Walla Walla – People of Many Waters

Walla Walla – People of Many Waters
A Sahaptin tribe who lived for centuries on the Columbia River Plateau in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, their name is translated several ways but, most often, as “many waters.” While the people have their own distinct dialect, their language is closely related to the Nez Perce. The tribe included many groups and bands that were often referred to by their village names, such as Wallulapum and Chomnapum.
A hunter-gatherer tribe, they lived in “tents” that were easy to move. However, their lodging differed from many other nomadic tribes, in that it was bigger and covered with tule mats rather than hides. Called a longhouse, it was made out of lodge poles much like a tepee, but was much longer, sometimes as much as 80 feet in length. Resembling a modern-day “A” frame house in appearance, the lodge poles were covered with mats made of tule, a plant that grows freely in the area along waterways. When the tribe moved, the mats were gathered and moved and the lodge poles left behind.
Beginning in the early 1700s the Walla Walla people raised great herds of horses, making their lifestyle much easier as they gathered seasonal plants. They also traveled across the Rocky Mountains to trade dried roots and salmon to the Plains Indians for buffalo meat and hides.
The people were first encountered by white travelers during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. The explorers were warmly welcomed by Chief Yellepit, whose village of about 15 lodges, was situated on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Walla Walla River. The communication between the two groups was made between a Shoshone woman who had been captured by the Walla Walla and the expedition’s guide and interpreter, Sacagawea, who was also of the Shoshone tribe. Though Yelleppit extended an offer to the expedition to stay with the village, Lewis and Clark were in a hurry to reach the Pacific Ocean. However, they promised to spend a few days on their return. In April 1806, as the explorers began to make their way back east, the expedition spent several days with the Walla Walla, during which time, gifts were exchanged and goods traded. Two of the items left by the expedition with the tribe was a peace medal engraved with a portrait of Thomas Jefferson and a small American flag. In their documentation, Lewis and Clark estimated the tribe’s numbers as 1,600; however, this probably included other bands now recognized as independent.
The next non-native to encounter the Walla Walla people was a trader by the name of David Thompson of the Canadian-British North West Company, who arrived in 1811. About five miles upriver from Chief Yellepit’s village, he staked a pole with a note claiming the territory for the British Crown and declaring that the North West Company intended to build a trading post at the site. Continuing downriver, Thompson stopped at Yellepit’s village, where he discovered the American “claims” in the form of Yellepit’s flag and medal. Though neither Lewis and Clark or Thompson had much power to actually lay claim to the region, Yellepit was very supportive of the idea of Canadians setting up a trading post nearby.


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