SPOKANES by Raven Naramore
The Spokane People enjoyed a rich varied diet and were expert fisherman, hunters and gathers reflecting their specialized knowledge of the land and its gifts. The Spokane Indians historic homelands occupied around three million acres along the Spokane River in eastern Washington and western Idaho. After the period of colonization, decimation by disease and forced relocation, the Spokane now reside on 159,000 acres nestled between the Colombia and Spokane rivers on the eastern edge of Washington. The current population numbers 2,708 (Spokane Tribe).
These Salish speaking people, also known as People of the Sun, derived their subsistence from the rivers and valleys and were a hunter/gather society. Their main food sources were salmon, roots, and berries. Their life ways revolved around the availability of food during the seasonal round. They lived in permanent villages in the winter and camped in the valleys in the summer when the roots and berries were ready. Whenever the salmon arrived the Spokane could be found on the banks of the rivers harvesting the salmon that came up river to spawn. On the Colombia this was mid July, and June for the Spokane. (Ruby 19)
Salmon defined the Spokane People. When Spokane met with people of a different language they made the hand symbol of a salmon tail and then rubbed their bellies to explain who they were (Ruby). The arrival of the salmon was announced to all tribes in the area and the many groups converged on the rivers to take part in the harvest. No one was allowed to spear any fish until the season actually began, ushered in by the seepays or salmon chief and the First Salmon ceremony which lasted four days and included dancing, ceremonial preparation and eating of the first catch, and exclusive consumption of the first four days catch by men which insured that the salmon would return again (Wellpinit School District).
The Spokane were expert fishermen and utilized specialized technology to bring in the food that would be the main source of protein for the tribe. Two methods are described below. They erected rock barriers on both sides of the river creating a bottle neck. Upstream they installed weirs made from branches that could be opened or closed. When a large number of fish lay between the barricade and the weirs the weirs were closed and the men, standing on the shore and on the barricade, would spear the fish and throw them to the women waiting with knives in hand to gut and split the fish to the tail where it would be placed on drying scaffolds along the shore. 800 fish each weighing 20-40 lbs could be caught in this way each day. They also created an ingenious method to catch the salmon ascending the falls on the Colombia River. They placed enormous baskets, 10’x 4’ x 3’, that could hold 200 fish each under the falls and the salmon, whose astounding leaps to clear the falls often fell short would land in the waiting baskets. Men climbed into the baskets and threw the catches to shore since they weighed over 5000 lbs. These baskets could bring in 2000 fish on a good day (Ruby 18-19). They also caught sturgeon, cod and devil fish. The water was not the only bounty in Spokane country, the land balanced out the diet with an abundance of roots, plants and berries and game.
The main plant staple was the camas root, camassia quamash and camassia leichtlinii, also known as Indian Hyacinth (USDA Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Conservation). Early camas, quamash, was dug in early spring starting in March and used for seasoning and added to stews while leichtlinii was harvested in late spring and mainly used for making flour (Wellpinit School District). Women used three foot deer horn handled thorn-brush or other hardwood sticks to dig the bulbs from the meadows surrounding the rivers. One woman could dig a bushel of camas in a day in a plentiful field. As with salmon, there was a ceremony to honor the first roots harvested and to thank the Great Spirit for the abundance of food which included fasting and heated rock throwing (Ruby 21). Camas was baked in grass lined earth pit ovens six to eight feet wide which were lined with rocks. A fire was built atop the rocks and when hot, the fire was removed and the stones were covered with grass, the camas bulbs, and more grass. They cooked for 1-2 days and then were pounded into a pulp and shaped into cakes which were stored in caches for later use. There were many other plants that added flavor, and variety to the Spokane diet.
Berries were harvested in late summer and some were dried and stored with the salmon and camas. As with salmon and camas, there was a First Fruit ceremony to give thanks and honor the creator for the bounty of the berry harvest. The hills surrounding the river valleys teemed with service berry, blue elderberry, wild currant, golden currant, squaw current, hawthorne, Oregon grape, chokecherry and huckleberry (22). Women also collected wild onions, carrots, grasses and herbs some for cooking, some for preserving and many for medicine. Among the medicinal plants used were cascara bark, balsam oil, elderberry leaves and red willow bark (Wellpinit School District). During times of famine the black moss of the pine trees was an important food source. It was boiled into a gruel, flavored with bits of meat and berries and formed into a cake (Drury 526).
Hunting was carried out in late fall and winter when the abundant elk, deer, fowl, rabbits and beaver had fattened off the lush vegetation. Before the arrival of the horse, buffalo, elk and deer were hunted flushing out the game from the woods. Burned moccasins hung from the trees in a circular shape to keep direct the game into the center of the circle were they made their kill. Game was also run off cliffs and driven by fire. Meat was dried in long strips and the fat was rendered and stored in bladders, which was a choice delicacy for men, while women favored scooping the marrow from the cracked bones.
The arrival of the white settlers to the region following the gold rush eroded the land base of the Spokane and decimated the game population. The erection of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Spokane River between 1933-1944 flooded the Spokane land under Lake Roosevelt prevented the salmon from moving upstream to spawn, effectively destroying the subsistence pattern and cultural life blood of the Spokane. The Spokane now eat a standard American diet and suffer from diet related diseases such as obesity and diabetes 2.2 times the rate of European Americans (Center for Disease Control). Although there are many health challenges facing the Spokane, they continue to practice their traditional life ways and many enjoy a highly physical life pursuing their traditional hunting and gathering activities.
Center for Disease Control. National Diabetes Fact Sheet. 2005. 19 September 2011 <http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/pdf/ndfs_2005.pdf>.
Drury, Clifford M. Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: The Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker. Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1970.
Ruby, Robert H., Brown, John A. The Spokane Indians Children of the Sun. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Spokane Tribe. Children of the Sun. 2011. 12 September 2011 <http://www.spokanetribe.com/>.
USDA Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Conservation. USDA Plant Guide. 17 September 2011 <http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_caqub2.pdf>.
Wellpinit School District. Wellpinit School District. 2010. 12 September 2011 <http://www.wellpinit.wednet.edu/culture>.