Blue Jay visits Ghost Town: A Chinook Legend

In this rather gloomy tale with its grim ending, the culture hero Blue Jay meets his final end through his mincing, mischievous ways, in the land of the dead, – Ghost Town.


H a v e n | © 2014

One night the ghosts decided to go out and buy a wife. They chose a woman named Io’i, and gave her family dentalia as a dowry. They were married one night, and on the following morning Io’i disappeared. Now Io’i had a brother named Blue Jay. For a year he waited to hear from her, then said, “I’ll go search for her.” He asked all the trees, “Where do people go when they die?” they remained silent. He asked all the birds, but they did not tell him either. Then he asked an old wedge. It said, “Pay me and I’ll carry you there.” He did, and it took him to the ghosts. The wedge and Blue Jay arrived near a large town, where they saw no smoke rising from any of the houses except the last one, a great edifice. Blue Jay went into it and found his elder sister, who greeted him fondly. “Ah, my brother,” she said, “where have you come from? Have you died?” “Oh, no,” he said, “I am not dead at all. The wedge brought me here on his back.” Then he went out and opened the doors to all the other houses. They were full of bones. He noticed a skull and bones lying near his sister, and when he asked her what she was doing with them, she replied: “That’s your brother-in-law!” “Pshaw! Io’i is lying all the time,” he thought. “She says a skull is my brother-in-law!” But when it grew dark people arose from what had been just bones, and the house was suddenly full of activity. When Blue Jay asked his sister about all the people, she laughed and replied, “Do you think they are people? These are ghosts!” Even hearing this, though, he resumed staying with his sister. She said to him, “Do as they do and go fishing with your dip net.” “I think I will,” he replied. “Go with that boy,” she said, pointing to a figure. “He is one of your brother-in-law’s relations. But don’t speak to him; keep quiet.” These people always spoke in whispers, so that Blue Jay didn’t understand them. And so they started in their canoes. He and his guide caught up with a crowd of people who were going down the river, singing aloud as they paddled. When Blue Jay joined their song, they fell silent. Blue Jay looked back and saw that where the boy had been, there were now only bones in the stern of the canoe. They continued to go down the river, and Blue Jay kept quiet. Then he looked at the stern again, and the boy was sitting there. Blue Jay said in a low voice, “Where is your fish trap?” He spoke slowly, and the boy replied, “It’s down the river.” They paddled on. Then Blue Jay said in a loud voice, “Where is your trap?” This time he found only a skeleton in the stern. Blue Jay was again silent. He looked back, and the boy was sitting in the canoe.

Auntie Virginia Miller's Canoe. Edward S. Curtis

Auntie Virginia Miller’s Canoe. Edward S. Curtis

He lowered his voice and said, “Where is your trap?” “Here,” replied the boy. Now they fished with their dip nets. Blue Jay felt something in his net, and lifted it, and found only two branches. He turned his net and threw them into the water; it soon became full of leaves. He threw them back, but some fell into the canoe and the boy gathered them up. As they continued fishing, Blue Jay caught two more branches that he decided to take back to Io’i for making a fire. They arrived at home and went up to the house. Blue Jay was angry that he had not caught anything, but the boy brought up a mat full of trout, even though Blue Jay had not seen him catch a single one in his net. While the people were roasting them, the boy announced, “He threw most of the catch out of the canoe. Our canoe would have been full if he had not thrown so much away.” His sister said to Blue Jay: “Why did you throw away what you had caught?” “I threw away nothing but branches and leaves.” “That is our food,” she replied. “Did you think they were branches? The leaves were trout, and the branches were fall salmon.” He said, “Well, I brought you two branches to use for making a fire.” So his sister went down to the beach and found two fall salmon in the canoe. She carried them up to the house, and Blue jay said, “Where did you steal those salmon?” She replied, “That’s what you caught.” “Io’i is always lying,” Blue Jay said. The next day Blue Jay went to the beach. There lay the canoes of the ghosts, now full of holes and covered with moss. He went up to the house and said to his sister, “How bad your husband’s canoes are, Io’i!” “Oh, be quiet,” she said. “They’ll become tired of you.” “But the canoes of these people are full of holes!” Exasperated, his sister turned to him and said, “Are they people? Are they people? Don’t you understand? They are ghosts.”

