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The Walla Walla Indians are a Native American tribe who formerly dwelled at and around the convergence of the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers in southeastern Washington state. In the past, much of their lives centered on gathering food, and they moved around their home territory throughout the year to hunt and pick seasonal foods. This traditional way of life became increasingly difficult as non-native settlers began moving to the West in large numbers. With the signing of the 1855 Nez Perce Treaty, the Walla Walla Indians as well as several neighboring tribes ceded over six million acres of land to the United States. Most of the tribe relocated to the Umatilla Reservation in northern Oregon.
As they subsisted almost wholly on hunted and collected food, the Walla Walla Indians led a nomadic lifestyle, traveling the length of their homeland to gather foods such as salmon, elk, roots, and huckleberries as they came into season. These items were typically gathered in large quantities and then dried for use throughout the year. Due to their nomadic tendencies, the Walla Walla Indians usually lived in tent-like dwellings called longhouses, which could be easily disassembled and transported from place to place.
Walla Walla society was democratic. A group of elders and designated leaders presided over the tribe’s affairs, making decisions based on the needs and desires of tribe members. Labor was divided according to members’ strengths and talents.
A tradition of trade existed for centuries between the Walla Walla Indians and many of the tribes that dwelled farther east. The Walla Walla peoples offered foods such as salmon in exchange for items like buffalo skins. When non-native explorers — such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who visited the Walla Walla tribe in 1805 and 1806 — began to arrive in the area, the local tribes at first considered their presence favorable, as it presented opportunities for extensive trade. As non-native settlers began arriving in great numbers, however, the local peoples soon found their traditional way of life under threat.
Walla Walla land was appropriated by these settlers, and indigenous wildlife populations began to suffer from overhunting as well as the loss of natural habitat. Diseases brought in by non-native peoples ravaged local tribes. The normally peaceful Walla Walla peoples and their neighbors sometimes responded to this destruction by striking out at the newcomers.
In 1855, representatives of the US government met with delegates from many of the tribes of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. The result of this meeting was the Nez Perce Treaty, which aimed to end turmoil in the region by officially awarding more than six million acres of tribal land to the United States. In exchange, the tribes were offered three designated reservation areas.
Following the treaty, many of the Walla Walla Indians as well as the neighboring Cayuse and Umatilla Indians relocated to the 500,000 acre Umatilla Reservation in northeastern Oregon and formed a confederation. Late 19th century legislation further reduced the size of this reservation to 172,000 acres. As of 2010, there are approximately 2,800 remaining members of the three-tribe confederation, of which approximately half live on the Umatilla Reservation. Although the Walla Walla peoples continue to preserve their native cultural traditions, it is no longer possible for them to live as hunter-gatherers. Instead, many of them work in agriculture and the entertainment industry.