Skip to main content

10 Things You Should Know About the Yakama Nation

ICTMN asked some Yakama people to share 10 characteristics that make their Nation strong.

Among the nations of the world, at 1,875 square miles, its land mass puts it just behind Luxembourg and Mauritius in geographic size. Count its historical territory, 18,750 square miles, and it’s smaller than Israel but larger than Kuwait.

Government-owned enterprises employ people in agriculture, communications and media, cultural preservation, education, entertainment, land and resource management, wildlife management, and utilities.

There are 55 government departments, among them business and economic development, education, environment, health and human services, law and justice, and natural resources.

Which nation of the world is this? It’s the Yakama Nation.

The Yakama Nation is a federally recognized indigenous nation, a signatory with the United States to the Treaty of 1855. In that treaty, the Yakama Nation made available 11.5 million acres for settlement, but reserved 1.4 million acres – “composed of ownership of Mount Adams as our western boundary, 600,000 acres of timber lands, 400,000 acres of rangelands, 200,000 acres of agriculture lands, and 200,000 acres of home sites, cities and towns,” according to Trudy Pinkham, Yakama, a supervisory forester with BIA.

The Nation has nearly 11,000 citizens and is governed by the 14-member Yakama Tribal Council; it’s an active, hands-on government, with council committees dealing with issues related to budget and finance; culture; economic development; education and housing; grazing and timber; health and welfare; fish and wildlife; irrigation and roads; law and justice; recreation and youth activities; veterans; and radioactive hazards from the U.S. government’s Hanford Nuclear Site.

The Yakama council is not afraid to take bold steps to protect the culture and public well-being. The council voted in 2000 to extend a ban on alcohol sales over the entire reservation, including land owned by non-Indians. At the time, then-council member Jack Fiander said in an Associated Press story, "It's a symbol that this is not the type of economy we want to see concentrated on the reservation. It's sort of a symbol to the youth – we don't think it's cool anymore to use or abuse alcohol.”

And in 2013, after Washington state voters approved the recreational use of marijuana, the Yakama Nation made it clear that the sale and use of marijuana would not be allowed on the reservation.

The Yakama Nation is a strong nation. ICTMN asked some Yakama people to share 10 characteristics that make their Nation strong.

Courtesy Yakama Nation Fisheries

David Sohappy Sr. 1925-1991)

A diverse Nation: According to the Yakama Nation Museum & Cultural Center, “The ancestors of today's Yakamas were of different tribes and bands. Each was a distinct group led by a council of leaders, and each tribe or band spoke their own Native language, and were closely related to other Columbia Basin Plateau Tribes.”

The Yakama Nation was created by the Treaty of 1855, which states that the “following confederated tribes and bands of Indians, occupying lands hereinafter bounded and described and lying in Washington Territory … are to be considered as one nation, under the name ‘Yakama’”: Palouse, Pisquose, Yakama, Wenatchapam, Klinquit, Oche Chotes, Kow way saye ee, Sk'in-pah, Kah-miltpah, Klickitat, Wish ham, See ap Cat, Li ay was and Shyiks.

“A lot of Yakama people live different ways,” artist Toma Villa said. “To people who live in the valley, that’s Yakama to them. To people who live near the Columbia River, that’s Yakama to them.”

Much of Villa’s artwork is influenced by his family’s life at Cook’s Landing on the Columbia River. Villa fishes with his relatives – the sons of his granduncle, the late fishing rights defender David Sohappy Sr. – on the river. To honor his people’s river heritage, he’s painting murals near traditional fishing sites – one depicts a mammoth at the gorge; another, his granduncle, Sohappy; another, a gillnet fishing scene. (Villa also creates prints, sculpts and casts iron.)

A land of much beauty: Yakama country is a diverse land that has always provided for its people. Yakama’s reservation and ceded territories include 12,280-foot Mount Adams, and “the Yakima River, Medicine Valley, evergreen forests, meadows, Celilo Falls, Fort Simcoe, Columbia River and beautiful rolling hills,” the Yakama Nation Museum & Cultural Center reports. “We have always honored and respected Mother Nature. She gives us our huckleberries, roots, choke cherries, deer and salmon.”

Today, Yakama people engage in ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial fishing for salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon in the Columbia River and its tributaries within land ceded by the Nation to the United States. “Our people are strong in fishing, hunting and gathering of our traditional foods,” Pinkham said.

Never back down: “Our treaty still stands, with complete sovereignty,” said Patricia Selam, who is studying community development at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “We will never back down in our stance to uphold and exercise our rights as a people.”