Paul Kane drawing of one of my Watala/ Chinook ancestors.

Paul Kane drawing of one of my Watala/ Chinook ancestors.

When it grew dark again, Blue Jay and the boy made themselves ready to go fishing again. This time he teased the boy: as they made their way down the river, he would shout, and only bones would be there. When they began fishing, Blue Jay gathered in the branches and leaves instead of throwing them away. When the ebb tide set in, their canoe was full. On the way home, he teased all the other ghosts. As soon as they met one he would shout out loud, and only bones would lie in the other canoe. They arrived at home, and he presented his sister with armfuls of fall salmon and silver-side salmon. The next morning Blue Jay went into the town and waited for the dark, when the life came back. That evening he heard someone announce, “Ah, a whale has been found!” his sister gave him a knife and said, “Run! A whale has been found!” Anxious to gather meat, Blue Jay ran to the beach, but when he met one of the people and asked in a loud voice, “Where is the whale?” only a skeleton lay there. Then he came to a large log with thick bark. A crowd of people were peeling off the bark, and Blue Jay shouted to them so that only skeletons lay there. The bark was full of pitch. He peeled off two pieces and carried them home on his shoulder. He went home and threw the bark down outside the house. He said to his sister, ” I really thought it was a whale. Look here: it’s just bark from a fir.” His sister said, “It’s whale meat, it’s whale meat; did you think it’s just bark?” His sister went out and pointed to two cuts of whale meat lying on the ground. “It’s good whale, and it’s blubber is very thick.” Blue Jay stared down at the bark, astonished to find a dead whale lying there. Then he turned his back, and when he saw a person carrying a piece of bark on his back, he shouted and nothing but a skeleton lay there. He grabbed the bark and carried it home, then went back to catch more ghosts.

Elk | H a v e n ©2013

Elk | H a v e n ©2013

In the course of time he had many meals of whale meat. The next morning he entered a house and took a child’s skull, which he put on a large skeleton. And he took a large skull and put it on that child’s skeleton. He mixed up all the people like this, and when it grew dark the child rose to it’s feet. It wanted to sit up, but it fell down again because its head pulled it down. The old man arose. His head was too light! The next morning Blue Jay replaced the heads and switch around their legs instead. He gave small legs to an old man, and large legs to a child. Sometimes he exchanged a man’s and a woman’s legs. In course of time Blue Jay’s antics began to make him very unpopular. Io’i's husband said: “Tell him he must go home. He mistreats them, and these people don’t like him.” Io’i tried to stop her younger brother’s pranks, but he would pay no attention. On the next morning he awoke early and found Io’i holding a skull in her arms. He tossed it away and asked: “Why do you hold that skull, Io’i?” “Ah, you have broken your brother-in-law’s neck!” When it grew dark, his brother in law was gravely sick, but a shaman was able to make him well again. Finally Blue Jay decided it was time to go home. His sister gave him five buckets full of water and said: “Take care! When you come to burning prairies, save the water until you come to the fourth prairie. Then pour it out.” “All right,” replied Blue Jay. He started out and reached a prairie. It was hot. Red flowers bloomed on the prairie. He poured water on the prairie, using half of one of his buckets. He passed through a woods and reached another prairie, which was burning at its end. “This is what my sister told me about.” He poured the rest of the bucket out on the trail. He took another bucket and poured, and when it was half empty he reached the woods on the other side of the prairie. He came to still another prairie, the third one. One half of it was burning strongly. He took a bucket and emptied it. He took another bucket and emptied half of it. Then he reached the woods on the other side of the prairie. Now he had only two and a half buckets left. He came to another prairie which was almost totally on fire. He took the half bucket and emptied it. He took one more bucket, and when he arrived at the woods at the far side of the prairie, he had emptied it. Now only one bucket was left. He reached another prairie which was completely ablaze. He eked out the last drop of water. When he had gotten nearly across he had run out of water, so he took off his bearskin blanket and beat the fire. The whole bearskin blanket blazed up. Then his head and hair caught fire and soon Blue Jay himself was burned to death.

