The History of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs
Beware. This is a hard story with an unfinished ending.
It starts, for now, a hundred years after Jamestown was built on the Virginian coast. In those formative years, European trappers descended along the coasts of the Pacific Northwest. They hailed from Russia, Canada, The Netherlands and were searching for beaver and otter skins.
In Europe and China, the waterproof but light-weight furs were gaining popularity, and thus would gain a hefty price on the global market. In Washington and Oregon, the trappers met many thriving coastal bands, including the Nootka, Haida and Tlingit. A trade network was born.
Since the world changes in fits and bursts, in those times the three bands which make up the Warm Springs Indian Reservation today did not have much contact with European traders. The Wascoes, Paiutes and Warm Springs Natives each had different lifeways and languages.
The Wasco and Warm Springs Natives were ingenious builders, creating enormous scaffolds over the waterfalls of The Columbia to catch Salmon. The Paiutes were savvy travelers, traversing the high plains of Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s when their respective societies would be heavily disrupted by foreign influence. In 1843, a thousand settlers passed through The Dalles, and by 1847, that number quadrupled. The flood of colonizers, in the coming years, would only escalate as they brought new diseases and hostility to the Native people.
Now, you’ve seen these colonists in movies and books, but the pictures don’t do them justice. They were a lot dirtier back then. They didn’t have washing machines. They were also typically uneducated and mentally unprepared for the harsh existence in The Pacific Northwest.
However, the U.S government desperately needed more people to “settle” the West and so to alleviate the unease, the government created propaganda that redirected terror and dread of the unknown into fear of the Native peoples.
Because how else are you going to convince people to move to a new dark, damp, mysterious terrain than to give them an enemy to “subdue”?
In 1855, the Superintendent for The Oregon Territory, under pressure from the Federal Government, negotiated treaties that would strip Oregonian Natives of 10 million acres of land. From these treaties came the Warm Springs Reservation, where the Wascoes and Warm Springs were forced to live, three hundred miles away from their ancestral homes along the Columbia River.
A few years after, 38 Paiutes moved to Warm Springs from their Reservation in Yakama. More soon followed and became part of the Warm Springs Reservation. In 1937, the three bands established themselves as the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. In 1859, boarding schools were established in Oregon and Washington. Native children from Oregon, Alaska, Washington, and Idaho were forced to leave their families, languages, and traditional lifeways behind -often marched thousands of miles – to assimilate into colonial society.
According to the Oregon Encyclopedia:
Much of the curriculum of the early federal Indian boarding schools was focused on the destruction of Native languages and cultures and the enforcement of assimilation policies, and there is substantial documentation revealing the tragic consequences of this particular form of education on students, tribes, and communities.
In Warm Springs, the devastation caused by these boarding schools is an ongoing legacy. It wasn’t until 1973 that the last boarding schools were closed, and Native families given a choice about how and where to educate their children.
Despite the tragedies forced upon the Paiute, Wasco, and Warm Springs bands, this story is unfinished because the American genocide failed. The Wasco, The Warm Spring and Paiute people still live and breathe and have worked hard to revitalize their unity and sense of self. They are governed by their own elders and cultures. They have their own recipes and stories and so many stray dogs, it is said you can trade a dog for a rock.
Salmon fishing, berry picking, basket-weaving and scaffold building continue to play crucial roles on the reservation. There is a vibrant arts community and enduring spirituality.
Today, about 5,00 people live on the reservation and if you look closely enough, you notice that the strength that existed in America’s first people never died or wavered or was conquered.
It lives on in the beads, the fry bread dough, and the river.
For more Info on the history of Oregon’s Native people and Warm Springs: