Book Review:
Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity

  • Posted 11/08/2012
  • Essay 10245

By Andrew H. Fisher
The Emil and Kathleen Sick Lecture-Book Series in Western History and Biography
Paperback, 337 pages
Photographs, Notes, Bibliography, Index
University of Washington Press
ISBN 978-0-295-99020-0

The formation of Indian reservations in the United States, following treaty signings, is a dark period in our nation’s history and tears can be shed reading Shadow Tribe, which is the story of the Columbia River Indians, not an officially designated tribe, but those Indians who chose not to leave their homes along the Columbia River for the Yakama, Umatilla, or Warm Springs reservations in central Oregon and Washington.  Over time the Columbia River Indians have remained as a presence, though still an unrecognized tribe, and they continue to think of themselves as a distinct community.  Andrew H. Fisher’s Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity tells their story.

Central to the book is the Columbia River itself -- “Big River” as the Indians called it -- which served as a great table and meeting place, sustaining those who lived along its banks for more than 10,000 years.  Rather than dividing and marking political boundaries, the Columbia River united those who lived there or came to fish, trade, and share. Chapter 2, “Making Treaties, Making Tribes,” supports Indian claims that tribal identity was mostly U.S. government created as a way to aid federal administration of Indian policy.  In reality, Native boundaries were fluid; most Indian families were divided in their assignment to reservations. This reservation designation gave rise to the tribes of today, but the transition took place over a long period of time and some Indians continued to live where they had always lived. 

Those who had lived along the Columbia River’s banks were known in the Sahaptin language as Wanalama or Wanapem, meaning “people of the river” and ancient petroglyphs and archaeological finds along the banks attest to longtime habitation at this location. Andrew Fisher looks at this Columbia River Indian culture from these early times through the late twentieth century.  

The path chosen by these renegade Indians was often difficult, but so was life on the res and government policies toward Indians remained ambiguous.  Some agents and settlers wished the Native people would simply disappear; others wished to see them forever assigned to reservations and others hoped to see them assimilated into the broader culture.  The Indian Homestead allotment acts of 1875 and 1884 -- the Dawes Act -- attempted to give Indian families land in exchange for farming it.  Since the Indians could then sell their property, much reservation land was lost.   As late as the 1880s, there was talk of abolishing one of the three Columbia River reservations -- the choice of which continued to change --– so there was little incentive for Indians to move there.   

While reservation Indians were forced to assimilate, the Columbia River people off res continued to practice their own religions and healing methods, as well as marriage practices.  From these shared experiences, a bond developed that would bring them together to battle over issues such as fishing rights and cultural identity. 

Shadow Tribe has faces: there is Staqualay (Stocketly), a ferry boatman in the early 1900s who opposed relocating to a reservation; Smohalla, prophet of the Dreamer religion; Chief William Yallup, Chief Johnny Jackson, and others.  Fishing treaty rights and environmental changes in the late 1970s and 1980s brought the Columbia River Indians to public prominence but political pressures also divided them. Today many of the river people continue to share cultural traditions and hope to maintain their strong Columbia River identity. While many of their own people over the years have considered them troublemakers, it is not uncommon for these same reservation people to also consider themselves Columbia River Indians. 

Shadow Tribe is a well-researched, well written scholarly work -- a decade in the making -- that includes extensive notes, 20 black-and-white photographs, an excellent bibliography and an index.  Andrew H. Fisher, associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, has drawn also from previous oral histories as well as his own conversations with Columbia River Indians.  In its book release, the University of Washington Press writes “Shadow Tribe is part of a new wave of historical scholarship that shows Native American identities to be socially constructed, layered, and contested rather than fixed, singular, and unchanging. From his vantage point on the Columbia, Fisher has written a pioneering study that uses regional history to broaden our understanding of how Indians thwarted efforts to confine and define their existence within narrow reservation boundaries.”  Shadow Tribe deserves a place on both home and library shelves.

By Margaret Riddle, November 8, 2012

Submitted: 11/08/2012

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