A Fierce and Mighty Wind

The fish wheel in the back ground looms like a dragon, ready to pounce, and devour a way of life, hungry and impermanent. I often dream of the other years,

Celilo Falls, post card. ca. 1930

Celilo Falls, post card. ca. 1930

but often find myself barely able to remember how to fish as I browse the supermarket aisle for the freshest caught bargain. Irony showers my existence. I feel like there is this wind that is blowing so hard it will knock the ‘Indian’ right out of me. I watch the flat surface of the lake that now covers the “echoes of falling water”, and see my cousins being shunned from their tribes for not having enough blood-quantum, and tribes, such as the Wy’am and many Columbia River Indians, not being seen as a Sovereign Nation and I feel lost. To be honest, Gathering the Stories is my anchor, or stump, you could say, to this wind, and I must say, it scares the living shit out of me to know that my offspring will no longer be considered part of a tribe.

Reading links:
Read about Celilo Falls from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission here

Read about the dis-enrollment of Chief Tumulth’s descendants from the Grande Ronde Tribe based on blood-quantum here

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

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.

The Impact of the Bonneville Dam on Native American Culture

The impact of the Bonneville Dam on Native American Culture
(Re-Printed from: http://www2.kenyon.edu/projects/Dams/bsc02yogg.html)

For the Native American tribes living in the Columbia River Basin, salmon are an integral part of their lives, serving as a symbol of their prosperity, their culture and their heritage. There are more than fourteen different tribes represented in the area, including the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes. While they are separate tribes, with differing cultures and traditions, their reliance on salmon to maintain their way of life is a common bond.

Auntie Virginia Miller's Canoe. Edward S. Curtis photo

Auntie Virginia Miller’s Canoe. Edward S. Curtis photo

Life Before the Dam

Economically, salmon were a large part of the culture of most of the tribes along the Columbia River. Before the treaty of 1855, many tribes had sucessful fishing economies. They traded salmon in order to obtain goods from other regions of the country. The salmon that were necessary to sustain their bodies and provide for their economic needs were available to them and therefore, the tribes were wealthy and self-sufficient. The economic benefits of the salmon were tremendously important for the welfare and maintenance of their communities, representing one of many significant benefits of salmon to their lives.

Year after year and generation after generation, the salmon returned every fall to spawn in the river. With this, a transfer of traditional knowledge and values occured. They passed on knowledge of fishing tecniques, as well as philosopies such as a respect for all forms of life. The return of Salmon to the river and subsequent transfer of knowledge symbolized to the natives that there had been a continuation of all life and assured them that their culture, tradition and spirituality had been upheld. It also served to reinforce their sense of place. When the salmon returned the tribes would gather down at the river to collect the salmon they needed to sustain them for the year. During the spring and summer they would head up to the hills to collect roots and berries to supplement their diet. People have mistaken these tribes to be nomads who wandered aimlessly in search of food and resources, but this is a misconception. These tribes followed the seasons, utilizing their resources in a circular pattern. The salmon were a fundamental component of their seasonal migration and their way of life.

Cowlitz First Salmon Ceremony, Photo Unknown

Cowlitz First Salmon Ceremony, Photo Unknown

Because the salmon played such an important role in their way of life, the salmon were incorporated into their spirituality and religious practices as well. The tribes felt that their souls were connected to the natural world and all of its inhabitants, including the salmon. Because of this “over a dozen longhouses and churches on reservations and ceded areas depend on salmon for their religious services” (http://www.critfc.org/text/IMPORT.HTM). The return of the salmon each year was cause for celebration. One of the ceremonies used in celebration of the salmon was the First Food Feast. In this celebration they would pray, sing and dance before eating a traditional meal of salmon, deer or elk, roots and berries. Antone Minthorn of the Umatilla tribe explained the importance of this ceremony…

The importance of the first salmon ceremony has to do with the celebration of life, of the salmon as subsistence, meaning that the Indians depend upon the salmon for their living. And the annual celebration is just that – it’s an appreciation that the salmon are coming back. It is again the natural law; the cycle of life.


