DALLESPORT, Washington—When the gates of the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River east of the Cascades slammed shut in 1957 tribal peoples watched in stunned disbelief, as the waters angrily whirlpooled behind the dam’s gates before drowning the ancient and revered Celilo Falls fishery.
The 15,000-year-old cascading falls that had cut into the basalt gorge was the most important fishing grounds to have existed anywhere, and served as the oldest continually inhabited settlement in North America. The building of the dam killed the largest Native trading center in the country, one that had drawn Natives from the Plains, the Southwest, and points beyond to trade furs, and especially obtain the obsidian brought in from central Oregon.
Yakama elder Sam Jim, Sr., who watched the falls drown as a youngster, recalls tears streaming down the faces of strong tribal people who had never before shed a tear. The Natives ignored U.S. Army Corps of Engineers orders to retrieve their fishing gear from their ancestral fishing grounds, and stood stunned as the waters consumer their poles and scaffolds.
Jim, who grew up in the Celilo Indian Village in Oregon, was accustomed to the roar of the falls they called “Wyam,” which means "sound of the water echoing on the rocks." "I remember thinking as a child, how eerie, how weird," he says.
In a mere six hours the slack water pooled behind the dam and submerged Celilo’s cascading falls, and flooded Native villages eight miles upriver. The Bonneville and John Day dams later did their own damage to the river and a way of life.
Treaties in the 1850s guaranteed the Natives the rights to their fisheries in exchange for the peaceful cession of most of their territory. But by the late 1880s many of their treaty fisheries had been encroached upon by non-Natives. When Indian agents investigated in the late 1880s, they found that tribal fishers were actually being excluded from their fishing grounds.
The U.S. filed several lawsuits to protect the tribes' right to take fish at usual and accustomed sites. Subsequent legal determinations established the tribes' treaty-protected right of access to usual and accustomed fishing grounds.
The battle wasn't easily won, but in 1988 Congress enacted Public Law 100-581 to replace tribal treaty fishing and village sites. Still, it would take another 25 years for the government to fulfill their obligation.
On April 25, tribal leaders, revered elders, and representatives from federal agencies gathered on the river’s bank near Dallesport, Washington to celebrate the completion of the 31st and final Columbia River Treaty Fishing Access Site, called the Dallesport site.
“These 31 sites, over 600 acres along the Columbia River, are legally considered Indian country,” said Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) executive director Paul Lumley, Yakama. It was a tribally-driven project from the beginning, he said, with the four treaty tribes directing the work. CRITFC provided office space, and the tribes ensured cooperation from the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
The 31 projects located along the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington included land acquisition, and facility developments. Some sites have road improvements, boat ramps and docks, water supplies, sanitation, camping, and support facilities. Four of the sites are undeveloped and provide river access. Non-Indians are allowed in only to purchase salmon from tribal fishers.
“These are really jewels of sovereignty we’ve been creating,” Lumley said. “When these dams were built there was a promise made to replace the villages and the sites. I want to hold the BIA’s feet to the fire for finishing the village redevelopment projects.” One redevelopment project was conducted at the Celilo Indian Village in Oregon.
Asked if any of the replacement sites would ever make up for losing Celilo Falls brought surprised looks to the faces of the tribal fishers present at the ceremony. Universally, the answer was an immediate, “no.” More than one said, “Celilo isn’t gone. It’s there, intact, under the waters. Someday, it will return.”