Ancient America: Carved Stone Figures in the Plateau

The Maryhill Museum located near Goldendale, Washington, has a display of Plateau stone artifacts. The Plateau Culture Area is the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana. From north to south it runs from the Fraser River in the north to the Blue Mountains in the south. Much of the area is classified as semi-arid. Part of it is mountainous with pine forests in the higher elevations.

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Plateau Indian Beadwork (Photo Diary)

In American Indian cultures, art is not separate from daily life. Traditionally, the things people used in their everyday life-clothing, tools, housing, containers-were often decorated to enhance their beauty and their spirituality. Prior to the European invasion, the Indian people of the Plateau area-roughly the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest-decorated their clothing and other items with paintings, with beads made from shell, animal teeth, bone, and other items, and with porcupine quills. With the European invasion, new decorative elements became available to the Indians: glass beads. These beads were quickly adopted into the cultures and began to replace and supplement both painting and quilling. The Plateau Indians soon became well-known for their fine bead work. Shown below are some example of Plateau Indian beadwork which are on display at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.  

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Beaded bags are made and used throughout the Plateau area. The beaded bags are usually made from cloth and beaded on one side only. The beadwork is an appliqué technique in which the beads lie evenly over the surface of the bag in straight rows that extend from one side of the bag to the other. The main design is beaded first and then the background is beaded around it.

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Plateau Indian Art

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The area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana is known as the Plateau Culture area. From north to south it runs from the Fraser River in the north to the Blue Mountains in the south. One of the most important geographic and culture features of the region is the Columbia River. American Indian people have lived along the Columbia River in permanent and semi-permanent villages for thousands of years. As with other American Indian people, art was not a separate category in their lives, but was a part of everyday life. In museum collections, such as that of the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum, their art is often categorized as carvings (stone, bone, wood), beadwork, and basketry.  

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While it is common for people to assume that basketry refers to containers, shown above are some typical examples of Plateau basketry used in making hats.

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Cylinder Bags:

Also called Sally Bags and Corn Husk Bags, these bags were made from cornhusk, hemp, string, and yarn using a continuous weave that eliminates seams. Originally, these bags were used for storing foods, such as roots, as the tightness of the weave keeps out dust and dirt.

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Columbia River Stone Carvings (Photo Diary)

In a few instances stone carvings have been found in the archaeological sites along the Columbia River. Carved from the abundant basalt many of these figures are relatively small and they are stylistically similar to the many petroglyphs found along the river, These carvings are depict animals found in the area, such as bighorn sheep, condors, seals, beavers, and owls. Many of these figures have small bowl-like depressions in them which may indicate that they were used to hold something. In rare instances, Columbia River stone carvings represent human figures or human-like figures. Shown below are some of the stone carvings on display at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

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Plateau Indian Names

( – promoted by navajo)

The Plateau is the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded by the Fraser River to the north and the Blue Mountains to the South. It is an area that covers eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, and parts of Oregon and British Columbia. The Indian nations who inhabited this area have cultural ties to the Indian nations of the Pacific Coast and many of the Plateau nations interacted with the tribes of the Northern Plains.

Among the Plateau Indian nations, it was common for an individual to change names several times during the course of their life. Typically a person would have at least three names. If a name became inappropriate to a person’s personality, it was changed.  

Among many of the other Plateau tribes, children were not named when very young, because of infant and toddler mortality. Therefore, naming ceremonies were not usually held until the child was between the ages of six months and two years.

Among the Kootenai, children were normally given names by their parents at birth. Occasionally a council of elders would be consulted to suggest a name. The name often reflected the war honors of a relative. The name given at birth was usually kept for life. However, some medicine people did acquire a second name. Also, if a person felt that a name was unfortunate, it could be changed.  

Among the Wishram, the naming ceremony bestowed “personhood” upon the child: it provided the child with a genealogical and social identity. The name would come from a deceased relative and would be a name that had “lain fallow” for a period of time.

Among the tribes of the Dalles area, the naming ceremony borrowed from the feasting and gift-giving of the Northwest Coast tribes.

Among the Nez Perce children often were named after notable ancestors. They would be given these names with the hope that the child would develop similar qualities. New names might later be acquired which would recognize an important deed, a personal attribute, or a guardian spirit. The Nez Perce considered names to be private possessions of the person or the family.

Among the Flathead names often came from visions. If an individual had a dream or vision that brought good luck, then the individual might be named for it.  These visions came from a guardian or tutelary spirit. Often the spirit helpers would give an individual two names-one for use in the tribe, and the other a secret, spirit name to be used only when calling for help from his guardian spirit.

After the Flathead Reservation was created by the U.S. government in 1855, non-Indians would often be confused about Indian names. The names during this era were often a mixture of European names, influenced by Catholicism, and tribal names which were sometimes translated into English. For example, a Pend d’Oreille named Mescal Michel might marry a Flathead woman and settle among her people. The Flathead might them give him the name Many Bears. He joins a party of Nez Perce who are travelling to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo and they call him Shot His Horse in the Head. The Catholic priests baptize him and give him the name Joseph Peter Michel. The American settlers in the area call him Michel Joe. Thus one man might be known by different names among the different groups on the reservation.