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Desert Cultures

Paiute Chief Nevada c1870 P200
Paiute Chief, c. 1870 M.M.
Hazeltine Photograph OrHi 36856

Settling into southeastern Oregon for the long haul, Native people developed a unique way of life, one that ingeniously adapted to whatever resources the land offered them. Termed the “Desert Culture” by archaeologists of the northern Great Basin and Snake River Plain, it relied on focused hunting and intensive gathering for survival. For example, occasional herds of migratory buffalo ranged within southeastern Oregon during the past 6,000 years, and a few archaeological sites indicate that bison hunting occurred in the region as recently as two centuries ago. However, people of the Desert Culture relied on the more plentiful bighorn, deer, and other local game for protein. Periodic jackrabbit drives were important endeavors that involved several usually distant groups meeting at one place and working together. Using strategically placed net fences to trap the rabbits, a few dozen men, women, and children could snare thousands of the animals, which they then consumed for food as well as skinned for winter blankets, warm clothing, and strong cordage. In the Malheur and Owyhee river drainages, relatively small quantities of spawning salmon supplemented the diet. Having developed an intimate knowledge of the seemingly barren landscape—knowing just which plants ripened where and when—Native women gleaned large quantities of a wide assortment of edible seeds, roots, and bulbs. Women’s harvesting provided the majority of their families’ food.

People of the region organized themselves into autonomous groups, or bands, each of which typically included only a few extended families. Each group inhabited and relied upon the resources of a fairly large home territory. After spending winter in a village of pole-and-thatch huts, typically located along a lower-elevation river or lakeshore, a band typically began to break up into smaller “task-groups” during the spring. Through summer and into fall they followed the movement of game animals, as well as the seasonal succession of plant harvests, well up into the forested mountains before returning down to the warmer valleys for the winter.

People of the Desert Culture probably valued group harmony above all else and, unlike some Native groups elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, they apparently did not put much emphasis on social status or acquiring individual wealth. Religious beliefs and practices centered on the many powerful spirits that inhabited the world all around them, particularly within certain animals and at special places. The job of the shaman, or puhagami—Northern Paiute for “power person,” the group’s religious specialist—was to mediate with the spirit world. He or she often accomplished this daunting task by means of extended trance and altered states of consciousness. Many of the symbols displayed in the region’s ancient “rock art”—petroglyphs and pictographs—likely attest to the spirit quests of shamans.

We can never know with any certainty what languages the early Desert Culture peoples spoke, but evidence suggests that groups ancestral to the later Klamath-Modoc people once inhabited much of southeastern Oregon. Perhaps it was these people who, around 2,000 years ago, built the large pit-house villages found along the shores of Abert Lake, villages occupied at a time of higher moisture when that now-saline lake supported abundant freshwater fish. And if so, as Abert and other lakes of the region then once again shrank into brackish ponds in which today only tiny brine shrimp can survive, the Klamath-Modoc ancestors may have pulled back to the west, where deeper lakes and abundant rivers still enabled a culture built on fishing to flourish. Although the Klamath-Modoc continued to use the western fringes of southeastern Oregon, about 1,500 years ago a new group of Desert Culture people came on the scene. Over the course of several centuries they had spread northward from an original homeland in the southwestern Great Basin. Known to us today as the Northern Paiute, these people arrived already well adapted to the arid conditions they found in southeastern Oregon. Their close linguistic cousins, the Northern Shoshone and the Bannock, settled to the east, in parts of the Owyhee Uplands and most of Idaho’s Snake River Plain.

Each Northern Paiute sub-group occupied a fairly well-defined homeland, or tebiwa. The name of each group derived from some characteristic food that they ate. The people who lived in the Harney Basin called themselves Wadatika, or “wada-eaters,” that is, those who ate that particular kind of seed, to differentiate themselves from Northern Paiute neighbors. The presence at archaeological sites of exotic goods, including olivella shells from the California coast, indicates that Northern Paiutes and their predecessors engaged in long-distance trade for especially esteemed items. Later, lightweight but high-value items such as brass buttons, glass beads, and other European and American trade goods trickled into the region from the Northwest Coast or from across the Rocky Mountains. Their Nez Perce neighbors to the north had become a horse-mounted buffalo-hunting people by the mid-1700s, but the Northern Paiute apparently did not begin to keep horses until nearly a hundred years later, perhaps in part because buffalo no longer occurred anywhere close to the high desert by this time.

Although populations generally remained small, Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader Peter Skene Ogden remarked with incredulity on the comparatively large number of people he encountered while traveling through the marsh-studded Warner Valley. With explorer Ogden’s brief initial forays into the region, however, southeastern Oregon’s Native population soon faced a relentless onslaught of new arrivals, people possessing a dramatically different culture and outlook.

© Jeff LaLande, 2005

Era: Precontact
Themes: People and the Environment,Religion,Social Relations
Author: Jeff LaLande
Regions: Southeastern Oregon
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Fire, Ice, Water, and Wind
The First Arrivals
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