Although the Klickitat, or Klikitat, once lived south of the Columbia River in present-day northern Oregon, their primary homeland by the early 19th century was along the Klickitat and White Salmon Rivers, northern tributaries of the Columbia in present-day southern Washington State. They spoke a Sahaptian language, part of the Penutian phylum, shared by their eastern neighbors the Yakama living along the Yakima River. Other Sahaptians also discussed with them as Plateau Indians, including the Nez Perce, Palouse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Wanapam, lived east of these two peoples also near the Columbia. Chinookian tribes, such as the Wishram, lived along the Columbia to the west. The name Klickitat, pronounced CLICK-eh-tat, means "beyond" in Chinookian, in reference to their homeland being east of the Cascade Range. Their Native name was Qwulh-hwai-pum for "prairie people."
The Klickitat fished the rivers in their homeland, especially for salmon, and also hunted and collected wild plant foods, especially camas roots. They were known as traders to other tribes, given their location on the Columbia between tribes of different language families.
Contacts and Warfare
In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition made contact with the Klickitat near the mouth of the Klickitat and Yakima Rivers. In the 1820s, tribes of the Willamette Valley to the south, such as the Chinookian-speaking Clowwewalla, suffered an epidemic of diseases carried to them by traders and lost many of their people. The Klickitat took advantage of this situation and crossed the Columbia to seize lands as far south as the Umpqua Valley, some of which they are thought to have once held. Yet they were soon driven back north of the Columbia. In 1855, they joined with other tribes of the region, such as the Yakama and Nez Perce, in a treaty ceding lands. Some of their warriors participated with the Yakama, although to a small degree, in the Yakama War of 185556. Afterward, they, like the Yakama, Palouse, Wanapam, Wishram, and smaller groups, were forced to live on the Yakama Reservation near their homeland.
Religious Revitalization Movements
Various religious revitalization movements developed before and after the settling of tribes on the reservation. One of them was the Waashat (or Washat) Religion. The origin of the Waashat Religionalso called the Washani Religion, the Longhouse Religion, Seven Drum Religion, Sunday Dance Religion, or Prophet Danceis uncertain, but it is possibly associated with the epidemic of the 1820s. One of the best-known practitioners of the movement was the Klickitat Lishwailait, who oversaw such rituals as the Waashat Dance with seven drummers, a feast of salmon, the ceremonial use of eagle and swan feathers, and a sacred song to be sung every seventh day. Lishwailait was a contemporary of the Wanapam shaman Smohalla, founder of the Dreamer Religion, who drew on Waashat ritual and is known to have influenced and perhaps was related to the Klickitat Jake Hunt.
Hunt was born along the White Salmon River in or near the village of Husum. Growing up, he was influenced by the Dreamer Religion. He later converted to the Indian Shaker Religion, founded by John Slocum of the Squaxon, a Salishan tribe. A vision concerning the prophet Lishwailat that both Hunt and his daughter experienced independently, led to Hunt's shaping a new religion in 1904, drawing on prior religious revitalization movements, traditional Klickitat beliefs, and Christianity. His movement was called Waptashi, better known as the Feather Religion or Feather Dance because eagle feathers were a central part of the ritual. Another name for it was the Waskliki or Spinning Religion, because of a spinning initiation ritual. Hunt built a ceremonial longhouse at Husum, and with his four sisters spread word of the new faith. He gained converts from various tribes and built a longhouse among them at Spearfish on the Columbia. Hunt also spent time on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, where the Interior Department's Office of Indian Affairs (renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947) became aware of his practices and suppressed them, ordering him to destroy his sacred objects and cut his hair. But he continued to promote his beliefs until his death in about 1912.
Although people of various tribes on the Yakama Reservation have intermarried, people claiming Klickitat ancestry still live there. Some Klickitat families, descended from those who moved to the Willamette Valley in the 1820s, can also be found on the Siletz Reservation in Oregon, consisting of mostly Athapascan-speaking peoples. Some Klickitat maintain tribal identity as the Cascade-Klickitat Tribe and have been active along the Columbia River preserving ancient traditions and protecting lands and wildlife from industry and pollution.