In the Treaty of 1855, the Nation reserved the right to fish, gather and hunt in its traditional areas. But defending those rights has been continuous. David Sohappy Sr. (1925-1991), a World War II veteran who was imprisoned in his 60s for exercising his treaty fishing rights on the Columbia River, was a plaintiff in a federal court case that upheld treaty fishing rights – guaranteeing treaty signatories "a fair and equitable share" of salmon runs and making them partners in the rule-making process. Lavina Washines (1940-2011), first chairwoman of the Yakama Nation (2006-08), helped protect a traditional fishing and salmon-drying location from development as a gated community, and sought restoration of animal, plant, soil and water life that may have been damaged by radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reactor site.

Despite the settlement era, the boarding school era, the termination era, and all of the economic, political and social challenges in between, “we flourished and prospered,” Selam said. “We still exist with hearts as strong as our ancestors.”

Courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology

Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage director Johnson Meninick talks about the importance of water to lives and the land, in 2013. The Yakama Nation helped to craft the Manastash Creek Conservation and Tributary Enhancement Project.

Uphold the environment: The Yakama Nation’s utility, Yakama Power, takes a cultural approach to generating electrical power: Be respectful and take only what you need. “We can choose wind, water, sun, bio-mass or geo-thermal to obtain our electricity,” the utility reports on “We are dependent only on nature and not [on] other energy providers.”

Yakama Power is innovative in its electricity generation. It uses water already flowing through the Wapato Irrigation Project’s irrigation canals to turn turbines; the system’s generators can produce enough electricity to power more than 4,000 homes.

Other forms of electricity generation being studied, according to a woody biomass power plant, solar generation, and wind. In addition, Yakama Power wants to make steam produced from the electricity generation process available as a heat source for industry.

Uphold the Way: “Our customs and traditions are held sacred with the highest respect to those who carry the knowledge and pass the teachings on,” Selam said. “We honor our first foods, change of seasons and lifetime milestones with traditional ceremony. We strive to live our traditional ways of life daily, so they do not die with our elders.”


Yakama leader Kamiakin ca. 1800-1877) signed the 1855 treaty with the United States and was a leader during the Northwest's Indian Wars of 1855-1858.

Uphold the faith: “We are religiously diverse,” Pinkham said. “Longhouse, Shakers, and church-attending people. We respect all religions.”

Selam added, “We are taught to respect all, no matter the differences. In time of conflict, either within ourselves or others, we are taught to forgive, pray, and sing.”

Uphold others: Valarie Calac, Yakama, makes cedar-root baskets, beads regalia items, makes moccasins, wind-dries salmon and collects traditional food plants. But she doesn’t sell what she gathers or dries; if there is a need in the community, she contributes from her stores.

“Indian foods are not to be sold, but can be bartered for,” she said. “I also teach when the need is there.”

Share the knowledge: The Yakama Nation Museum & Cultural Center opened in 1980 and is one of the oldest Native American museums in the United States; of an estimated 250 or more such museums, only 20 are older, according to a survey by the American Association for State and Local History.

The museum is part of the nation’s Cultural Center Campus, which includes 12,000-square-foot exhibition hall, the Cultural Center Gift Shop, Heritage Restaurant, Heritage Theater, Yakama Nation Library, and Winter Lodge. The Cultural Center is open to the general public seven days a week.

A recent exhibit of moccasins – “beaded, belled and turtle shelled” – incorporated poetry by Joseph Delgado, Chip Livingston and Shin Yu Pai to communicate the moccasins’ story. Annual events include the Native Artists Market in April, Treaty Day commemoration in June, and Native American Month in November.

Courtesy Heritage University

Share the knowledge II: The Yakama Nation is home to Heritage University, which offers associate, bachelor, and master's degrees in a number of academic disciplines. Heritage University is an independent college that is located on the Yakama reservation, but is not affiliated with the Yakama Nation.

Heritage was founded as a college in 1981 through the impetus of two Yakama Nation women who wanted a place of higher learning that could acquire and expand the outreach programs that Fort Wright College of Spokane offered in the Yakama Nation town of Toppenish and in the Colville Tribes town of Omak. Heritage was designated a university in 2004.

Today, Heritage University has two colleges – Arts and Sciences, and Education and Psychology – and awards 12 associate of arts degrees, 46 undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as certificates in eight fields.

In fall 2014, the university reported 1,172 students were working toward undergraduate or graduate degrees; of the undergraduates, 62 percent were of Mexican/Central American/South American ancestry, and 16 percent were Native American/Alaska Native, according to

A proud identity: “Our people love to dance, whether we are dancing on the floor of the longhouse or across the floor of the Shaker Church or on the open floors of the pow wows,” Pinkham said. “We love to dress up in our finest and show you what we are: Yakama people.”