Canoes, Salmon Fishing, and the Nez Perce Native American Indians of the Plateau Region of North America

The history and culture of Native American Indians in the Plateau region of North America is long and rich, dating back over 10,000 years. The Nez Perce people, one of the many indigenous groups from the Plateau region, have been living in the Clearwater, Snake, and Salmon Rivers area of the Plateau for most of this time, growing to develop a complex and highly sophisticated lifeway that was in harmony with the regions ecosystems. Perhaps nowhere is this symbiotic relationship more apparent then with salmon and salmon fishing. Yet, for a number of years this relationship with salmon has been overshadowed by that of the horse. Partly due to historical circumstances, and to the fact that cultural items associated with the horse have been more thoroughly researched and recorded, it is only recently that the importance of salmon to the Nez Perce has come to wider attention. As part of this wider recognition, new research into the relationship between the Nez Perce and salmon is being done. In a recent article by Bob Chenoweth entitled, “Wali-mliyas: The Nez Perce National Historical Park Dugout Canoe Collection and Dugout Canoe Use Among the Nez Perce Indians,” a fascinating new component of the Nez Perce/salmon relationship is being shared.


This work draws upon the collection of Nez Perce-made dugout canoes belonging to the Nez Perce National Historical Park, National Park Service, and the Nez Perce Tribe to examine canoe making and use, and the importance of canoes in Nez Perce society. It documents the only surviving examples of Nez Perce-made canoes and suggests a typology based on them and historic images from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Canoe use was a specialized and long tradition that required an intimate knowledge of the resources used to make canoes and the river network which served as its highway. Canoes facilitated a wide and rich understanding of other native peoples of the Pacific Northwest and made cultural and material exchange possible. The study argues that settlement patterns, social organization, travel, and resource gathering, were strongly tied to canoe making and use, even after the arrival of the horse. Nez Perce knowledge of the rivers and canoe design enabled "The Corps of Discovery" of Lewis and Clark to complete their journey to the Pacific and to return back to the Clearwater region and home. The Nez Perce collection offers the only realistic foundation point to understanding the canoes made by these early explorers.

One of the key points of this article is the documentation of four highly specialized dugout canoe types. These dugout canoes were used to fish in a variety of conditions and across a vast array of river environments. The four canoe varieties can be broken down into types according to Chenoweth’s research:

Type I: A singular type that is robust in construction, which is thicker at the ends, bottoms, and gunwales. Similar canoes from the Pacific Northwest include the Kalapuyan canoe and a Tillamook made river canoe.

Type II: Also termed the “shovel nose,” this type is shovel shaped both in terms of the up-turned profile and the flat or straight edge of the end in plain view. Canoes with a sharper bow/stern rake tend to be rounded on the bottom. The sides or gunwales have no flare to them and blend into nearly vertical sides for the full length of the hull. The bottoms of the canoes are fairly uniform both in width and bottom thickness. One end is slightly wider than the other since it is made from a tree. The Nez Perce and other indigenous people understood that one person could handle a canoe more easily if the front were weighted to counterbalance the person’s weight in the rear.

The design provides for:
  • Good load-carrying capabilities in shallow water
  • Good control in most conditions
  • Strength against striking rocks on the bottom

The design, however, has some drawbacks:
  • Presents serious stability problems in the event of becoming sideways in the current
  • The square sides produce drag and can pull the upstream side of the canoe under

Type III: This type has a somewhat pronounced cutwater at the bow and a distinct chine. It also has a round and raised stern.

The design provides for:
  • Advantages in open water
  • Long distance travel capabilities
  • Thick ends provide protection from striking rocks on the bottom

Type IV: This types is characterized by a sharper rake of about 20 degrees in the bow and stern, similar to the rounded bottoms seen in Wanapum and Okanagan canoes. Evidence indicates also that this type had a slight beveled edge up the sides as well as round sides and bottoms.

The design provides for:
  • The ability to run up in shallow water and lay into the bottom while still allowing the passengers to step out over the end without getting wet
  • Easy for a single paddler to handle seated

These surviving canoes speak to a whole Nez Perce culture of canoe-making and use, from understanding the characteristics of the wood and the tools necessary to shape it into graceful and usable forms to the traditional knowledge gained and passed down over generations to travel safely and quickly on the waterways of the Columbia River system. Long before the horse came to the indigenous peoples of North America, people moved, gathered, traded, fished, and socialized by means of the waterways and other natural transportation corridors (lakes, coastlines, mountain passes, canyons, etc.) found across North America. The Nez Perce occupied a large homeland when Euroamericans came. They were widely traveled and had settlements up and down the Clearwater, Snake, and Salmon river systems. They traded far and wide and knew their neighbors in all directions. Prior to the horse, and even after its introduction in the late 1700s, this extensive trade and exchange network was primarily due to their ability to make and use the dugout canoe.

This is not an attempt to minimize the importance of the horse. Rather, this new evidence points out that, being the newest addition to the cultural scene and because the record of canoe use is not as clear as that of the horse, the story of the canoe has been overshadowed by the horse. However, the evidence provided in this article, along with many others (see Jones 2005) demonstrates the fundamental importance of salmon and salmon fishing for the Nez Perce Native American Indian peoples.


Chenoweth, Bob. 2008. Wali-mliyas: The Nez Perce National Historical Park Dugout Canoe Collection and Dugout Canoe Use Among the Nez Perce Indians. Journal of Northwest Anthropology, 42(2):167-204.

Jones, Peter N. 2005. Fishing through Identity: A Preliminary Impact Analysis to the Nez Perce as a Result of the Damming of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. Cultural Dynamics, 17(2): 155-192.

Tags: Plateau  Nez Perce  fishing  salmon  canoe  travel  subsistence  

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