Leaders of autonomous bands were selected partly by merit and also by heredity. The bands came together under a head chief in times of celebration and danger.
Groups of families lived together in permanent winter villages, where they raced, gambled, and held festivals. During the rest of the year individual families dispersed to hunt, fish, and gather food. Corpses were buried in pits where they were sometimes cremated as well. Graves were marked by a ring of stones. More than one individual may have been buried and cremated at a time. Burials also occurred in rock slides, where they were marked with stakes.
The winter lodge consisted of a semisubterranean, rectangular, pole-frame structure covered with mats and earth. Skin-covered teepees were adopted during the eighteenth century.
Fish, especially five kinds of salmon, steelhead trout, eel, and sturgeon, was the staple. Fish was eaten fresh or dried, ground, and stored. People also ate game, roots, berries, and nuts. Men fished using platforms, weirs, dip nets, harpoons, and traps. They hunted using bow and arrow and deadfalls. Other technological items included skin bags, baskets (some watertight), and carved wooden utensils.
Yakima bands acquired horses by the early eighteenth century and began hunting buffalo on the Great Plains. Horses brought them wealth, but, even though the people acquired certain aspects of Plains culture, they did not become wholesale buffalo hunters, as some other Plateau tribes did. In 1805 the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition arrived, soon followed by many trappers, missionaries, and traders. The missionaries found reluctant converts. By the early to midnineteenth century, the Yakimas had suffered dramatic population reductions owing to disease as well as to warfare with the Shoshone.
In 1855, the governor of Washington forced local Indians to cede 10.8 million acres of land. Most tribes agreed to accept a 1.2-million-acre reservation. Shortly thereafter, gold was discovered north of the Spokane River. Although Indians retained fishing and gathering rights at their usual off-reservation places and were given two to three years to relocate after they signed the 1855 treaty, the governor declared their land open to non-Indians twelve days after the treaty council.
Friction was inevitable at this point. Miners killed some Yakimas, and the Indians retaliated in kind. When soldiers arrived, a large group of Indians drove them away. In response to the treacherous murder of a Walla Walla chief and negotiator, the Walla Walla, Palouse, Cayuse, and Umatilla Indians joined the Yakimas in fighting non-Indians. The war spread in 1856. Seattle was attacked, and southern Oregon tribes joined the fighting; that part of the conflict was called the Rogue River War (1855–1856). The Coeur d'Alene War of 1858, in which the Yakimas also participated, was essentially another part of the same conflict.
In 1859, following the end of the fighting and the execution of twenty-four Yakimas, the Indians agreed to settle on a reservation. The future Yakima Indian Nation included, in addition to the Yakima bands, the Klickitats, Wanapams, Wishrams, Palus (Palouse), and the Wenatchis. Reservation Yakimas entered a brief period of relative prosperity under a worthy Indian agent. Soon, however, facing the usual pressures to sell their land, most Indians were forced into poverty, mitigated in part by some seasonal work.
By 1891, about one-third of the reservation land had been allotted to individuals, but the Yakima Nation, under Chief Shawaway Lotiahkan, retained the "surplus" usually sold to non-Indians in such cases. Still, much land that had been allotted to Indians was soon lost, including some of the best irrigated. Around the turn of the century as much as 80 percent of the reservation was in non-Indian hands. Some Indians also established homesteads on original village sites off the reservation. Despite government attempts to eradicate it, Indians retained their Wáashat (Longhouse) religion.
Dams (Bonneville in 1938, Grand Coulee in 1941, Dalles in 1956) destroyed the Native fisheries. During the course of the twentieth century, the number of salmon and steelhead that returned to spawn in the Yakima River declined by about 99 percent. The issue of fishing rights remained an important and controversial one from the beginning of the reservation period through its resolution in the Boldt decision of 1974.
Well into the twentieth century, Yakimas continued much of their traditional subsistence and ceremonial activities. In the 1950s, their long-standing fishing place, Celilo Falls, was lost to a dam. A tribal renaissance began around that time, however. It included the development of several tribal industries such as a furniture factory, clothing manufacturers, and a ceramic center as well as an all-Indian rodeo.