'you put a spell on me. 'exquisite corpse drawing © Bernard Dumaine & Marc Gosselin

‘you put a spell on me. ‘exquisite corpse drawing by Bernard Dumaine & Marc Gosselin.

Now when it was just growing dark Blue Jay returned to his sister. “Kukukukukuku, Io’i,” he called. Mournfully his sister cried, “Ah, my brother is dead.” His trail led to the water on the other side of the river. She launched her canoe to fetch him. Io’i's canoe seemed beautiful to him. She said, “And you told me that my canoe was moss-grown!” “Ah, Io’i is always telling lies. The `other’ ones had holes and were moss grown, anyway.” “You are dead now, Blue Jay, so you see things differently.” But still he insisted, “Io’i is always telling lies.” Now she paddled her brother across to the other side. He saw the people. Some sang; some played dice with beaver teeth or with ten disks. The women played hoops. Farther along, Blue Jay heard people singing conjurers’ songs and saw them dancing, kumm, kumm, kumm, kumm. He tried to sing and shout, but they all laughed at him. Blue Jay entered his sister’s house and saw that his brother-in-law was a chief, and a handsome one. She said: “And you broke his neck!” “Io’i is always telling lies. Where did these canoes come from? They’re pretty.” “And you said they were all moss-grown!” “Io’i is always telling lies. The others all had holes. Parts of them were moss-grown.” “You are dead now, and you see things differently,” said his sister. “Io’i is always telling lies.” Blue Jay tried to shout at the people, but they laughed at him. Then he gave it up and became quiet. Later when his sister went to look for him, he was standing near the dancing conjurors. He wanted their powers, but they only laughed at him. He pestered them night after night, and after five nights he came back to his sister’s house. She saw him dancing on his head, his legs upward. She turned back and cried. Now he had really died. He had died a second time, made witless by the magicians.

Based on a tale reported by Franz Boas in 1894, and is now in the public domain.

I am of Many Stories.

Sometimes when I look at these pictures, I can hear the wind blowing the sweet smell of Spring rains up through the Gorge. I am Indigenous to this very spot, the Cascades on the Columbia, yet, I am the immigrant carrying goods upriver and I am the hands that would build the dam that would silence it forever. I am of many stories.

Photo: Columbia River below the Cascades, looking west (downriver) showing sternwheeler, probably the Bailey Gatzert. c. 1901


Hassalo and the Running of the Cascades.

Hassalo ran on the “Middle” Columbia river, that is, the reach between the Cascades and the Dalles, Oregon.

Mouth of Kanaka Creek in Stevenson Wa.

Mouth of Kanaka Creek in Stevenson Wa.

The Columbia river was only freely navigable up to the Cascades of the Columbia, a stretch of rapids in the Columbia Gorge that has since been submerged by water pooling behind Bonneville Dam. Above the Cascades there was a stretch of navigable river going east about 40 miles (64 km) to The Dalles. This reach was called the “Middle River.” After that, navigation was further impeded by a longer series of rapids, the most important of which was Celilo Falls.

Before rail lines were built, travellers bound from Portland, Oregon for Idaho or the Inland Empire generally went by way of the Columbia River. This route was like a series of giant stair steps.

portage railroad below cascades.

portage railroad below cascades.

First, traffic proceeded by steamboat up to the Cascades, where rapids blocked the river to all upstream traffic and made downstream traffic extremely hazardous. This then required transfer to a portage railroad (first hauled by mules, later by steam engines), which proceeded to the top of the Cascades. Travellers then boarded another steamboat to proceed up river to the Dalles, where the process would be repeated for a 13-mile (21 km) portage around Celilo Falls and the other rapids upriver from the Dalles, which like the Cascades were unnavigable both upstream and downstream. This, the middle river, was the route Hassalo ran on from 1880 to 1888.

