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Walla Walla, WA
Friday, December 8, 2023

A Land Once Claimed

November 3, 2022
Kudzai Mhondiwa

The Native American Tribes of Walla Walla

By Kudzai Mhondiwa

The Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse tribes fought to stop the development of their respected land byn.

The Walla Walla tribe is the source of legends such as “The Monster Who Came up the River.” This famous story spoke of the great coyote who slayed the ocean monster. The ocean monster devastated the tribe to hunger, and its death restored all the vegetation and animals above and below. [1] The Native American people had stories to inspire gratitude to their land that provided through the seasons.

The legend resembles the Native Americans’ cry for reclaiming their land, and these cries were imminent during the hard-fought battles between the colonists and Native Americans. A great migration of immigrants was supported by the U.S. government to move into the southeast of the Columbian River, irrespective of the disgruntled Native American tribes. Just like the ocean monster, the Native Americans were left to fight their own battle against a mobilized army disrupting their way of life.

The confederated tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation culminated in the three tribes of Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse. A documentation on the history of the people described them as possessing “diplomacy, communication, and consideration." [2] Prior to this colonization, the tribes lived along the Yakima, Walla Walla, and Snake Rivers with a strong laissez-faire economy, trading buffalo meat, obsidian, and seafood before the encroachment of

disease, federal expansion, and a mobilized army with advanced weaponry. [3] The tribal people remained a self-reliant society that had their own traditions and culture through bartering from one tribe to another.

The Umatilla Reservation enforced Christian education. Discipline and conversing strictly in English became a requirement for the inhabitants. Native American religious leaders such as Smohalla protested the federal government before leaving the reservation and said, “Those who cut the land or sign papers for the land, their rights will be forfeited and punished by the wrath of God.” [4] Smohalla rebelled against the revocation of his tribe’s traditions and culture by the dwindling freedoms of his tribesmen.

The Umatilla Reservation has now developed itself from a harsh past to an esteemed establishment with over 3,100 tribal members, a board of trustees, and chairmen that oversee “education, natural resources, water, health and welfare, cultural resources, fish and wildlife, [and] law and order” to uphold the rights written in the Treaty of 1855 with an additional reparation in reclaiming 4.5 million acres of land. [5] The board of trustees along with tribal officials monitor and ensure these provisions are met. The reservation strives for the further development of culture and tradition, today holding ceremonies, events, and language programs.

Walla Walla University holds an enrollment of 42 indigenous students. [6] The University stands on native land and has a focus on diversity within the student body creating inclusive experiences for those coming from ancestral Native American backgrounds. Further contributions to the Umatilla Indian Reservation can be found at their website, where people can also get involved in community services such as food distribution, education assistance for higher education, and counselling.

In an ever-changing world, the people of Walla Walla and its surrounding area have learned to adapt through the turmoil of war, disease, and religion to build a future worth fighting for.



1. Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation CTUIR. (2022). Brief history of CTUIR.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. NewsDesk. (2022, April 25). It happened here: The teachings of Smohalla live on in the Vashta religion practiced today. Happened. 

5. Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation CTUIR. (2022). Brief history of CTUIR.

6. Ivy Lu, Head of ASWWU Diversity and Wellness department

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