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Indigenous History of Oregon

A guide for learning about the histories of the Native peoples of Oregon, especially the Tualatin Kalapuya (Atfalati) tribe on whose land the Forest Grove & Hillsboro campuses of Pacific University stand.

General Sources for Oregon's Indigenous Languages

General Sources

Athabaskan (or Dene) languages

These languages were spoken in Oregon in the lower Rogue River Valley and tributaries, the Southern Coast and near Clatskanie. Most of Oregon's Athabaskan/Dene languages have few living fluent speakers, but there are several revitalization programs in place to teach new learners. This large language family also extends through Alaska, northern Canada, and the southwestern United States. The most commonly spoken indigenous language in the United States, Navajo, is from another branch of the Dene family.

Athabaskan language clusters in Oregon included: 

The Clatskanie branch of this language group was spoken near modern-day Clatskanie and Vernonia, while Kwalhoiqua dialects were spoken north of the Columbia in Washington state. There have been no known speakers of Clatskanie since the 1930s. 

Oregon Athabaskan
Map of Oregon Athabaskan languages These languages are sometimes described as a continuum of dialects. Linguists do not agree on exactly how to categorize them into subgroups. In general, the closer people lived along river valleys or the coastline, the closer their languages were. One common categorization is:

  • Upper Umpqua languages (Etnemitane), from the upper Umpqua River watershed
  • Lower Rogue River / Upper Coquille languages from the lower Rogue River valley and the upper Coquille River watershed, including Tututni, Coquille, Euchre Creek and Chasta Costa. 
  • Upper Rogue River languages from the upper part of the river valley, including Galice (Taltushtuntede) and Applegate (Dakubetede)
  • Chetco-Tolowa languages

Today there are small numbers of speakers/learners of these languages among the Siletz and Coquille tribes, as well as the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation in California. 


Cayuse was spoken in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, along several of the rivers that drain into the Columbia. The Cayuse people had a similar way of life to their neighbors, the Nez Perce, whose language many surviving tribal members adopted in the late 1800s. No known speakers survived past the 1800s. It was poorly documented, with only a few hundred known words. It is thought to have been a language isolate, unrelated to any other known languages.


The Chinookan languages were spoken along Columbia River between the Dalles and the sea, and along the Willamette River between the Columbia and Willamette Falls. Many linguists believe Chinookan to be part of the larger Penutian language family. Chinookan languages were predominant where the city of Portland lies today. Before the arrival of Europeans, Chinookan lands were very densely populated and controlled many of the most important trading centers in the Pacific Northwest. Epidemic diseases spread by Europeans devasted the tribes in this areas, however, leaving few Native speakers. However a descendant language, Chinuk Wawa (see below) is spoken regularly on several reservations. Older branches of Chinookan included:

  • Lower Chinookan: spoken around the mouth of the Columbia and the nearby coast, including the languages of the Clatsop and the Shoalwater tribes. 
  • Kathlamet: spoken on the Columbia near modern Cathlamet. (Sometimes classified as Upper Chinookan.)
  • Upper Chinookan (Kiksht): a large number of related dialects along the Columbia from around Sauvie Island to near The Dalles, and from the Willamette River south to Willamette Falls. Some of the dialects included: 
    • Wapato Valley or Multnomah: spoken around modern Sauvie Island, Vancouver WA and Portland; included the villages of Clackstar, Cathlapotle, Multnomah, Cathlacumups. Little is known about their language other than that it was a variety of Upper Chinookan.
    • Clackamas: spoken south of modern Portland to Willamette Falls, and up the Clackamas and Sandy Rivers. 
    • Wasco-Wishram: spoken near The Dalles. The Cascades languages of Watlala and Chilluckittequaw (farther downstream) are often grouped with this language. This dialect continues to be taught at Warm Springs. 

Chinuk Wawa

Chinuk Wawa, or "Chinook Jargon" in older texts, began as a very simple trade language used between Pacific Northwest tribes in the in the 1800s. Chinookan (lower/mid-Columbia River) words make up about half its vocabulary, with French, English and other languages making up the balance. In the later 1800s, Chinuk Wawa became the lingua franca of the Grand Ronde Reservation and grew into a full-fledged language. Today it is spoken at Grand Ronde and at inter-tribal meetings across the Pacific Northwest. Tribes have their own programs for teaching tribal members. For non-tribal members, some resources for learning Chinuk Wawa include: 


Coos, Siuslaw & Alsea

These three language groups stretched from around modern Yaquina Bay south to the mouth of the Coquille River. They were not closely related. Some linguists believe that there is not enough evidence to place them together in one family, while others believe that they formed part of a much larger "Penutian" language family that stretched across the western United States and Canada. The three groups can be broken down further into: 

  • Alsea / Yaquina languages: Spoken on the Alsea and Yaquina rivers
  • Siuslaw / Kuitsh (or Kalawatset) languages: Siuslaw was spoken on the Siuslaw River, while Kuitsh was spoken on the lower Umpqua river near Winchester Bay. 
  • Coosan languages: 
    • Hanis Coos - spoken on Coos River and north of the Miluk on Coos Bay
    • Miluk Coos - spoken on the Lower Coquille River and the south side of Coos Bay