Train_ColumbiaGorge_1900As railways began to be completed along the banks of the Columbia, the steamboats, tied to the river which required too much loading and unloading of passengers and cargo, proved to be unable to compete, and one by one they were taken off the Middle River. The turn of the Hassalo came on Saturday, May 26, 1888, under the command of Captain James W. Troup. The event had been announced well in advance, and three thousand people gathered along the banks of the Columbia to watch. The channel through the Cascades was six miles (10 km) long.

The Northwest Masters and Pilots Association organized two steamers, the R.R. Thompson and the Lurline to bring crowds up from Portland and Vancouver to witness the event. Describing the excursion up river, the Sunday Oregonian wrote:

Fully 1500 persons were on the ride up the noble majestic stream was an enchanting one. The day was perfect as to temperature, and the scenery was grand; every bend and turn of the river disclosed superb views of mountain, forest and water scenery not surpassed on the entire American continent. Field and marine glasses were in ready demand, and hundreds crowded the decks and admired the grand panorama as it passed swiftly by.

The excursion boats arrived at the Cascades, and the excursionists disembarked on the north, Washington Territory side. There was a scramble up the bank to board the portage train which was to take the crowd to the Upper Cascades where the run was to start. There weren’t enough seats on the train, so a part of the crowd had to wait for the train to run up to the Upper Cascades and return. People had also come down from The Dalles on the Harvest Queen, which ran down to the Cascades with the Hassalo. Other people came up on a train from Bonneville so that there were about 3,000 excursionists overall. As the crowds assembled, both Hassalo and Harvest Queen were at the Upper Cascades wharf with all flags flying. When everything was finally ready, the scene was described by the Sunday Oregonian’s correspondent:

Six loud whistles were given by the locomotive as a signal to the Hassalo that all was ready. … A moment later the Hassalo’s wheel was seen beating the water into foam. She moved gracefully from the wharf, swung round deliberately [.] … [W]ith her sharp glistening prow aimed at the great roaring breach, she shot toward the green rolling masses. From shore to shore the first line of the rapids stretched like a cordon of breakers, and thundering like the tumultuous surf. With a full head of steam, the Hassalo entered the upper break in the waters, and here receiving the first impulse of the mighty current, made a plunge that thrilled the crowd as if touched by an electric shock. ‘There she goes’, exclaimed a thousand voices in low, subdued tones. Crossing the break the steamer rose pointing her bow upward at a sharp angle, and then blindly plunged downward as if going to the bottom; but she came up with the buoyancy of a cork, and now having committed herself to the mercy of the rapids, flew with the speed of an arrow through and over the surging, boiling waters.

Hassalo running the Cascade.

Hassalo running the Cascades.

Hassalo with just 15 people on board, passed by the people on the bank in just 30 seconds and disappeared from sight around a bend in the river. As she ran down the rest of the six mile (10 km) run, she exchanged whistle blasts with locomotives on the railway tracks besides the river. Once at the end of the rapids, which she ran in seven minutes, Captain Troup took Hassalo down the Columbia and up the Willamette River to Portland.

Remarkable as this was, even the run of Hassalo was not the fastest through the Cascades. On June 3, 1881, captain Troup had taken R.R. Thompson (sternwheeler), one of the same boats that was to run on the Hassalo excursion seven years later, through the Cascades, completing the run twenty seconds faster, and this speed was bested exactly one year later by the R.R. Thompson, itself, when, then, under the mastery of the earlier mentioned and unrivaled riverboatman, Captain John McNulty (steamboat captain). For those times there were not 3,000 people to watch, nor was a famous photograph taken, so the R.R. Thompson runs are largely forgotten by history.


A Single Tear: for Tsagaglalal

A Single Tear
for Tsagaglalal

She who keeps on watching immortalized from a stone
window along the banks of the mighty Columbia.
She who has watched men walk on the backs of a million
Salmon & then fall in.
She who has seen the mighty river get fat & overflow
her banks behind pale dams.
She who has seen children grow under the glow of the moon
& the new glow of hanford.
She who has seen a people cry in silent tolling for the old ways
demolished beneath the feet of a civilization determined & arrogant.

