slaves. Many slaves were sold at The Dalles, where Chinookan people favored those captured a long distance away, likely in northern California, which made them less liable to try an escape.

The captains also never traded with women or learned that such was possible, or discovered that among some Chinookans women could be selected as chiefs, in a culture where each chief had a specific sphere of responsibility. They did comment that work duties were more evenly distributed between the genders around Fort Clatsop than what they had seen on the Great Plains.

Treaty and Reservation

After fur trading posts run by British and American companies multiplied throughout the greater "Oregon country," with free traders also circulating among Indian settlements, Christian missionaries followed, bringing a new religion, classroom education, and a different form of medical care.

White farm families began homesteading central Washington lands in the early 1850s, moving east from the Willamette Valley. In 1855, two years after Washington Territory was created, its governor Isaac I. Stevens negotiated the Treaty of Yakama, which consolidated the Wishrams and thirteen other tribes and bands, including Chinookan, Sahaptian, and Salishan speakers. The Wishrams resisted the U.S. government's plan for them to move onto the Yakama Indian Reservation, which is headquartered at Toppenish, Washington. When finally they did move there, they were assimilated into the consolidated tribes, which include the Yakama and the Palouse. The government's final act in the generations-long campaign to eliminate native life-ways was the flooding of nearly all of the traditional Wishram fishing sites on the Columbia with the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957.

1. By regional custom, native people identified themselves by their villages rather than tribes; tribal names came later, mostly bestowed by whites.

2. Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, 20 vols. (Norwood, Massachusetts: Plimpton Press, 1911), 8:145-46.

3. Ibid., 46n.

4. James P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 171-72.

5. A chief of the Chinook proper on the Columbia estuary's Baker Bay, Comcomly visited Lewis and some of his men at "Stormy Point," "blustering point," or "Station camp" on November 17, 1805.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program