50 years ago, on the Columbia River, one of the world's greatest salmon fisheries was lost as a new dam put an end to Celilo Falls and its ancient roar.
CELILO VILLAGE — Fifty years of silence.
A loss so big, it took tribes from all over the Northwest to count its measure in a commemoration over the weekend of the death of Celilo Falls 50 years ago March 10.
They came from all over. By canoe, from Puyallup and Suquamish, Chinook and Wanapum. By plane and by car from around the Northwest. More than a thousand strong, tribal members gathered to help the people of Celilo remember the spectacular Columbia River falls and what was lost when they were flooded.
As the people of Celilo welcomed the canoes ashore, along with travelers from many other tribal nations and directions, they were gathering as their forefathers had by the thousands to fish, gamble, socialize and feast during the salmon runs.
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The falls are considered to have been one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries.
It all came to an end in six hours March 10, 1957, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the gates on The Dalles Dam, flooding out Celilo Village and washing away fishing scaffolds where Indians had caught the salmon that fed their families, and their souls, for thousands of years.
Today the river that once crashed and boiled through miles of basalt chutes, islands and rocks is a placid, 24-mile lake.
“My ancestry is right here, underwater,” said Yakama tribal member James Kiona, as he worked at roasting some 700 pounds of chinook salmon over alderwood fires to feed thousands of people gathered throughout the weekend to mourn the falls.
Born at Celilo in 1949, he still remembers the cool mist of the falls on his face. He remembers scooting over the falls in a cable car and getting soaked by the mist while the car swayed in the wind created by the crashing water. “It was so loud, I couldn’t even hear myself scream.”
He remembers watching his father fish, and being awestruck by the massive chinook hauled up in dip nets. “The fish were bigger than us [kids] in those days.”
Head salmon cook at Celilo, Kiona comes back to the place he calls home for every ceremonial feast. About 20 cooks and 18 servers rose at dawn to prepare lunch: salmon, taken from the river the season before; the meat of 13 deer, an elk and a buffalo; along with corn, salad, biscuits and pie.
Teenage girls in traditional wing dresses, head scarves, woven belts and moccasins brought the food to tables that ran the length of the earthen-floored longhouse.
The meal was late: Speeches ran on during the morning’s commemoration in the longhouse. The speakers were too emotional to think of the clock.
Col. Thomas E. O’Donovan, commander and district engineer for the Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, holds the same job today as the man who closed the gates at The Dalles Dam in 1957. O’Donovan was aware of the burden of history his agency carries.
“I feel it very deeply,” he said in an interview. “The corps is a contentious member of this community. There are many people who hate us deeply for what we did. But we can transcend it by behaving as nations do who are at peace, by talking things through about where we want to be today, and 50 years from now.”
Part of that healing, tribal leaders noted, was properly commemorating the loss of Celilo Falls.
In ribbon shirts and in white buckskins, in eagle-feather war bonnets with ermine tassels and gleaming beaded regalia, tribal members turned out in their finest to mourn the falls, which they regard as an ancestor.
“Nothing is free,” said Wilbur Slockish Jr., hereditary chief of the Klickitat people. “To the politicians and the ones who do all this massive construction, we are the invisible people. Wherever these massive construction projects go, someone has to pay. And there is another invisible people, the animals. No one asked them if they wanted to be flooded, or their feeding grounds taken.
“This is a sad time for us. We were a self-sufficient people. These are the things we have sacrificed. Fifty years of silence. Here. These are some of the things that need to be remembered.”
His family would not let him watch the day the falls were flooded, Slockish remembered. “We were not supposed to be here,” Slockish said. “It was like someone dying.”
Nez Perce tribal member Allen Slickpoo Jr. thanked the U.S. government representatives who listened to the speeches stoically — the folks from the corps, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, members of Congress and others. “It’s not your fault, what happened to us,” Slickpoo said.
“Perhaps it’s a spiritual spanking, though, for you forced our forefathers to agree to this Dalles Dam, and you told us we would not remove our sacred burial grounds or our petroglyphs. They are underwater now, like the falls.”
To Rebecca Miles, chairwoman of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee, continued puzzlement about what the tribes want today, in return for the millions of acres ceded in the treaties, is disrespectful.
“What we want was spelled out in 1855,” she said. “And that is a very small thing to ask in exchange for millions and millions of acres, to have fish for future generations and to be able to continue our way of life.”
For all its massive power generation, if The Dalles Dam were proposed in its same location today, it would never be built, said Stanley Speaks, area director of the Northwest regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“What a change in 50 years,” Speaks said. “It took us so long to learn we could not make progress and destroy history and sacred sites and artifacts. For Celilo Falls, 50 years came a little too late.”
Yet the river, and the salmon that even now are returning in the spring run, are still vital to the Columbia River tribes, said Yakama tribal member Debra Whitefoot, as she worked at a sink in the longhouse kitchen, thawing chinook for the feast.
“What’s done can’t be undone now, but we are trying to hold on to the memories of our ancestors,” Whitefoot said. “That’s not the way of our people to carry bitterness. That holds you down, it keeps you from enjoying the life you do have here. I still feel really connected here.”
Her family still fishes nearly year round from a scaffold over the Columbia, she said. “It feels great to be by the river, it’s calming. It’s like a medicine to be down here, because my people’s spirit is down here, and the spirit of the salmon.”