She who has seen Coyote play many tricks in his sinister loving way.
She who has seen canoes morph to steam & barges
carrying hope up river.
She who has seen fires turn to street lamps.
She who has seen the battles of Pah-toe & Wy’east
& their long eerie silence.
She who has seen a river run red with blood of the lost.

(They say that one who has seen too much with no way to let it go
will more likely suffer from Post- Traumatic -Stress-Disorder which
manifests in different forms; from anxiety to unstoppable tears.)

She Who Watches weeps a single tear.

Edward S. Curtis photo.

Edward S. Curtis photo.

Recalling Celilo: An Essay by Elizabeth Woody

Recalling Celilo: An Essay by Elizabeth Woody
from the book “Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home.

Along the mid-Columbia River ninety miles east of Portland, Oregon, stand Celilo Indian Village and Celilo Park. Beside the eastbound lanes of Interstate celilo0384 are a peaked-roof longhouse and a large metal building. The houses in the village are older, and easy to overlook. You can sometimes see nets and boats beside the homes, though some houses are empty. By comparison, the park is frequently filled with lively and colorful wind surfers. Submerged beneath the shimmering surface of the river lies Celilo Falls, or Wyam.

Wyam means “Echo of Falling Water” or “Sound of Water upon the Rocks.” Located on the fourth-largest North American waterway, it was one of the most significant fisheries of the Columbia River system. In recent decades the greatest irreversible change occurred in the middle Columbia as the Celilo site was inundated by The Dalles Dam on March 10, 1957. The tribal people who gathered there did not believe it possible.

Unknown fishermen, unknown year, unknown photographer.. any information would be appreciated.

Unknown fishermen, unknown year, unknown photographer.. any information would be appreciated.

Historically, the Wyampum lived at Wyam for over twelve thousand years. Estimates vary, but Wyam is among the longest continuously inhabited communities in North America. The elders tell us we have been here from time immemorial.

Today we know Celilo Falls as more than a lost landmark. It was a place as revered as one’s own mother. The story of Wyam’s life is the story of the salmon, and of my own ancestry. I live with the forty-two year absence and silence of Celilo Falls, much as an orphan lives hearing of the kindness and greatness of his or her mother.

The original locations of my ancestral villages on the N’ch-iwana (Columbia River) are Celilo Village and the Wishram village that nestled below the petroglyph, She-Who-Watches or Tsagaglallal. My grandmother, Elizabeth Thompson Pitt (Mohalla), was a Wyampum descendent and a Tygh woman. My grandfather, Lewis Pitt (Wa Soox Site), was a Wasco, Wishram, and Watlala man. But my own connections to Celilo Falls are tenuous at best. I was born two years after Celilo drowned in the backwaters of The Dalles Dam.

Old unknown photo of a dip-netter.

Old unknown photo of a dip-netter.

My grandfather fished at Celilo with his brother, George Pitt II, at a site that a relative or friend permitted, as is their privilege. They fished on scaffolds above the white water with dip nets. Since fishing locations are inherited, they probably did not have a spot of their own. They were Wascopum, not Wyampum.

When the fish ran, people were wealthy. People from all over the country would come to Celilo to watch the “Indians” catch fish. They would purchase fish freshly caught. It was one of the most famous tourist sites in North America. And many long-time Oregonians and Washingtonians today differentiate themselves from newcomers by their fond memories of Celilo Falls.

What happened at Wyam was more significant than entertainment. During the day, women cleaned large amounts of finely cut fish and hung the parts to dry in the heat of the arid landscape. So abundant were the fish passing Wyam on their upriver journey that the fish caught there could feed a whole family through the winter. Many families had enough salmon to trade with other tribes or individuals for specialty items.

No one would starve if they could work. Even those incapable of physical work could share other talents. It was a dignified existence. Peaceful, perhaps due in part to the sound of the water that echoed in people’s minds and the negative ions produced by the falls. Research has shown this to generate a feeling of well-being in human beings. It is with a certain sense of irony that I note companies now sell machines to generate such ions in the homes of those who can “afford” this feeling of well-being.

