Humans have inhabited the Columbia's watershed for more than 15,000 years, with a transition to a sedentary lifestyle based mainly on salmon starting about 3,500 years ago. In 1962, archaeologists found evidence of human activity dating back 11,230 years at the Marmes Rockshelter, near the confluence of the Palouse and Snake rivers in eastern Washington. In 1996 the skeletal remains of a 9,000-year-old prehistoric man (dubbed Kennewick Man) were found near Kennewick, Washington. The discovery rekindled debate in the scientific community over the origins of human habitation in North America and sparked a protracted controversy over whether the scientific or Native American community was entitled to possess and/or study the remains.
Many different Native Americans and First Nations peoples have a historical and continuing presence on the Columbia. The Sinixt or Lakes people lived on the lower stretch of the Canadian portion. Portions of the upper Columbia River are also subject to land claims by the Okanagan, Secwepemc, Ktunaxa and, at one time the Blackfoot. South of the Canada–U.S. border, the Colville, Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Yakama, Nez Perce, Cayuse, Palus, Umatilla, Cowlitz, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs live along the U.S. stretch. Along the upper Snake River and Salmon River, the Shoshone Bannock tribes are present. The Chinook tribe, which is not federally recognized, also live near the lower Columbia River. The river is known as Wimahl to the Chinook-speaking natives of its lower reaches, and Nch’i-Wàna to the Sahaptin-speaking peoples of its middle course in present-day Washington; both terms essentially mean "the big river".
Oral histories describe the formation and destruction of the Bridge of the Gods, a land bridge that connected the Oregon and Washington sides of the river in the Columbia River Gorge. The bridge, which aligns with geological records of the Bonneville Slide, was described in some stories as the result of a battle between gods, represented by Mount Adams and Mount Hood, in their competition for the affection of a goddess, represented by Mount St. Helens. Native American stories about the bridge differ in their details but agree in general that the bridge permitted increased interaction between tribes on the north and south sides of the river.
Horses, originally acquired from Spanish New Mexico, spread widely via native trade networks, reaching the Shoshone of the Snake River Plain by 1700. The Nez Perce, Cayuse, and Flathead people acquired their first horses around 1730. Along with horses came aspects of the emerging plains culture, such as equestrian and horse training skills, greatly increased mobility, hunting efficiency, trade over long distances, intensified warfare, the linking of wealth and prestige to horses and war, and the rise of large and powerful tribal confederacies. The Nez Perce and Cayuse kept large herds and made annual long-distance trips to the Great Plains for bison hunting, adopted the plains culture to a significant degree, and became the main conduit through which horses and the plains culture diffused into the Columbia River region. Other peoples acquired horses and aspects of the plains culture unevenly. The Yakama, Umatilla, Palus, Spokane, and Coeur d'Alene maintained sizable herds of horses and adopted some of the plains cultural characteristics, but fishing and fish-related economies remained important. Less affected groups included the Molala, Klickitat, Wenatchi, Okanagan, and Sinkiuse-Columbia peoples, who owned small numbers of horses and adopted few plains culture features. Some groups remained essentially unaffected, such as the Sanpoil and Nespelem people, whose culture remained centered on fishing.
Natives of the region encountered foreigners at several times and places during the 18th and 19th centuries. European and American vessels explored the coastal area around the mouth of the river in the late 18th century, trading with local natives. The contact would prove devastating to the Indian tribes; a large portion of their population was wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. Canadian explorer Alexander Mackenzie crossed what is now interior British Columbia in 1793. From 1805 to 1807, the Lewis and Clark Expedition entered the Oregon Country along the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, and encountered numerous small settlements of natives. Their records recount tales of hospitable traders who were not above stealing small items from the visitors. They also noted brass teakettles, a British musket, and other artifacts that had been obtained in trade with coastal tribes. From the earliest contact with westerners, the natives of the mid- and lower Columbia were not tribal, but instead congregated in social units no larger than a village, and more often at a family level; these units would shift with the season as people moved about, following the salmon catch up and down the river's tributaries.
Sparked by the 1848 Whitman Massacre, a number of violent battles were fought between American settlers and the region's natives. The subsequent Indian Wars, notably the Yakima War, decimated the native population and removed much land from native control. As years progressed, the right of natives to fish along the Columbia became the central issue of contention with the states, commercial fishers, and private property owners. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld fishing rights in landmark cases in 1905 and 1918, as well as the 1974 case United States v. Washington, commonly called the Boldt Decision.
Fish were central to the culture of the region's natives, both as sustenance and as part of their religious beliefs. Natives drew fish from the Columbia at several major sites, which also served as trading posts. Celilo Falls, located east of the modern city of The Dalles, was a vital hub for trade and the interaction of different cultural groups, being used for fishing and trading for 11,000 years. Prior to contact with westerners, villages along this 9-mile (14 km) stretch may have at times had a population as great as 10,000. The site drew traders from as far away as the Great Plains. The Cascades Rapids of the Columbia River Gorge, and Kettle Falls and Priest Rapids in eastern Washington, were also major fishing and trading sites.
In prehistoric times the Columbia's salmon and steelhead runs numbered an estimated annual average of 10 to 16 million fish. In comparison, the largest run since 1938 was in 1986, with 3.2 million fish entering the Columbia. The annual catch by natives has been estimated at 42 million pounds (19,000 t). The most important and productive native fishing site was located at Celilo Falls, which was perhaps the most productive inland fishing site in North America. The falls were located at the border between Chinookan- and Sahaptian-speaking peoples and served as the center of an extensive trading network across the Pacific Plateau. Celilo was the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent.
Salmon canneries established by white settlers beginning in 1866 had a strong negative impact on the salmon population, and in 1908 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt observed that the salmon runs were but a fraction of what they had been 25 years prior.
As river development continued in the 20th century, each of these major fishing sites was flooded by a dam, beginning with Cascades Rapids in 1938. The development was accompanied by extensive negotiations between natives and U.S. government agencies. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, a coalition of various tribes, adopted a constitution and incorporated after the 1938 completion of the Bonneville Dam flooded Cascades Rapids; Still, in the 1930s, there were natives who lived along the river and fished year round, moving along with the fish's migration patterns throughout the seasons. The Yakama were slower to do so, organizing a formal government in 1944. In the 21st century, the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs tribes all have treaty fishing rights along the Columbia and its tributaries.
In 1957 Celilo Falls was submerged by the construction of The Dalles Dam, and the native fishing community was displaced. The affected tribes received a $26.8 million settlement for the loss of Celilo and other fishing sites submerged by The Dalles Dam. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs used part of its $4 million settlement to establish the Kah-Nee-Ta resort south of Mount Hood.
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