The Extraordinary Contribution of Women in Plateau Societies: An Examination by a Plateau Anthropologist

Jon Shellenberger



Academia has been too slow to analyze the role of women in Plateau society.  The archaeological focus has been heavily biased towards men’s activities such as hunting.  This male bias posits that lithic artifacts must all result from creating tools for hunting with little to no contribution as a result of women’s activities.  The archaeological record has been greatly misinterpreted in favor of men as the largest contributors to Plateau economies.  History and anthropology have followed suit, with men’s duties taking the primary focus as leaders, hunters, protectors, and warriors.  As a Yakama archaeologist/ethnographer, this runs contradictory to my upbringing and perception of the female roles in our Tribe.  


When I was an undergraduate anthropology student, I attended a lecture by renowned Wasco artist Pat Courtney Gold.  At her lecture, she stated that Plateau societies are, by tradition, matriarchies with a significant amount of power held by women.  She gave very good evidence for this ranging from women’s contribution to material culture to early encounters with non-Natives (i.e. Lewis and Clark).  The Lewis and Clark expedition (the early 1800s) marked one of the first documented exchanges with Plateau people of the Lower Columbia River and non-natives.  Apparently, the Lewis and Clark expedition ran into difficulties during trade negotiations with Natives at Celilo Falls.  Trade was driven by Native women, and for the western mind, women had no place in economic activities whatsoever.  This confirmed what I was familiar with as a Yakama man.  Women were to be respected and revered for their roles and contributions within our Tribe.

Young Yakama women cleaning salmon

     Women’s contributions have been documented and analyzed in depth by Lillian Ackerman in her work “A Necessary Balance: Gender and Power Among Indians of the Columbia Plateau”.  Women had profound powers and influences regarding the economic activities amongst Plateau people.   She found that even in hunting, something long thought to a man’s job, women had great influence in the type and number of animals to be taken.  Women had an account of the resource stockpiles prepared for the winter and were quite aware of what was needed.  They had an even stronger influence on the uses for the meat and were revered for their abilities to process foods and medicines.  In fact, once a man gives the meat to a woman and its processed, the women then owns that meat.  Men, in fact, were heavily dependent upon the women in the processing of foods, medicines, and fibers.  For fishing activities, the women gathered, processed the fibers and manufactured the fishing nets.  The creation of fish nets was a trade secret kept from men which tipped the balance of power, yet again, in favor of women (Ackerman 2003). 

Basketry, parfleche and stone tools produced by Plateau women

     In addition to processing the protein provided by the men, women also gathered half, or perhaps in some cases more than half of the diet in roots and berries (Hunn 1991).  These also required a great deal of processing including drying, creating bread cakes, and ground-cooking camas and black lichen just to name a few.  Additionally, all the medicines were gathered and processed by women. Animal hides were processed into clothing, footwear, or parfleche suitcases utilized in trade.  This isn’t accounting for all the firewood that was harvested and chopped by women in order to process the foods, medicines, and animal hides.  There are literally countless contributions provided by Plateau women that helped Plateau societies not just survive but thrive. 

An 85-year-old Plateau woman drying huckleberries

     Because women provided so much to Plateau societies, marriage wasn’t a necessity for them to survive.  On the contrary, wives were needed more by the men as it was women who processed the proteins, roots, berries, medicines, clothing etc. Their economic contribution was more than half and was a vital part of surviving long, cold winters when fish runs were low.  Marriage and trade were synonymous.  A marriage trade could go on for years between families.  It was a bond paid for in blood and wasn’t finalized until the first child was born. Childbirth began another set of trading ceremonies that could go on throughout the child’s life, progressing through their rites of passage. Girls inherit rights, names, access to resources, and gender responsibilities through the mother’s lines.  These inheritances are passed down from one generation to another through the act of trading ceremonies.   Families return to food gathering areas as they have for millennia as the tribe recognizes the right as passed down through matrilineal trade and kinship (Schuster 1973).     

Overall, there was a heavy communal aspect in Plateau societies that is unparalleled and difficult to understand in western terms.  Academia has done little to shed truth on these roles, as academics have failed to grasp concepts beyond their racial biases.  Available feminist critique provides insight on the provision of goods and services by women and, for the first time, provides an insider’s perspective on gender roles.  There is a delicate balance between gender roles that required maintenance through trade (i.e. food trades, wedding trades, baby trades).    The role of women is something that has been perpetuated through matrilineal kinship for millennia without the intervention or interference from men until the first interaction with Lewis and Clark, thus sparking an introduced, western-based gender role system never seen before on the Columbia Plateau. 

Plateau woman roasting salmon


Ackerman, Lillian

2003     A Necessary Balance: Gender and Power Among Indians of the Columbia Plateau.  University of Oklahoma Press.  Norman.

Hunn, Eugene with James Selam and Family

1991     Nch’i-Wána ‘The Big River’: Mid-Columbia Indians and their land. With James Selam and Family. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Schuster, Helen H.

1975     Yakima Indian traditionalism: A study in continuity and change. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.

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