Native American Tribes of the Plateau

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13203

They're called the Nez Perce (Pierced Nose) and the Flathead, but they didn't have pierced noses or flat heads. Meet them here, along with the Spokane and Yakama people — the tribes of the Plateau!


United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Would you like to see the oldest known shoes in the world?

Fort Rock sandals

These shoes are called the Fort Rock sandals. An archaeologist found them while excavating a cave in Oregon in 1938. They were woven from sagebrush bark and are over 10,000 years old!

The people who made these shoes are the ancestors of the Plateau tribes you will learn about.

  • Do you think they were — and are — very connected to that land, having lived there for over 10,000 years?

The Native American tribes of the plateau were hunters, gatherers, and fishermen who enjoyed the many resources of the Columbia Plateau.


The land of these tribes included parts of Idaho, California, Montana, Washington, and Oregon in the United States, as well as parts of British Columbia in Canada.

map showing Northwest tribe area

A plateau is a large land area raised above the surrounding land. The Columbia Plateau in northwestern America stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascade Mountains.

The natives of this area had many lakes, rivers, and forests to provide for their needs, and they experienced cold, snowy winters and fairly warm summers.

Throughout this lesson, write down what you learn about the homes, food, skills, natural resources, languages, and culture of these plateau tribes. You'll use this information later in the Got It? section.


The natives of the plateau lived in small groups but, in the summer, gathered with a larger tribe group. The men hunted elk, deer, moose, and bear and caught many different kinds of fish, while the women gathered berries, plants, and roots to use in cooking. They collected carrots, onions, potatoes, and camas roots.

  • What are camas roots?

A camas is a lily with a beautiful blue flower that produces a nutritious root. The root looks like an onion, but it tastes like pumpkin! It was a major source of nutrition for tribes of this area.

For their homes, the Plateau Indians used tepees in the summer and built little huts or longer houses to live in during the winter. These winter houses were often partially underground (pit houses) for more insulation against the cold.

Native American pit house

Some of the Plateau Tribes also traveled to the plains to hunt buffalo and learned some of the Plains Tribes' ways, such as riding horses, using tepees, and wearing feathered headdresses (for men) and beaded dresses (for women). They used bark canoes or buffalo-skin boats to travel on the water.


The Plateau Tribes were great at basket weaving. Visit Indians 101: Plateau Indian Baskets (Photo Diary) and scroll down to look at some examples of their baskets.

They also perfected the art of beadwork, creating beautiful bags, vests, cradleboards, and other items decorated with colorful beads. You can see examples of their artwork in this Plateau Indian Beadwork (Photo Diary).

The Plateau Indians were also very good at hoop dancing and still are! Watch a portion of the video below.

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Now, look at some of the tribes of the plateau.

Nez Perce

Nez Perce warrior on his horse

The name Nez Perce means pierced nose in French, but the Nez Perce did not pierce their noses! When the explorers Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition to the West, they met many native tribes, including the Nez Perce and Flathead, but misunderstood their names!

The Nez Perce call themselves Nimiipuu, which means the people.

Watch this video to learn more.

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The Nez Perce language, like many native languages, is in danger of dying away. Listen to a song in the video below.

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Flathead (Bitterroot Salish Tribe)

Angelic La Moose, whose grandfather was a Flathead chief

The more proper name for this tribe is the Salish. There were several bands of Salish, and this particular one is called the Bitterroot Salish because they lived mostly in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana.

Like the Nez Perce, the Flathead tribe was wrongly named by Lewis and Clark. Some native tribes flattened their heads, but this tribe did not.

Some historians think the name may have come from someone misinterpreting the Indian Sign Language sign for Salish. The sign is made by putting both hands together on one side of the head and then the other to show that they lived between the mountains, but it may have easily been taken to mean that their heads were flattened!

The Salish were at peace with all tribes except the Blackfoot, who were their bitter enemies and tried to drive them out of their territory.

The Salish learned of Christianity through the Iroquois, who spoke of blackrobes (priests) who came and taught them a new way to live.

This news brought great joy to the Salish because one of their prophets had seen a vision of men in long black robes coming to teach them a new way of prayer. The Salish were so excited that they sent a group of men to St. Louis, Missouri, to ask Catholic priests to baptize them.

Explore Salish clothing, baskets, tools, artwork, and other items at The Flathead and Lewis and Clark.


Yakama warrior

The Yakama lived like the Nez Perce and Salish: hunting, gathering, and fishing. They caught salmon in the Columbia River and traded it with other tribes.

They spoke the Sahaptian language. Listen to young students learning this language in the video below. Note: The students call it Ichishkin , the Yakama's word for their language.

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Some Yakama are also carrying on their traditional way of fishing shown in this Cooking Up a Story video, Traditional Dip Net Fishing The Yakama Nation Tribe:

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Spokane Indian Woman (1897)

The Spokane Tribe still lives along the Spokane River. Discover how these people are connected to the river in the video below.

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Keeping its arts and traditions alive is significant to the Spokane Tribe. Watch the video below to see how the Spokane Tribe Culture Week teaches kids about their ancestors, including showing them how to cook camas!

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You've learned a lot about the Plateau Tribes!

Now, head over to the Got It? section, where you'll organize the facts you gathered and research how these tribes lost their land.

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