This Kalapuya Land

Kalapuya-Square-Art-smThis exhibit celebrates the cultural history of Native Americans in this region from the Atfalati band of the Kalapuya Indians through today’s amalgamation of 130 tribes as the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

The Kalapuya People: Stewards of a Rich Land and Culture

by Sonja Gray, retired public archaeologist

Native Americans, including the Kalapuya, did not identify themselves in ways that were understood by Europeans. Instead of referring to themselves as one nation or generic group, the Kalapuya often talked in terms of where they lived. For example, one group might call themselves “People of the Falls” because they lived near waterfalls whereas another named themselves “People of the Bright Shining Water” because they lived next to a river.

Each group of people identified with their own names rather than the term “Kalapuya.” However, because several tribes spoke languages within the same language family, other tribes referred to them as Kalapuya. Therefore, the term “Kalapuya” was applied to the entire Willamette Valley by early Oregon explorers such as Lewis and Clark, who may have heard the term from the Chinook tribe while traveling through the Columbia River Gorge.

Similarly, the Kalapuya people did not have a description for the entire Willamette Valley. Instead, specific areas were named, usually as a way to describe those places by their geography. Portions of the rivers and wetlands were given names as a way to identify the location and to recognize “landmarks” during traveling.

W-Valley-thru-Time-Atfalati-modThe Kalapuya were a powerful and numerous people. They occupied almost the entire Willamette Valley and numbered more than 15,000 at the time of contact with Europeans. They traded with many other tribes to the east, west, north and south. Due to the vast camas resources in the fertile Willamette Valley, the Kalapuya became experts in making dried camas cakes and traded them with many other tribes at various places and events, including the huge annual Dalles Rendezvous.

The Kalapuya were adept at pyroculture, or the use of fire as a management tool to expand valued plants and animals into controlled habitats. This practice, which began as early as 3,500 years ago, was necessary as a result of population stress on natural systems. The Kalapuya used fire in circle deer hunting and to harvest tarweed, burn grass, kill great numbers of grasshoppers, remove undergrowth in oak groves, make acorns more visible, and to remove brush. They also used fire to improve deer and elk habitat and hazelnut production, as well as to improve and spread berry and camas habitat.

Prairies in the Willamette Valley looked like single-cropped farm fields. They were dominated by specific plant species managed by harvesting and fire. Ash was the fertilizer. Burning reduced disease and insect problems. Camas was harvested by using digging sticks that tilled the soil. Mixed with fire, this method produced a more abundant crop and may have also increased bulb size. Pre-burning of the grass/tarweed fields allowed systematic harvesting of the seeds and helped broadcast seeds, producing greater abundance. Burning of oak forest undergrowth to make acorns more visible produced a park-like tree culture. Burning also reduced tree disease and insect damage. Burning hazelnut trees helped in the harvest and spread trees to new habitat.

Women had important roles in annual burning practices. In the southern valley areas, a female spiritual leader signaled the start of the burning, which occurred after five days of celebration. When the burning ended, another five-day celebration took place. Women started the first fires of the season and the men went on to tend them. Each village and family was responsible for a certain plot of ground and controlled the fire within that area.

Little is known about the Kalapuya before European contact because, by the time many settlers arrived, the Kalapuya’s numbers had already been vastly reduced by disease – up to 95% by some estimates. What we do know comes from descriptions brought back by early explorers and fur traders in the late 1700s and early 1800s as well as later ethnographic and archaeological studies. Descendents of the Kalapuya still living in the Willamette Valley and at Grand Ronde add much to our knowledge of their people.

Baskets-EveryneedOne Tualatin River Kalapuya tribe, the Atfalatis, had a year-round lifestyle that took them to various spots in the valley to gather and hunt for seasonal food. They gathered roots such as wapato (“Indian potato”), acorns, berries and camas, which is an onion-like plant. Camas was the most important element in their diet. They hunted elk and deer and fished for steelhead and Chinook, silver and chum salmon.

During the rainy winters, the Atfalatis likely lived in hamlet groups of 15-20 villages. There were at least 17 such groupings in the Tualatin drainage, which included the present areas around Wapato Lake, Forest Grove, Hillsboro and Beaverton.

Thousands of years before the first Euro-Americans arrived, the Willamette Valley, under Kalapuya stewardship, was a carefully managed ecosystem designed and controlled by fire and harvesting practices. The valley evolved from a heavily forested regime into small dry meadows opened up by burning. Over time, these meadows grew along travel routes, ridgelines, and up sub-basins. These merged into super-meadows resulting in the large mosaic of grassland oak and forests found by the early Euro-American explorers and settlers.

The Kalapuya had sophisticated knowledge of plant ecologies. Their understanding of plants was broader than just those of immediate economic benefit. As a result, Euro-American settlers moved into a carefully designed and engineered ecosystem that was the product of over 3,000 years of systematic ecological management and evolution.

Today, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon includes more than 20 tribes and bands from western Oregon and northern California that were relocated to the Grand Ronde reservations in the 1850s. Tribal membership is now nearing 5,000 members throughout the country.

Treaty arrangements in 1854 and 1855 and an Executive Order of June 30, 1857 established the Grand Ronde Reservation. The reservation contained over 60,000 acres and was located on the eastern side of the coastal range on the headwaters of the South Yamhill River, about 60 miles southwest of Portland and about 25 miles from the ocean. Over the years this land holding was reduced to nothing under various Acts of Congress between 1954 and 1983. Finally, in 1988, the tribes regained 9,811 acres of the original reservation.

With restoration and the re-establishment of the reservation, tribes have focused on rebuilding the tribal institutions and developing tribal service programs to meet the needs of tribal members. They have provided the tribes an opportunity to create a viable community, contribute to the local economy, and provide for the eventual achievement of tribal self-sufficiency. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon formed a charitable arm, the Spirit Mountain Community Fund, which has already donated over $20 million.

Contemporary Kalapuya people now live in many areas outside of the reservations. Several are blue-collar workers and professionals who continue to teach, study and share their culture with traditional programs.Today, the Kalapuya continue to celebrate and preserve the rich traditions and ecological stewardship that reaches back thousands of years in their ancestry.

About the author:

Sonja Gray is a retired public archaeologist. She has significant experience in field schools, volunteer fieldwork and excavations with the Southeast Florida Archaeological Society, where she served on the board from 1995 to 2002. Gray holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology from Central Connecticut University. She has been enrolled in a Master of Arts program in public archaeology at the University of South Florida and Eastern New Mexico University. Gray is originally from Sherwood, Ore.


  • Archaelogy Channel
  • Gilsen, Dr. Leland (2004.) “Willamette Valley Prehistory.”
  • Lewis, David, Kalapuya, personal communication.
  • Mackey, Harold, Ph.D. (2004.) “The Kalapuyans,” Mission Mill Museum
  • Association, Salem, Ore, in cooperation with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Grand Ronde, Ore.
  • Parman, Alice (2004.) “The Once and Future Willamette Valley: An Environmental History.” Lane County Historian, published by the Lane County Historical Society, Springfield, Ore., Vol. 49, No.1, Spring.
  • Polley, Louis, assisted by Sue Bailey (1984.) “A History of the Mohawk Valley and Early Lumbering,” QSL Printing Co., Eugene, Ore. and Polley Publishing, Marcola, Ore.