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Molala Life

Molala Kate: A Link to the Past

compiled by Irene Emmert for the Molalla Pioneer

Author's note: I thought I'd finished History of Molala Indians, but I found a hand-written document dated June 1934, a couple week's long interview of Molala Kate Yelkes Chantelle (interviewer spelled her name Shantelle) who would have been in her 80s at the time; Phillip Drucher, National Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institute was the interviewer. This document has Indian words, drawings, and her remembrances of her people. Molala Kate was the half sister of Chief Henry Yelkes.  Kate describes the houses in winter and summer and the sweat houses. Along the Molalla River, Molala Indian houses would be scattered about in groups of twos or threes; never concentrated in villages.

Summer houses were made of cedar bark walls and roofs thatched with bunches of tules (tules were woven rushes and reeds); and/or tepees of hides.

They moved their summer houses often. To wherever they gathered food for winter.

Winter houses stayed put, they were made of cedar bark. Half of the house was excavated into the ground to keep out wind with large rocks lining the perimeter. The roof was made of cedar bark with posts, and a smoke hole in the roof; the doorway was wide at the side. There was a ridge pole in the middle.  The floor was covered with tule mats, the door was made of suspended rush mats, and tule mats hung over bed.

Sweat Houses

The sweat houses were also made of cedar bark. They were big, partly excavated also and had a round floor plan. They heated the rocks outside, brought them in and steamed themselves by pouring water on rocks. The men sweat every day. There was a small rectangle shaped door  covered with a mat of tules.

Boys and young women didn't use sweat houses. Old women might use them, but only when the stones had cooled down to helf the heat. Sometimes old men (interviewer thought  Kate meant widowers) would sleep in the sweat houses. The hot rocks were piled to face the east, the doorway was to the north.

Camas Root

Molala Indians gathered, dried, cooked and ate Camas root. It was mostly dug and gathered by old women.They used a ground down by stones elk horn fastened to a long stick to dig the roots. They used hazel stick and rushes for carrying; soft twined baskets for carrying; coiled and twined baskets for carrying berries.

They cooked camas root for 3-4 days on heated rocks; made a layer of rocks, covered with leaves, ferns, skunk cabbage, piled camas on, added more layers of leaves, ferns and skunk cabbage and poured water down in the pile to make steam. The fire was built on two sides and on top of the pile. Then they took out the camas after three days, dried them and put in woven cedar bark baskets to store for winter.  The camas root didn't sit so well for the Lewis and Clark men.  Read here for the account of what happened when they ate it.

Gathering food

Hazel nuts were gathered, then husked and dried. The men burned the hazel brush every 3-4 years to make a bigger crop two or so years later.

They gathered wild onions, and a type of water tubers, like potatoes. Huckleberries, Salal berries and blackberries were gathered and dried. They fashioned a frame of sticks and dried the berries in the sun or on the frame with fire to the side. Wild raspberries were harvested but never dried. Young fern shoots, seeds, wild parsnips, sunflower seeds and fish were some of the things they would eat. Kate states, “ Molalas never ate yellow jacket eggs, but some Indians did eat them.”

Fishing and Rivers

Men hunted and fished. They harpooned salmon on the Molalla, using two-inch toggle heads fashioned from bone on a pole (never using dip nets). At night they would use pitch lights (pitch sticks on fire for a torch) and spear salmon. They would also make a makeshift dam and put a basket in the swift water for salmon. All the men would partner in getting salmon and divide them among the households. They held a ceremony of putting willow leavesin the river to make more fish come.

Men also made canoes out of burned out cedar logs. They had flat bottoms and were pointed in front, and had cedar paddles. They had 3-4 cross braces. They put poles covered with tule mats over the top in rainy weather, sort of a covered wagon effect.

Molala people went to Astoria to visit the Columbia Indians, the ones who made fancy canoes by hand hewing them out and making higher brow on front. Molala's bought the fancy ones by trading slaves and goods. Molalas only made the “common canoe”. They went by water to Astoria, for how would they get there any other way?

Animals and Hunting

Molala Indians got their horses from the Umatilla Indians, Kate told the interviewer. “Umatilla's have hundreds of horses; Molala have 20 or 30 horses. They traded goods for horses also. They used horses to pack things with pack saddles, they made travois, rode the horses too.”

Apparently, women rode the horses too, and their saddles were high in front and back and there was a breast collar on the horse, and stirrups. Most used rope tied around the lower jaw for a bridle, while some used some kind of hackamore.   They staked their horses out, most of the time with a rope around the neck, but sometimes used leg restraints.

They also had dogs – large dogs with pointed ears, white muzzles – known as “deer dogs”. They never used these dogs to pack things, only to hunt deer.

“The young men broke the horses to ride or pack; some were gentle already, most were not. They had different names for black tail deer and white tail deer, they also hunted elk. The men used bow and arrows, the arrow would have a three feathers, eagle, hawk and pheasant. They used pitch (from trees) and wrapped them on the arrows. They carried a quiver on their sides made from cougar skin. Bow was made of oak or vine maple, seasoned and greased, about 3-4 feet long for elk.  The men often wore deer hear disguise for stalking deer. Sometimes they made a net with a deer head on it and had it in front of holes (watering holes?) or pits dug and covered over with branches and drove the deer into them using their trained dogs to drive them in.  They gave their dogs names like Wolf or Morning Star; a good dog was called 'Morning Star'.”

Daily life

Women and girls went out gathering food in the hot summer, covering their faces and arms in a grease mixed with vegetable coloring (usually red) to protect them from the sun. They used white earth or clay as soap to remove the dirt and grime. Girls and women painted their faces black and white for “big time” gatherings, dances, etc. Children ran about naked or with imitations of elder's (adult?) clothes, when gathering for state occasions.

A comb was a bunch of sticks tied in bundles about six inches long. Both ends of the sticks were used.  Some men wore long thin braids from the sides of the temples, the rest of their hair loose behind or braided behind in one braid. Most of the everyday dress for women was two pieces of tanned deer hide tied at the sides. They had special ceremonial ones for special occasions. Women made clothes while men occasionally made their own heavy moccasins for winter. Molala Indians occasionally got a buffalo robe in trade, which was used as “fancy gear” over a horse for special galas.“Elk sinew, twisted to thread, was used for sewing and bead work. They also used a strong dried grass for thread.”

Sometimes eaglets were caught or taken from the nest and raised in a cage and fed on a stick. They would keep them far away from the house. After they pulled out feathers, they let them go.  Red tailed hawks and other woodpeckers feathers and beaks were sewmn on head bands of yong men. This is where they get their power. What  power he got (depended) on what kind of bird he got feathers from. Young men wore two crossed feathers in front of the headband.

Lots of people lived in one house. Men got up early and swam, went to hunt, then came back and ate. Men and women ate together, while children ate what was left.


They used round clam shells, strings of beads, feathers, slaves, and blankets as pay for goods. They measured in fathoms: a good pony bought for five fathom. An elk hide robe (dehaired and decorated) was worth two small strings of dentalia. Two or three strings of dentalia for an elk hide blanket? To buy a canoe from Astoria, it cost one slave, 5-10 strings of beads, and a blanket.


The word dentalium or dentalia (plural), as commonly used by Native American artists and anthropologists, refers to tooth shells or tusk shells used in indigenous jewelry, adornment, and commerce in western Canada and the United States.

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