LONE PINE IN-LIEU SITE, Wasco County, Oregon.

Indian fishing platforms cling precariously to the rocks, part of a way of life on the Columbia River persisting for more than 10,000 years.

The Dalles Dam looms just upstream, a concrete behemoth generating power that surges throughout the West. Yet, Indians living just across from this dam flocked on a recent winter day to a visitor from the Portland-based WAVE Foundation who was passing out donated generators. Fired with fossil fuel, the generators offered a coveted chance for a bit of electricity for Indians living in ramshackle trailers and makeshift shacks in this, one of the world centers of hydropower.

As the Columbia rolls on, history records waves of losses along its banks

It didn’t have to be this way; back when Bonneville Dam (located about 50 miles downriver from The Dalles Dam) first was built, beginning in the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carefully relocated the mostly white settlement of North Bonneville at a cost of $35 million. Yet, a 2013 review by the Corps’ Portland District found as many as 85 Indian families that lived on the banks of the Columbia before the Bonneville and The Dalles dams drowned their homes never received the replacement houses the Corps promised.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the Corps finished work even on replacement fishing sites lost to the floodwaters, such as the site at Lone Pine. The 31 sites up and down both sides of the river were designed primarily for day-use fishing and some temporary camping. But out of a need for housing and a desire to be closer to the Columbia, where their cultural heritage lies, many tribal members now use the sites as permanent residences. The encampments are overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary, with entire communities relying on a single water source, and people living in makeshift shacks and broken-down trailers replete with fire, structural and health risks.

At Lone Pine, blankets and boards cover broken windows on trailers and campers, some of which don’t even have doors. There is only one bathroom and two outdoor water spigots. One picnic shelter has been walled off and is being lived in, but two other picnic shelters have burned down. There is no fire hydrant at this encampment, and only one rutted lane, in and out.

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The death from COVID last year of a beloved elder at one of the camps shows how real the risk is to nearly 200 people who live in these camps year-round, including children — a number that soars to more than 400 during the height of the salmon fishing seasons.

So far, thanks in part to efforts by volunteers and local health departments, and services provided by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which has redeployed itself to help fight the pandemic in the camps, COVID cases have remained low. But the risk is anything but.

“It keeps me up at night,” says Bryan Mercier, a Grand Ronde tribal member and Northwest regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency charged with serving area tribes.

Meanwhile, federal money for maintenance and operation of the camps, including law enforcement, that was supposed to last 50 years is nearly gone in 20 — and runs out next year, even as COVID increases costs for cleaning and sanitation.

“It’s a major concern — some of these sites have running water; some of them don’t — when you are supposed to be keeping yourself healthy and clean,” says Kat Brigham, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The Umatillas are one of four tribes with treaty-reserved fishing rights on the river that authorize them to use the fishing sites. The others are the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon.

It especially stings, Brigham says, that North Bonneville today is a community with so many homes, some with three-car garages. It’s next door to the Third World conditions at the fishing sites, yet seems like a different country, with broad paved streets, sidewalks and streetlights, ball fields, a school, even a golf course.

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“Those people got new homes in nothing flat,” Brigham says of North Bonneville. “We are still waiting. And we still have [fishing] access sites that need to be upgraded just to be healthy.”

LANA JACK RAISES a drum and her voice to these waters still as a lake, a glassy calm reservoir backed up by The Dalles Dam, completed in 1957.

Lana Jack, a Celilo Wyam Indian, offers a prayer and a song for the Columbia River at Celilo Park in Oregon on Dec. 29. The park is the former site of Celilo Falls, which was flooded by The Dalles Dam. (Andy Bao)
Lana Jack, a Celilo Wyam Indian, offers a prayer and a song for the Columbia River at Celilo Park in Oregon on Dec. 29. The park is the former site of Celilo Falls, which was flooded by The Dalles Dam. (Andy Bao)

As she walked the shores of Lake Celilo, Jack, a Celilo Wyam Indian, raised a grief cry and a song to the eagles that still come here, fishing for salmon. Just like the Natives who never have left this river, even as the salmon runs diminished to a tenth of their original abundance, even in a good year.

