The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes have a long colorful history in serving as the agents of hospitality to the visitors of this area. It may have been started by their ancestors 11,000 years ago who left evidence of their society at Fort Rock, Oregon.
In more recent centuries, these tribes have been saying “Welcome to our land” since the first fur traders and explorers entered what is now Southeast Washington and Northeast Oregon.
During the early visitations of the first European guests to the region, these tribal groups had a stable, religiously oriented life which was sustained by a variety of economic pursuits. They had access to the deer, bear, elk, antelope, berries, and roots; the flora and fauna of the mountains as well as that of the more arid regions of the Columbia basin.
The great runs of salmon in the Columbia and its tributaries furnished a much appreciated food staple. So important was this fish that among many tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the word for fish was simply salmon. Many tribal beliefs and ceremonies centered around the salmon. The catching of salmon provided an important food supply which could be dried and stored, thus providing leisure time. In addition at such sites as Celilo Falls, the salmon catch also put the tribal people of the entire area in contact with one another, furnishing opportunity to trade and share cultural development.
Treks to the buffalo country of Montana afforded the tribes with the variety of products derived from the buffalo, as well as trading and cultural contacts with the Plains tribes.
Nature was not only the provider. The local tribes learned that by cooperating with nature, efforts could yield new means of gains. Local groups, after the introduction of the horse to the area in the early 1700’s, became widely known for their knowledge of selective breeding of horses. Members of the Cayuse Tribe became so famous as horse dealers and breeders that their tribal name has entered the American language as a synonym for Indian pony. A close neighbor of the Cayuse, the Nez Perce Tribe, developed a new breed of horse, famous today as the Appaloosa.
Warfare was not a regular activity of these tribes. Relations between tribes and with emigrants were generally peaceful. There were at times misunderstandings that developed due to conflicts of culture. One of these was closely associated with the concern of private ownership of land. Historically, the Indian had no concept of private ownership of land. Territorial limits were respected by a given tribe, but no one man owned any particular piece of land. Land was provided by and owned by nature, and was man’s only to use.
When the first settlers began to homestead, usually on choice water hole sites, it didn’t pose any real threat as they were entitled to use the land. But when the homesteader built fences and said, “This is mine”, misunderstandings did develop. One misunderstanding, now known as the Whitman Massacre, developed in the fall of 1847. Prior to the Massacre, fear had grown as more and more settlers homesteaded on Cayuse territory. The Cayuse had no resistance to the disease called measles, brought by the white settlers and it quickly spread among the tribes. When, in a brief period, half of the tribe had died from this new disease and the medicines of the Whitman Mission seemed to help the white children, but not the Indian children, the Cayuse began to believe that they were being poisoned to make way for the whites. The Whitman Mission was attacked and ceased to exist on November 19, 1847.
In May of 1855, over 5,000 Indian delegates from the Yakima, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Tribes met with government officials at the old Yakima tribal council grounds, which is now the city of Walla Walla, to hold one of the most picturesque treaty sessions recorded in American Indian Affairs. From this council the Treaty of 1855 was drawn which designated the future relationship of these tribes with the Federal government and established the reservations now occupied by these tribes. The Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse were guaranteed a number of provisions as payment for the land they were to release for white settlement. Among these was the guarantee of 245,699 acres of land, some of which includes the present town-site of Pendleton, to be reserved for Indian use.
Presently there are 1,335 enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, approximately half of which reside within the boundaries of the Umatilla Reservation (which has been diminished through succession and approved land sales to its present size of 174,121 acres). As participating members of the Umatilla County community, their children can attend a local charter school or public schools and the adults work at the Wildhorse Casino, in community offices, mills, schools, shops, and on its ranches and farms.
The Happy Canyon pageant has become a part of the heritage of the host tribes. For the past 97 years of its performance they unpack their family heirlooms and set up their tepees, to appear at Happy Canyon and to unfold a glimpse of the past – the children following in the moccasined footsteps of their elders without rehearsal or advanced direction.
Tribal groups throughout the nation have representatives encamped during the week of Round-Up and Happy Canyon. Sizeable delegations from the tribes of the Yakima, Colville, Spokane, Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone, Bannock, Warm Springs, Paiute, and Rock Creek participate in the events of the week.