Wishram Grandmother preparing Salmon. Edward S. Curtis photo.

Wishram Grandmother preparing Salmon. Edward S. Curtis photo.

An elder woman explained that if my generation knew the language, we would have no questions. We would hear these words directly from the teachings and songs. From time immemorial, the Creator’s instruction was direct and clear. Feasts and worship held to honor the first roots and berries are major events. The head and tail of the first salmon caught at Celilo is returned to N’ch-iwana. The whole community honored that catch: One of our relatives has returned, and we consider the lives we take to care for our communities.

The songs in the “ceremonial response to the Creator” are repeated seven times by seven drummers, a bell ringer, and people gathered in the Longhouse. Washat song is an ancient method of worship. By wearing the finest Indian dress, the dancers show respect to the Creator.

Men on the south side, women on the north, the dancers begin to move. In a pattern of a complete circle they dance sideways, counterclockwise. This ceremony symbolizes the partnership of men and women, the essential equality and balance within the four directions and the cosmos. We each have our place and our role. As a result, the Longhouse is a special place to learn.

PEO001-00013Meanwhile, in the kitchen, women prepare the meal. Salmon, venison, edible roots, and the various berries — huckleberries and chokecherries — are the four sacred foods. More common foods are added to these significant four on portable tables. Those who gather the roots and berries are distinguished. Their selection to gather the foods is recognition of good hearts and minds. Tribal men who have hunted and fished are likewise acknowledged. One does not gather food without proper training, so as not to disrupt natural systems.

What has happened to Celilo Falls illustrates a story of inadequacy and ignorance of this land. The story begins, of course, long before the submergence of the falls with the seed of ambitions to make an Eden where Eden was not needed. One needs to learn from the land how to live upon it.

The mainstem N’ch-iwana is today broken up by nineteen hydroelectric dams, many planned and built without a thought for the fish. Nuclear, agricultural, and industrial pollution, the evaporation of water from the reservoirs impounded behind dams, the clearcut mountainsides – all are detrimental to salmon. Since 1855, the N’ch-iwana’s fourteen million wild salmon have dwindled to fewer than one hundred thousand.


Old Postcard of Celilo.

Traditional awareness counsels in a simple, direct way to take only what we need, and let the rest grow. How can one learn? My uncle reminded me that we learned about simplicity first. He said, “The stories your grandmother told. Remember when she said her great grandmother, Kah-Nee-Ta, would tell her to go to the river and catch some fish for the day? Your grandmother would catch several fish, because she loved to look at them. She would let all but two go. Her grandmother taught her that.”

A larger sorrow shadows my maternal grandmother’s story of the childhood loss of the material and intangible. What if the wild salmon no longer return? I cannot say whether we have the strength necessary to bear this impending loss.

The salmon, the tree, and even Celilo Falls (Wyam) echo within if we become still and listen. Once you have heard, take only what you need and let the rest go.

Elizabeth Woody (Navaho/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama) received the American Book Award for her collection of poetry “Hand into Stone.” She is the Director of the Indigenous Leadership program for Ecotrust. This essay is adapted from Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home.

Better than all the fame in heaven.

The night I Met Jesus at the Sidetrack Tavern,
May 1997

“Anonymity among men is better than all the fame in Heaven..”

Jack Kerouac

I once saw Jesus drinking whiskey in a smoky bar, observing the last supper of bad livers. His beard finely groomed awash in ash and too drunk to notice the drool.

He stands a stumble, catching himself on his barstool and meanders awkwardly to the angelic jukebox. A fire of light IMG_20130209_195732 shadows across his ancient face- he baptizes 2 quarters to the soundtrack of sadness. Alone he dances with himself to the blues of heaven, unaware of flesh, tempted in a purgatorial trance, bumping into tables on his way down to the soiled bar room floor.

‘Anonymity among men is better than all the fame in heaven”, he shouts out loud the words of keurouc and “right now i am making an ass out of myself’ he continues as he makes his way back to uneasy feet.

Twitching angelic and nervous he walks out the doors of the florescent illuminated purgatory.

it was the strangest night…….