Oregon History: Great Basin

Pillars of Rome rock formation
Northern Paiutes ranged across vast stretches of central and southeastern Oregon. Shown above are the Pillars of Rome rock formations. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
The high desert region is majestic and harsh. It is an unforgiving landscape where, at times, life is a scramble. For the Northern Paiute, Western Shoshoni, Bannock, Klamath, and Modoc, survival demanded unremitting labor and almost constant movement. While the Klamath and Modoc possessed staple foods such as suckers, trout, wocus (water lily seed), and huckleberries, the tribes to the east had a more marginal existence. Their resilience in coping with high elevation, extreme temperatures, arid conditions, and isolation spoke to their time-tested survival skills in a challenging environment. The Klamath Basin peoples lived at a point of transition between Plateau, Basin, Coast and California lifeways, whereas the Northern Paiute, who held vast stretches of central and southeastern Oregon, were more closely tied to the basin environment.
Oregon's Great Basin peoples engaged in a seasonal round that often required 200 or more miles of travel per year. In winter they resided on the margins of lakes and rivers, seeking the lowest elevation and most moderate temperatures in harsh conditions. Their homes included rock shelters and lodges covered with brush and tule mats. In winters, confinement and the months of the long moons encouraged storytelling and necessitated tapping the food resources carefully stored in the previous seasons. When spring became summer, these people were on the move. They hunted waterfowl, antelope, and deer; gathered roots, berries, seeds, and nuts; fished; and traveled. They moved to higher and higher elevations, following food sources, until the aspen leaves turned to bright gold, telling them it was time to leave the high country and return to the winter encampments.
The peoples of the Great Basin traveled in extended family groups but sometimes gathered as bands for communal hunts. Women and children fanned out through the countryside and, moving slowly toward a ravine and making great noise, drove all creatures before them. Far down the trace, etched eons ago by erosion through basalt, the men stretched fiber nets. Here they clubbed frightened rabbits or, when lucky, killed deer and antelope with bow and arrow. Paddling carefully in the predawn cold onto the waters of the lakes in the middle of the High Desert, the men silently stretched nets between poles and, with a great noise, spooked the unsuspecting water birds. The birds rose to flee in the mist, only to become entangled in the mesh of netting, which the men then collapsed into the water, harvesting a bountiful supply of food for their families.
Steens Mountains
Subsistence activities sometimes brought Great Basin Native Americans to the highlands such as Steens Mountain. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Great Basin residents practiced a mixed economy. They hunted, fished, trapped, dug, and picked food resources. They moved with the seasons in a quest for subsistence. They covered a vast, open country, leaving their petroglyphs at sacred sites, caching foods, camping in rock shelters used by the ancient inhabitants of the region. Their finely developed survival skills enabled them to endure and prosper in a land that held them, at times, at the edge of existence.
The first inhabitants occupied three distinct biotic provinces or geographical areas. Their adaptation and mastery of the environment reached from the margins of the fog-shrouded and wet Pacific shoreline to the arid reaches of sagebrush and bunchgrass of the interior. Their subsistence activities took them from sea level to tree line in the Wallowas and on Steens Mountain. They were at home in the desert and in the grasslands of the Columbia Plateau. In the fall they set fire to the meadows to keep open the western Oregon valleys as well as to maintain the bald headlands along the Oregon coast. At the south-facing bases of the headlands they often erected their plank houses facing into the sun. They plied the rivers with dugout canoes; they hunted for ducks and geese on the lakes with balsa rafts made of dried tules.
The first inhabitants knew this land. They gave it names. They explained its features in their oral traditions, through experienced storytellers reciting the literature. They told of the myth age when only animals and no humans were in the land. They recounted tales of transition, when animals and humans interacted on a personal basis, a time when humans were not quite fully formed. They told of the historic past, of things remembered and partly remembered. They did this with gesture, eye contact, voice modulation, and sometimes by musical interlude wherein they or someone in the crowd sang a song relevant to the story. Their techniques varied. The Tillamook, for example, repeated stories line-by-line as they listened to the teller, thereby memorizing over a period of years the literature and history of their tribe. The challenge to the storyteller was thus to deliver with talent and stay true to the story elements, yet build the drama and unleash creativity.
The first inhabitants held a rich land. Its resources far exceeded their needs and their wants. They lived fully. While there is some evidence of migration and population dynamics, those tales of prehistory are lost in the mists of time. What is known is that Oregon was fully occupied by the 18th century. Indians of more than 30 different languages lived throughout the state. They knew and loved the land. It was their home.