For centuries, the Cayuse tribe inhabited the lands of what is now eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.
Their way of life was intimately connected with the natural world and the cycles of the seasons, and their culture was rich with unique traditions and customs. However, their history is not without tragedy, as the arrival of European settlers brought disease and violence that drastically impacted the Cayuse people.
Though the Cayuse tribe was similar to other tribes in the Pacific Northwest, they also have their own story and history.
Origin and Early History
According to legend, the Cayuse tribe inhabited what is now the northwestern United States for 10,000 years prior to European exploration.
They mostly settled around what is now southeastern Washington and northwestern Oregon. While they’re very similar and from the same descent as the Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes, the Cayuse branched off to become its own people.
While we refer to them as the Cayuse, they refer to themselves as Liksiyu. They were an independent tribe but remained closely intertwined with the Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes.
At the height of their power, more than 8,000 tribe members were inhabiting more than 6 million acres in Oregon and Washington. Because the Cayuse were the first tribe, however, they held most of the power of the three tribes.
Lifestyle, Language, and Everyday Living
Like many other tribes in the Northwest and midwest, the Cayuse were semi-nomadic and lived in teepees for most of the year.
However, when they weren’t traveling, the Cayuse lived in pit houses or lodges. Pit houses were typically subterranean in design and made of earthen materials. Conversely, lodges were typically made of wood, bark, and other hardy materials.
Unlike other tribes in the area that spoke a Sahaptin dialect, the Cayuse spoke their own language. This is partially what led to their fierce independence and leaving the Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes.
The Cayuse economy was based on what they had access to and what they were good at doing. They were a unique combination of the semi-nomadic tribes of the Great Plains and the sedentary tribes of the east and west. During the summer, the Cayuse would travel according to the patterns of bison herds and elk.
In addition to relying on these animals for a majority of their food supply, the Cayuse would also trade meat and hides for goods. Their reliance on bison and elk was only made stronger in the early 1700s when they became one of the first tribes in the Northwest to gain access to horses.
Suddenly, the Cayuse were some of the Northwest’s most proficient hunters and feared warriors. They also became very skilled horsemen and would breed and trade horses to supplement their economy.
Aside from hunting for elk and buffalo, the Cayuse supplemented their diet by fishing and gathering plants, berries, seeds, and nuts. Roughly half of their diet came from salmon and other fish, while the rest was from bison and elk.
Culture of the Cayuse Tribe
For centuries, the Cayuse had a numerical advantage over many of the Native American tribes around them. However, as other tribes began to merge and multiply, the Cayuse numbers remained steady.
Instead of merging with other tribes to increase their numbers, the Cayuse used several other methods to remain powerful.
First, they were regarded as some of the most fearsome warriors in the Northwest. For this reason alone, most Native Americans and white settlers kept their distance.
Second, the Cayuse were the top horse breeders and traders in the area. Therefore, other tribes and settlers were incentivized to keep the peace with them to benefit from the horse trade.
Horses played such a role in the Cayuse culture that it became a sort of monetary system, and wealth was often dependent on how many horses you owned.
The wealthiest of the Cayuse tribesmen owned more than 2,000 horses, and you were considered poor if you owned less than 20.
The Cayuse Tribe Through the Years
While the Cayuse were feared and renowned as warriors, this is part of what led to their eventual downfall.
At first, the Cayuse were open and welcoming to white outsiders because it meant more people with whom to trade horses. As a result, explorers like Lewis and Clark and many others had a friendly relationship with the Cayuse.
The Whitman Massacre
That all changed in 1847 when the infamous Whitman Massacre took place. Leading up to the massacre, Cayuse and white relations had been strained thanks to the California Gold Rush and the growing number of people taking the Oregon Trail.
People moved to Oregon and Washington in droves and often ventured into Cayuse territory, infringing on their game and land.
Things came to a head in 1847 when a band of Cayuse warriors attacked a mission founded by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Until then, the Whitmans had been on friendly terms with the Cayuse. However, there was a deadly outbreak of measles that wiped out a large chunk of the Cayuse population.
During the epidemic, the Cayuse used medicine from the Whitman’s to heal their sick, but to no avail. As a result, they suspected that the Whitmans were poisoning them. This led to the Whitman Massacre, where Marcus, Narcissa, and 11 others were brutally murdered.
The Cayuse War resulted as fallout from the Whitman Massacre and stretched for seven years until 1855. Finally, the Cayuse were forced to make a peace treaty with the US government and move to the Umatilla reservation.
As part of the treaty, the Cayuse lost more than 6 million acres of land and were left with only 250,000 acres. This was later reduced to just 172,000.
The Cayuse Tribe Today
By the early 1900s, fewer than 500 Cayuse tribe members were remaining, and almost all of them were of mixed descent. The Cayuse currently lives on the Umatilla reservation in northeastern Oregon with the Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes.
Because the tribes merged together as one forming the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, nobody knows exactly how many Cayuse are living today.