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Celilo longhouse hoped to offset losses

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CELILO VILLAGE, Ore. - The longhouse at Celilo Village was recently utilized for a gathering of roughly 400 people in recognition of the loss of Celilo Falls on the Columbia River 50 years ago due to the rising waters behind The Dalles Dam.

A revered place, Celilo Falls was one of the most important fishing locations on the Columbia River and people have lived in the area continuously for roughly 12,000 years, making it one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America. Platforms were built over the river and when salmon migrated by, families could catch and dry enough fish to last throughout the year. That ended March 10, 1957, when rising waters inundated the falls. Fishing still takes place there and people still live in Celilo Village alongside the railroad and the highway, but it's not like it once was.

The longhouse, completed in 2006 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was an attempt to correct some of the wrongs that were done when the dam was built. The area is held in trust for three tribes, the Warm Springs, Yakama and Umatilla, but the community is in need of repair and homes need to be rebuilt to replace those currently in existence.

Louie Pitt Jr., director of government affairs and planning on the Warm Springs Reservation, explained the planning. ''We knew that houses would take longer than we originally anticipated, but one of the ways of showing good faith was to rebuild the longhouse. We negotiated for a year and a half to come up with a good design. It made a better longhouse with better soundproofing from the railroad and highway and boats that go by on the river. There is better air conditioning, more room for folks and a better kitchen - a really wonderful kitchen.''

The recent Celilo recognition brought a lot of people to the little village. ''We had a congressman, a couple of state representatives and senators, many tribal chairmen and tribal folks from other reservations. One of the themes was the wisdom of taking the tribal approach to healing.

We had the longhouse chock-full. Everybody was there and, as one person said, we had the Army surrounded that time,'' Pitt laughed.

There was also a canoe ceremony that turned out much larger than anticipated. ''We thought it was just going to be a cute little event and it turned out to be a major event that really made an impression on people. There was a Chinook canoe from downriver, canoes from the Puget Sound area and a local canoe. No one was allowed to land without being granted permission from the chief of the area,'' Pitt explained. ''We had education about the losses, the takings that we've had. There were stick games, including a traditional one where they could trade things other than money, and formal closings for the loss of a loved one.''

The longhouse was built with Corps money and will be handed over to the BIA. The next phase will be construction of 14 new houses. It's anticipated they should be completed in a little more than a year. The present lagoon is being relocated and there are currently 14 temporary houses on the site. Wells have been drilled for water and an adequate supply is now available. Pitt explained that a good meeting room is also available that will provide meeting space for tribal government and other functions, and that rental fees will go to the local community rather than having to go off-reservation and pay high fees for meeting sites.

''We're real happy,'' Pitt commented. ''It's what we view in Indian country as phase one of housing in the gorge. It's larger than just Celilo. What about Bonneville? We have some land here and there in the area and we're also looking at possibly a casino.''