Why Do The Warm Springs Tribes Still Use Wooden Fishing Platforms?

As Grant Allen drove on an adventure across the Deschutes River in Eastern Oregon, he noticed wooden fishing platforms that hung above Sherars Falls (the entrance to Macks Canyon). While camping nearby, he found time to photograph members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs [CTWS] as they fished using the same sustainable method that Native American cultures have used in this region for centuries.

Who are the CTWS? And why does their method of fishing look so much different than anything you’ll find at Cabela’s. It all comes down to culture and history.

Before United States Invasion

Prior to the take-over of the Pacific Northwest by the United States government, Native American tribes filled the landscape with a variety of cultures, languages, and peoples. The Wascoes lived along the Columbia River and spoke a Chinookan dialect. According to the CTWS government, “They were principally fishermen, their frequent contact with other Indians throughout the region provided for abundant trade.” They traded with the Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes frequently and peacefully.

The Warm Springs bands spoke a different language (Sahaptin) than their Wasco neighbors and observed vastly different customs, but trade between the two cultures thrived in spite of their differences. The Warm Springs tribe utilized salmon fishing as a primary dietary and cultural staple. According to the CTWS government, “like the Wascoes, [the Warm Springs] built elaborate scaffolding over waterfalls which allowed them to harvest fish with long-handled dip nets.”

The Paiutes lived in the southeastern area of modern-day Oregon; at one time, they spanned an area that encompassed modern-day Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. They spoke a Shoshonean dialect (similar to that of Sacagawea). Distance and language gaps made trade between the Paiutes and the Warm Springs/Wascoes infrequent, and contact sometimes resulted in skirmishes. Invasion by U.S. military caused the culture to push toward Eastern Oregon and collaborate with other Native American cultures. This brought them in contact with centuries-old cultural fishing methods.

United States Settlers Arrive

The traditional ways of life for the Wascoes, Warm Springs, and Paiutes was interrupted by the arrival of United States military and civilian settlers in the mid-1800s. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimates that by 1852, roughly 12,000 settlers crossed into Wasco and Warm Springs territory annually.

In 1855, just 25 years after Andrew Jackson’s infamous Indian Removal Act (which caused the Trail of Tears), the Superintendent of the Oregon Territory, Joel Palmer, received his orders to forcibly remove all Native Americans from all land that the U.S. government wanted to occupy. This act pushed multiple Native American cultures into one, small, desolate reservation in Eastern Oregon.

Three vastly different cultures (the Wascoes, Warm Springs, and Paiutes) were forced to coexist on the same piece of designated property. The soil was poor (unlike their old lands) and overfishing by U.S. settlers caused traditional a fishing lifestyle to yield less product than it had in centuries.

Modern Tribal Self-Government

In 1937, the three tribes came together as one, unified government: the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon. With a new constitution and by-laws, the tribes officially declared self-government in 1938.

Currently, the CTWS government consists of eleven members: eight are elected members from 3 different districts, along with three chieftains (one Wasco, one Warm Springs, and one Paiute) who serve for life.

So, Why Do Citizens of CTWS Still Fish Using Platforms?

The CTWS cultures still fish using methods that their ancestors used centuries ago. By building platforms over waterfalls, fishermen use nets on long poles to catch fish as they move up or down the waterfall in order to catch fish humanely and efficiently.

The Fisheries Department (a division of the CTWS government) maintains sustainable fishing habitats through various endeavors. The department employs about 100 people, most of whom are members of the CTWS or neighboring tribes.

According to the CTWS, “The department works with the fish and wildlife committee to establish fishing seasons and provide direction to enhancing and restoring the aquatic habitat and watersheds important to the tribes culturally significant species.”

Its Research and Monitoring Program implements projects that ensure fish population’s protection and restoration, while the Fisheries Management Program utilizes innovative scientific methods to sustain and increase fish populations for future generations.

The Fisheries Habit Program focuses on the various fish habitats within the CTWS borders, and into the areas that the cultures used to occupy before U.S. conquest.

By using traditional fishing methods as a means to feed their citizens, the CTWS government has ample motivation to sustain and enhance the environment for fish through the Deschutes River and other marine areas. Plus, it allows the people of the Wasco, Warm Springs, and Paiute cultures to preserve their own culture and history.

In short, it pairs modern environmental conservation efforts with traditional means of Pacific Northwest Native American sustenance.


Grant Allen is a writer and photographer based in Portland, Oregon, where he adventures through the Pacific Northwest rain regularly. Allen, an Eagle Scout, uses his adventure training to capture stunning photography and detailed descriptions of his explorations.

Tom Malone is the Editor-In-Chief of The Adventure Tribune and author of adventure novels, like Across Americana. He is based in Denver, Colorado, where he adventures through the Rocky Mountains while not traveling abroad.
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