Some of the River Indians, as they call themselves, never enrolled in federally recognized tribes, nor did they relocate to reservations created far from the river. Their way of life along the river is far older than these camps, or these dams.

Jack, who lives at Celilo Village, upriver from The Dalles Dam, has for six years tried to help out as a volunteer in the camps, bringing donations of food, warm clothes and COVID prevention supplies. On a recent day, she visited the Lone Pine and Lyle fishing sites, handing out food, coats and gloves. At Lyle, Yakama tribal member Martha Cloud, 59, gladly accepted a new jacket, but she wanted and needed no pity. She loves living along the river. “It’s where we’ve always been.”

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Lana Jack, left, donates a pair of warm gloves and a heater to Althea McConville. (Andy Bao)
Lana Jack, left, donates a pair of warm gloves and a heater to Althea McConville. (Andy Bao)

Even people who left the river have never forgotten it. Tony Washines, 75, a Yakama tribal elder, remembers hearing the roar of Celilo Falls as a boy, and watching his relatives fish. He grew up at Rock Creek on the Washington side of the river. It was a hard life in ways: Washines over the decades lost both his father and a nephew to fishing accidents on the Columbia. But it was a beautiful life, too, Washines says, in a tight-knit community sustained by the waters and the lands of the Columbia. There were blackberries and protein-rich acorns his grandmother picked by standing on the saddle of her horse. Hazelnuts, grouse, ducks and geese. There were deer, and wild carrots, and bitterroot. And of course, always, the salmon. “We were rich.”

This 1909 picture of an Indian spearing fish on the Columbia River is a well-known Edward Curtis classic, titled “The Fisherman.” Celilo Falls was one of the greatest Indigenous fisheries in the world, and a center of Native trade, sustenance and culture for more than 10,000 years. The Dalles Dam flooded the falls in 1957. (Edward S. Curtis / The Seattle Times archive)
This 1909 picture of an Indian spearing fish on the Columbia River is a well-known Edward Curtis classic, titled “The Fisherman.” Celilo Falls was one of the greatest Indigenous fisheries in the world, and a center of Native trade, sustenance and culture for more than 10,000 years. The Dalles Dam flooded the falls in 1957. (Edward S. Curtis / The Seattle Times archive)

With the coming of white settlers, Indians were pushed off the river and removed to reservations. “My heart is down there on the river. If I could, that is where I would be living,” says Washines, who lives today in Toppenish. “My people were displaced not only by inundation, but by policies before it, getting removed to the reservation. Our people were brought from the river to what at that time was a high, arid, desert plateau. When we moved here, it was barren sagebrush. People lived on jack rabbits. It was foreign to us.”

The so-called In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites built by the Corps along the river were, to him, just another removal strategy, Washines says. “A miniature version of a reservation: ‘We don’t want you out here; just have this little tiny place where you can come and eke out a meager existence on the Columbia.’ ”

This, on a river that not long ago was home to one of the greatest Indigenous fisheries the world has ever known, generating wealth and a way of life for an estimated 10,000 Indian people before the arrival of diseases brought by explorers and traders.

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Celilo Falls was the greatest center of fishing and trade of them all, with people traveling an intercontinental trade network to gather at Celilo for feasting and ceremony; gambling and socializing; trading; and, most of all, fishing.

As they paddled through the mid-Columbia in October 1805, the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark marveled at the amount of salmon they saw drying on racks, and the bales of pounded, dried salmon put up for trade and winter stores.

The amount of salmon gathered and preserved was prodigious in the mid-Columbia fishery that was in full swing from May through October. Salmon by the millions thronged the Columbia as the river thundered through miles of narrow chutes and drops and a maze of islands at The Dalles. The river churned with white water, eddies and sucking whirlpools.

Even into the 1850s, after the horrific waves of diseases, the river still supported as many as 5,000 Indian fishers at about 480 sites at Celilo, according to historian Katrine Barber in her book “The Death of Celilo Falls.” As many as 16 fishermen would fish from a single scaffold at sites passed down through family lines, and shared with distant relatives and friends. The annual Indian catch was somewhere between 2.3 million and 2.6 million pounds, Barber writes, with much of it sold to fish buyers, and dried for winter consumption.