A Clash of Cultures

The native tribes to the land surrounding the Columbia, and the white settlers that arrived in the early to mid 1800′s had very different philosophies concerning their respective relationships with the land.

Fish Wheels near North Bonneville. Photo unknown

Fish Wheels near North Bonneville. Photo unknown

In general the white settlers displayed a disregard for the limits of their resources and brought with them the concepts of ownership and property. As a result of this, the non-Indian economy thrived at the expense of the Native Americans, whose fishing economy was driven almost to extinction. The native way of life depended on respecting the earths limits. They saw themselves as spiritually connected to the land, the animals, and its incredible abundance of resources, and they knew that by hurting the land they were hurting themselves. They understood the importance of sustainability, realizing that even if the effects of exploitation were not immediately apparent, they would be felt eventually, hindering the lives of the generations to come. This fostered a duty to protect the salmon. Bill Frank Jr. stated:

Survival of the salmon has always meant more than just food for the Indian people. Indians have long recognized that if they are to survive and if their children’s children are to survive, it will be because the salmon survives. It is their legacy.


Construction of Bonneville dam, directly on top of my Ancestors old Village site.

Construction of Bonneville dam, directly on top of my Ancestors old Village site.

As the salmon population declined and many of their traditional fishing sites were flooded as a result of the constriction of the Bonneville Dam and other dams along the Columbia River, the culture, tradition and spirituality of these tribes have been put in danger. The native philosophies were essential in managing the resource of salmon, yet they were powerless in enforcing their methods because their ideas were seen as inferior. Allen V. Pinkham Sr. of the Nez Perce tribe who among other involvements in Native American politics spent nine years on the Nez Perce Tribal Council and was chairman of the Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission, explained:

We utilized the salmon resource, we didn’t deplete it. We utilized what was necessary to sustain our lifestyle and life ways, both spiritually and physically. Nobody does that anymore. Non-natives see only the salmon as a commodity that gets bought and sold. Not thinking about the survivability of that salmon as a species.

(Pinkham, 1996)

Present Day

Old unknown photo of a dip-netter.

Old unknown photo of a dip-netter.

Today the Native Americans struggle to maintain their fishing economy. A recent article by Ellen Morris Bishop in the Columbian describes the hapless state of Native American commercial fishing as follows:

In the next month, Indians from Eastern Washington and Oregon will balance on flimsy platforms above the river’s current and plunge nets into the rolling green water. Others will challenge the Columbia in battered Boston Whaler boats, setting out gill nets in gathering darkness and harvesting their catch at dawn. They fish at sites their ancestors used, sites registered with the tribe, sacred ground.

(Bishop, August 27, 1998)

Les Brown photo. ©2012

Les Brown photo. ©2012

A decade ago there were nearly 1,100 native fishermen, while today they number fewer than 500. This year, in accordance with Native American treaty rights to half of all fish allocated for commercial harvest, the Upper Columbia River tribes are allowed to catch a total of 51,534 fall chinook and 16,720 steel head. It is anticipated that 2,400 will be wild steel head, but most of the fish will be from hatcheries. This year’s catch is up from last year’s 40,200 but far less than the 79,000 Indians caught commercially in 1990.

According to a 1995 article by Allen Thomas in the Columbian, in an effort to replace tribal fishing grounds flooded during construction of the Bonneville Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to build and improve Native American fishing sites. The multiple sites along the Columbia and Snake River were planned to include parking lots, foot docks, camping sites, showers/restrooms, lighting systems, sewer and water systems, and fish cleaning stations. (Thomas, October 13, 1995)

It seems that the government is attempting to repair some of the damage done to the Native American fishing economy, but unfortunately much has already been lost. The Culture, tradition, and way of life of the tribes in the Columbia River Basin will never be the same as they were before the construction of the Bonneville Dam.