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Yakama Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Yakama tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Yakama website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Yakama pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.




    Yakama Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Yakama"? What does it mean?
Yakama is pronounced "yeah-kuh-mah." In the past, it was often spelled Yakima (like the city in Washington State that was named after them), but the Yakama tribe prefers the spelling with an a. No one is entirely sure where this name came from. It may have been an English corruption of the Yakama word for "pregnant women," "family," or "runaway." Their own name for themselves was Waptailmim, which means "people of the narrow river."

Where do the Yakamas live?
The Yakama Indians are original people of the Northwest. They live in Washington state.

How is the Yakama Indian nation organized?
The Yakamas live on a reservation, which is land that belongs to them and is under their control. The Yakama Nation has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Yakamas are also US citizens and must obey American law. In the past, each Yakama band was led by a chief who was chosen by a tribal council of elders, clan leaders, and other important men. Yakama chiefs were highly respected, but didn't have a lot of political power. They had to listen to the tribal council most of the time. Today, Yakama bands are still ruled by tribal councils, but councilmembers are elected by all the people and can include women as well as men.

What language do the Yakama Indians speak?
Almost all Yakama people speak English today, but some Yakamas, especially elders, also speak their native Yakama language. Yakama is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Yakama word, Šay (sounds similar to the English word "eye") is a friendly greeting in Yakama.

Today Yakama is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Yakama people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Yakama culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the homepage of the Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Washington. There you can find information about the Yakama tribe in the past and today.

How do Yakama Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Yakama children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have buckskin dolls, toys and games to play. Like many Native Americans, Yakama mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

What were men and women's roles in the Yakama tribe?
Yakama women gathered plants and herbs and and did most of the child care and cooking. Men were fishermen and hunters and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Yakama homes like in the past?
The Yakamas lived in villages of earth lodges sometimes known as "pit houses." These homes are built partially underground, with a basement-like living space dug from the ground and a dome-shaped wooden frame built over it and packed with earth. These lodges were small (about 15 feet across) and only a single family lived in each one. On summer hunting trips, Yakama families sometimes used portable hide tepees like the Plains Indians. Today, Native Americans only put up a tepee for fun or to connect with their heritage. Yakama families live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Yakama clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Yakama men wore breech clouts with leggings and short buckskin shirts with patterns of holes punched into them. Women wore buckskin dresses decorated with beads and quillwork. Both men and women wore moccasins on their feet, and in colder weather, they also wore fur robes and hats. Here is a museum exhibit of Yakama and other Indian beaded clothing, and some photos and links about Indian clothes in general.

Originally, Yakama men didn't wear headdresses. As they became more influenced by styles of the Plains and the Eastern Plateau, many Yakama men began to wear Native headdresses like the Sioux. Yakama women usually wore fez-shaped basket caps, but brides wore a long beaded wedding headdress. Yakama women sometimes painted their faces, using different designs for festive occasions and religious festivals. Yakama men didn't usually paint or tattoo themselves. Most Yakamas wore their hair either long and loose or in two long braids, cutting their hair only when they were in mourning. Some Yakama men wrapped their braids in fur in the Plains Indian fashion.

Today, some Yakama people still have moccasins or a basket hat, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Yakama transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes--the Yakama Indian tribe made lightweight birchbark canoes for fishing and traveling on the rivers. Here is a website with pictures of Native American Indian canoes. Over land, Yakama people usually just walked. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) They sometimes used snowshoes to help them travel in the winter.

Today, of course, Yakama people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes.

What was Yakama food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Yakama Indians were fishing people. Their staple food was salmon. Yakama men also hunted for deer, elk, and small game. Yakama women gathered nuts, roots, and berries to add to their diet. Here is a website with more information about Native American food.

What were Yakama weapons and tools like in the past?
Yakama fishermen used spears, nets, and wooden fish traps. Hunters used bows and arrows and trained hunting dogs. In war, Yakama men fired their bows or fought with spears. Sometimes warriors used shields of hardened elk hide to protect themselves from enemy archers. Here is a website of pictures and information about Native American Indian weapons.

What are Yakama arts and crafts like?
Yakama artists are known for their basket crafts and wood carving. Here is a website with some photographs of Yakama and other Plateau Indian artwork.

What other Native Americans did the Yakama tribe interact with?
The Yakamas were allies and trading partners of other Plateau tribes such as the Nez Perce and Umatilla. They weren't really known as a warlike tribe, but they did sometimes fight with the Shoshones.

What kinds of stories do the Yakama Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Yakama legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Yakama Indian culture. Here is one Yakama legend about how the people learned to respect the salmon. Here's a website where you can read more about Yakama mythology.

What about Yakama religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about the Yakima religion or this site about Indian spirituality in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
There are not many books for kids specifically about the Yakama tribe. Older kids may want to read Ghost Voices: Yakima Indian Myths, a book of Yakama legends and traditional stories. Younger kids may like The Bone Man, a picture book based on a legend of the Modoc tribe (relatives of the Yakamas.) If you want to know more about Yakama culture and history, two good books are The Yakama and Yakima Indians of North America. Or Plateau Indians is a good book for kids about the Plateau Indian tribes in general, including the Yakamas and their neighbors. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Native American books in general.

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2013.

Thanks for your interest in the Yakama Indian people and their language!

Learn More About The Yakama Tribe

Yakama Indian Tribe
An overview of the Yakama people, their language and history.

Yakama Language Resources
Yakama Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Yakama Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Yakama Native Americans past and present.

Yakama Words
Yakama Indian vocabulary lists.



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