Kalapuyan languages were spoken throughout the Willamette Valley. There were three branches: Northern, Central and Southern. The Northern and Central branches were similar but not completely intelligible, perhaps a bit like Spanish and Italian. The Southern branch, Yoncalla, was more divergent -- perhaps a bit like French vs. Italian. It is thought that Takelma to the south may be distantly related. Tualatin (or Atfalati) was the northernmost dialect, and was the one spoken in the area around Pacific University's campuses at Forest Grove and Hillsboro. The last fluent speaker of Tualatin, Louis Kenoyer, died in 1937. From north to south, the languages were:

  • Northern Kalapuyan
    Includes dialects: Tualatin (Atfalati) - Spoken around Forest Grove & Hillsboro; Yamhill (Yamel). For more sources on the Tualatin language, see the page: Tualatin Kalapuyas
  • Central Kalapuyan
    Includes dialects: Ahantchuyak (Pudding River), Santiam, Luckiamute, Chepenafa (Mary's River); Chemapho; Tsankupi, Mohawk River, Long Tom, Chafan, Winefelly
  • Southern Kalapuyan, or Yoncalla


The Klamath and Modoc tribes of southern Oregon and northern California spoke mutually intelligible dialects of the same language. Many linguists consider it to be a part of the Penutian family, distantly related to other Oregon plateau languages. The last fluent speaker of Klamath died recently, but the tribes are working to revitalize the language with new learners. Some sources on Klamath-Modoc:


Molalla was spoken in Oregon's Cascade mountains and surrounding slopes. The last known fluent speaker of Molalla died in 1958. Its closest relatives are believed to be the Sahaptan languages of the Columbian plateau to the east. Branches of the language included:

  • Northern Molalla
  • Upper Santiam or Central Molalla
  • Southern Molalla

Nez Perce (Nimiipuu)

The language of the Nimiipuu, or Nez Perce, people was spoken over a wide area that is now split by the borders of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. By its own speakers, the language is called nimipuutímt (the lack of capitalization is part of the spelling). It is related to the Sahaptin languages of Tenino and Umatilla. 

  • nimipuutímt - Language site maintained by the tribe, with video lessons and more

Northern Paiute (Numu)

The Northern Paiute, Shoshone and related tribes lived in the arid lands of southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho and Western Nevada. They were the northernmost speakers of Numu, which is a sub-group of the larger Uto-Aztecan family that stretched to Central America. Northern Paiute bands were split across several Oregon reservations in the late 19th century, where they were usually in the minority. Most speakers of Northern Paiute today live in Nevada and far eastern California. Sources:

Sahaptin (Umatilla & Tenino/Ichishkin)

The Southern Sahaptin languages were once spoken on the south side of the upper Columbia River above the Dalles, and along rivers that drained into it. The word Sahaptin derives from a Salish word meaning stranger. Thus several Sahaptin-speaking tribes promote the endogenous name, Ichishkin (used at Warm Springs) or Ichishkíin Sɨ́nwit (used at Yakima). 

Sahaptin languages are related to the Nez Perce language (Niimíipuu) to the east. Together they are called the "Sahaptian" languages; note the -ian for the larger group, vs. -an for the western languages alone. From west to east, Southern Sahaptin languages in Oregon included:  

  • Ichishkin, the language of the Tenino, also known as Warm Springs. Note: the link here is to a source on the closely related dialect spoken on the Yakima Reservation. Oregon dialects included: Tygh; Tinainu, also known as "Tenino proper"; Wyam; and Dock-Spus, also known as John Day.
  • Umatilla

Salishan (Tillamook, Siletz)

The Salishan languages of Oregon were spoken on the coast from around Tillamook Head to Siletz Bay. They were the southernmost branch of the Salish language family, a huge group of languages and dialects in Washington and British Columbia. The last fluent speaker of Tillamook died in 1972. Compared to other Oregon languages, this group has received little scholarship, although members of the unrecognized Clatsop-Nehalem Tribe are interested in work on it. From North to South, languages/dialects included: 

  • Nehalem
  • Tillamook
  • Nestucca
  • Salmon River
  • Siletz
    Note that the language now known as Siletz Dee-ni is not the same as the historical language spoken around Siletz Bay. Siletz Dee-ni is a descendant of the more southerly Athabaskan languages that were brought to the Siletz Reservation in the late 1800s. The Salishan Siletz language is unrelated. 


The Oregon branch of the Shasta language was spoken among the Irkirukatsu Shasta bands north of Mount Shasta. These people were forcibly removed to the Grand Ronde reservation in the 1850s, in retaliation for their resistance to American forces during the Rogue River Wars. Shasta speakers remained in Northern California until the 1980s, but there are no fluent speakers left today. 


Takelma was spoken along the upper Rogue River and the Rogue River Valley, and along Cow Creek. Descendants of these peoples are among the Cow Creek Umpqua and Grand Ronde tribes. The last living speaker of Takelma died in 1934. It was thought that Takelma might be distantly related to the Kalapuyan languages, but recent scholarship has put this in doubt.