PORTLAND, Ore. - Lewis and Clark passed through Celilo Falls on their way
to and from the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and 1806. Despite that, to date at
least, Celilo is not on the itinerary recommended to tourists.
Celilo Falls was submerged under water backing up behind the The Dalles Dam
in 1957. Narrow channels over which white water boiled and salmon leaped
are submerged beneath a smooth sheet of sluggish water. The once great
Indian fishing and trading site where as many as 5,000 would come in on
horseback from as far away as the Plains is gone.
William Clark described the narrows near The Dalles as "agitated gut
Swelling, boiling & whirling in every direction... this great shute of
falls is about 1/2 a mile with the water of this great river compressed
within the space of 150 paces ... great number of both large and small
rocks, water passing with great velocity forming & boiling in a horible
manner, with a fall of about 20 feet." The expedition missed peak salmon
run, but Clark counted 107 Indian baskets full of dried salmon. An
estimated 10,000 pounds of fish evidencing a successful harvest at Celilo
Jay Minthorn's 68-year-old voice is soft and low, and it lingered on the
word 'way' every time he repeated the line, "It was a way of life."
"You could hear the noise from the falls clear up by the Deschutes and feel
the dampness in the air. And those brown hills you see today, they were
pretty green up across the river on account of they got moisture from the
spray." said member of the Umatilla tribes' Board of Trustees and Chairman
of Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Jay Minthorn. "That was kind of
the highlight of the year to come down from our Umatilla reservation.
Celilo was a gathering place for all the tribes and where you'd see your
relatives from all around." Celilo was a place where people came to feast.
Came to trade, see old friends, dance, and gamble. Came to mix business
Minthorn started fishing "as early as I could get away with it - about 8 or
9." During Minthorn's era, non-Indians came too. "Some of them didn't know
what a salmon was and everything else," Minthorn said. "And there'd be
these people with accents who'd say to us kids, 'let us take your picture
for a quarter.' It was a way of life for children. I can remember. We used
to get a little money that way. That's why people went there. It was a way
"That's the thing," Minthorn continued. "The economy was always there. That
isn't a new word. People survived on the fish from Celilo. They did it for
centuries, since time immemorial. That's the phrase: time immemorial."
In less than 50 years, though, the majority society has seemed to forget
about Celilo. The new map of the Columbia River Basin inlaid into the floor
of Portland International Airport in colored stone and metals doesn't even
have a small dot to mark the spot. And historic markers on the interstate
are absent. Instead the only visible sign of what was once one of the more
important gathering places in the Pacific Northwest, is a place called
Celilo Village, a dilapidated bunch of government houses and trailers
clinging to a narrow shelf of land wedged in between I-84 and the basalt
cliffs of the Columbia. An impoverished community that hasn't even found
the strength to write a grant for some of the money available to tribal
groups wanting to participate in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. (See
www.lewisandclark200.org and Indian Country Today, "Grant money for Lewis
and Clark commemoration going unused," Vol. 24, Iss. 5).
More, despite the fact that Lewis and Clark stopped at Celilo and recorded
observations about the place in their journals, visitors coming in for the
2004 - 2006 commemoration will not be directed to the site of the falls or
the village. Instead promoters in the nearby town of The Dalles will point
tourists and their pocketbooks to the town's murals, a nicely-appointed
museum and a riverfront display. While boosters have asked the tribes to
help design the murals from the Indian point of view, the fact that a
prettied-up picture instead of the reality that exists will be offered to
those in coming from distant points is inescapable.
While there are plans to upgrade living conditions for the 50 to 100 people
living at Celilo, they will not be completed for the commemoration. Not
that the village needs to put on party clothes to have visitors. The
culture is still there. The stories are there. The first salmon feast still
happens in the spring. People have smoked salmon for sale. And a few of the
34 boats still run well enough to go fishing in. But no one in the village
is getting anything together for Lewis and Clark. At least so far.
Minthorn fished Celilo during summers until the falls were flooded. "The
noise was really something. You couldn't hear each other. And you had a
daily shower whether you wanted it or not," Minthorn said. "You don't
realize how loud those falls were when they echoed off the rocks. They had
to use sign language out there, and we kind of picked up on it. They'd be
asking different things about, you know: how much fish you got, how you're
feeling, you going in pretty soon, and you going to the Pendleton Roundup?"
On scaffolds 20 feet above the roaring water, men and boys fished with only
ropes tied around their waists ensuring their safety. "You can imagine how
it was on the slick boards. Especially when you got a 40 or 50 pounder in
your net laying sideways. That's when you knew you were going to get a
ride," said Minthorn. "A fish like that fighting could pull you right down
to the end of the scaffold."
That's why the fishermen nailed a 2' x 4' braces at the end of the
scaffolds. "I've seen a man put his foot up there to brace himself,"
Minthorn said. "Everyone sure loved seeing someone have a good fight with a
big fish too. They'd be hollering and watching him struggle. He hang on as
long as he could, and then once they'd had their fun with him, someone else
would take over.
"That's how it was," said Minthorn. "It was a way of life."
Would Minthorn like to see Celilo returned? "No. Celilo is our cemetery
now. When the water rose up we let our gear go - nets, lumber, all that,"
said Minthorn. "We buried our things there. Our memories are there."
Celilo Falls might be gone, but Celilo Village remains as testament to the
heydays of Indian culture. Whether it will garner the attention it deserves
during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial remains to be seen. The way of life
there isn't always pretty. All the problems associated with poverty exist.
Still, the people have hung on. They have hung on the best they could.
True, the way of life in Celilo Village today might not be the best. And
also true, the way of life in Celilo Village shows more than many want to
see about the dislocation that Lewis and Clark exploring this area set into
motion. But the fact remains, it's survived. It might be ragged from years
of suffering. And it wears its grief openly on its sleeve, pointing to what
was lost. Pointing to Celilo Falls. But the people of Celilo Village
haven't forgotten what was once "a way of life."
(Continued in Part Two)