The river’s abundance and power attracted settlers and canneries and, later, hydropower developers. They all pushed the Native people off the river, by every possible force of removal.

This historic photo shows Celilo Village, by the railroad tracks along the Columbia River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built 15 houses to replace this village but has yet to provide the housing promised to families displaced elsewhere along the Columbia, decades after dam construction. (The Seattle Times archive)
This historic photo shows Celilo Village, by the railroad tracks along the Columbia River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built 15 houses to replace this village but has yet to provide the housing promised to families displaced elsewhere along the Columbia, decades after dam construction. (The Seattle Times archive)
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Treaties signed by the four Columbia River tribes that reserved their rights to fish undergird the provision by the Corps of treaty access fishing sites along the river. Work on all the sites was not completed until 2011. And the sites could never truly replace what was lost.

It was not until the Obama Administration that the agency acknowledged the legal obligation yet unmet to provide replacement housing for Indian homes lost to the dams. Even then, it was a vast underestimate of their losses, the four tribes displaced by the dams say.

WITH THE ARRIVAL of the Biden Administration and a new Congress, there is one thing the four treaty tribes and agencies in charge of building new housing and fixing the fishing sites can agree on: It’s now or never for progress toward justice so long delayed that it has been denied.

A government sign hangs near the entrance to the Lone Pine In-Lieu Fishing Site on Dec. 29. (Andy Bao)
A government sign hangs near the entrance to the Lone Pine In-Lieu Fishing Site on Dec. 29. (Andy Bao)

Members of the Washington and Oregon Congressional delegations and their staffs who have made repeated tours through the treaty access fishing sites know all too well the need to fix the squalor and provide permanent housing.

“In 2015 when I first visited Lone Pine … I saw firsthand how deeply distressing the conditions were,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, of Oregon’s 3rd District, recently wrote The Seattle Times in an email. “I knew then that no one should live like this … another year cannot pass without real action to improve conditions at these sites and without additional progress on the federal government’s obligations to provide housing for tribal communities who lost it so many years ago.”

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Money to get going on fixes at the camps was authorized under legislation passed in December 2019 and appropriated by Congress in December 2020. A needs assessment will get underway this spring, and repairs should begin by fall, says Mercier, the regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Meanwhile the Corps, after years of work, narrowed 100 possible sites down to three for a village to replace homes lost when building The Dalles Dam, says Kevin Brice, deputy district engineer for programs and project management for the Portland District. But Corps correspondence shows that over the course of 2019, three of the four tribes vetoed two of the three sites on the list because of concerns about possible damage to cultural resources. Then in September 2020, the Warm Springs tribes asked the Corps to start over with sites more suited to the tribes’ objectives and vision for replacement housing.

“I was disappointed because I thought we were getting close,” Brice says, adding that he casts no blame, and that the Corps needs to be a better listener.

Leading the way to settle on a new site now must be the tribes, at least for the first village, says Arthur Broncheau, 75, chaplain of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

“It is going on and on. It is too long, and a lot of us are not getting any younger,” Brancheau says. “It is time to pick a site, get this first one done. We can learn from that. Let’s get it moving, and not just sit here and disagree. Where it is right now, we have to pick one, so we can move on for future generations.”

To be sure, every year that passes makes the task both more urgent, and harder. Available land is expensive in a corridor now home to windsurfing tourists and second homes. A national scenic area and protected tribal cultural resources further limit where and how development can occur. Many public lands are already in other uses. But, says U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a country that built the dams must make good on its promise to the Indians it displaced. He spoke from his office in Washington, D.C., where he keeps a historic photo of Celilo Falls on the wall.

“It was all extinguished in my lifetime,” Merkley says. “Those dams that were built with such a vision of a modern world of power had devastating impacts on the Native tribes.

“You can go north to Bonneville today and see the rebuilding of the white town for the white citizens. That was rebuilt because of the dams.” And yet, Merkley says, the country has not yet honored its promise to the tribes who were displaced.

“It is a historic injustice.”