The Cayuse tribe numbered little more than 400 when the Whitmans settled among them. Located principally on the upper Walla Walla and Umatilla Rivers, they had many contacts with their neighbors, the Nez Percé, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Indians. They were related to these tribes through marriage and through a common culture. Originally of a different language family than the surrounding tribes, the Cayuse were by 1836 an integrated part of the Columbia plateau culture.
The social organization of the tribe was a loose one. The basic unit was the family, which was headed by an autocratic father whose decisions were final and whose authority was independent of the chiefs or elders.
Several families formed a band, and several of these bands made the tribe. There was no head chief for the whole tribe; rather, each band had its own chief who held his position by inheritance, merit, or wealth, or by a combination of these. A chief was an influential person, but he was not a dictator over the actions of his band. For hunts or warfare, a chief would often turn over his leadership to the most experienced hunters or warriors. In addition, each band had a group of elders who offered advice and, to some extent, managed the common affairs of the band under the direction of the chief.
Like the Nez Percé, the Cayuse were adept at selective horse breeding. Large horse herds enriched the tribe and gave it power that far exceeded its small size. The horses also gave these Indians great mobility. In the appropriate seasons, they crossed the mountains to the east to hunt and rode down the Columbia to fish at Celilo Falls.
Hunts were composed of organized, parties which pursued deer, American elk, pronghorn, bison, and smaller animals. Meat that was not eaten fresh was made into a highly concentrated, nutritious pemmican. During the salmon runs, nets, weirs, spears, hooks, and baskets were all used to catch the big fish. The Cayuse women roasted the fresh salmon on sticks or sun-dried, pulverized, and packed the fish in baskets for winter use. In addition, the Cayuse collected berries and roots in the mountains. Berries were preserved by being pressed into dry cakes or by being mixed with pemmican. Camas bulbs were dug in large quantities, steamed in pits, and formed into cakes that were dried in the sun. These cakes were eaten as bread, boiled into mush, or cooked with meat.
The Plateau Indians, though excellent hunters, were not as warlike as those on the Great Plains. Nonetheless, they fought with skill and bravery when forced to do so. The one traditional enemy of the Cayuse was the Snake tribe, which lived to the southeast. According to the Cayuse, the Snake people had forbidden them to hunt in the Blue Mountains. In retaliation, the Cayuse attempted to keep the Snakes from the fisheries and trading places along the Columbia.
For generations the Northwest Indians had traded among themselves. The Cayuse, with their wealth of horses, played an active role in this trade. They exchanged horses, robes, and reed mats for the shells, trinkets, and root foods of the coastal Indians. After the fur trade started, the Cayuse bartered their goods for blankets, guns, and ammunition.
Early observers saw the Cayuse from different points of view. Some considered them to be haughty, restless, and perhaps undependable. Others were favorably impressed by them. One such was Joel Palmer who wrote in his journal in 1845:
In dress, the Cayuse were similar to all the Columbia Indians. Lightly clad during the hot summer, they dressed in the skins of deer, elk, and bighorn in the winter. They protected their feet with moccasins, and Cayuse men wore leather leggings. Clothing was commonly decorated with fringes, feathers, quills, beads, shells, and colored cloth. Some of these garments were elaborate and extremely colorful. Following contacts with the white traders, the Indians often supplemented their costumes with articles of European manufacture.
Their homes were usually oblong lodges, from 15 to 60 feet in length. The larger lodges were multi-family dwellings. Within the lodge, each family had its own fire and a modicum of privacy. They also lived in tepees of a style borrowed from the Plains Indians. The frames of both lodge and tepee were covered with well-woven reed mats or buffalo hides.
Since it was their wives who put up and took down the lodges and tepees, and who did most of the work in the village, the men were interested in finding a healthy, strong wife. A man bought his wife, or wives, the price often depending on her capacity for work. Should a marriage not work out, it was a simple matter for either the husband or wife to dissolve the marriage and go separate ways. Prostitution was rare, and wives were generally more faithful than those of the coast Indians.
The Cayuse and other tribes of the Columbia Plateau made their first contact with Christianity through fur traders. Many of the employees of the Hudson's Bay Company were Roman CatholicsFrench Canadians and Iroquois. Although the company did not at first bring priests into Oregon for its employees, the Indians learned a little about the new faith from these Hudson's Bay men. Also, the Hudson's Bay Company sent a few Indian boys to an Anglican mission school at the Red River Settlement in Canada.
These were the Indians among whom the Whitmans settled. Proud of their heritage, the Cayuse were yet interested in new things and the new ideas that the Whitmans introduced. Because of their age-old beliefs, they were not willing to completely surrender their own way of life.
The arrival of the missionaries resulted in new stresses and emotions among the Cayuse. Problems were created which neither the Indians nor the whites fully understood. Previously the Cayuse had been able to survive the challenges of their environment. But the old ways were to prove inadequate in surmounting the new difficulties, real or imagined, that arose with the coming of the white man. The missionaries, too, found much that was strange in their new surroundings and strove to adjust themselves to the primitive land.