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Umatilla recall the ending of a way of life at Celilo Falls

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By Joseph Frazier -- Associated Press

CELILO VILLAGE, Ore. (AP) - Jay Minthorn remembers watching the Columbia River rise, the islands of Celilo Falls vanish and the fishing platforms wash away - a centuries-old way of tribal life vanishing forever.

The gates of the Dalles Dam had closed, and nothing would ever be the same.

''That was the hardest thing to do,'' said Minthorn, a member of the Umatilla Tribe, who fished the falls as a young man. ''To me, it was one of the biggest funerals that I ever attended. People were up there mourning, crying; everything.

''They just kind of walked off and left all their fishing equipment and nets and scaffolds, whatever; we left them to go under water or down the river.''

Now 70, he was just 20 on March 10, 1957, when the dam pushed back the Columbia River to reap the benefits of hydroelectric power. In six hours, the falls were gone forever beneath a mockingly tranquil reservoir pool.

The 50th anniversary of that moment is approaching; however, it will be more noted than celebrated.

''If you talk of Celilo to some Indian families, you will get the door slammed in your face. It's still that painful,'' said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

For 10,000 years or more, Columbia River Natives thrived on the abundant salmon churning through the falls to upriver spawning grounds.

The falls provided a cultural identity, an abundant life and, for centuries, a ''Western Wall Street.'' There, tribes from the west, Alaska, the Plains and the south came to trade salmon, shells, buffalo meat, obsidian, copper, roots, fur, blankets, canoes and slaves.

For most people today, the falls are trapped in classic black-and-white photos of American Indian fishermen silhouetted with their dip nets on rickety platforms hanging over the tumbling whitewater. But for older tribesmen, the falls, in their memories, are in vibrant and living color.

''I tell people, my kids and grandkids, about it when we travel down here,'' Minthorn said. ''They look at the manmade river we have today compared to the great Celilo Falls.''

He said you could hear the falls and feel the humidity from their mist from miles away.

The drying salmon impressed members of the Lewis and Clark expedition as they headed down the river in October of 1805. They were probably the first white men to see the falls, although American and British ships had been calling at the Columbia's mouth since 1792; their trade goods had worked their way up to Celilo and beyond.

Beginning in the 1830s, gold seekers and early settlers forced the tribes out of the river valleys leading to the Columbia, and the tribes found a welcome home among the Celilo on the Columbia.

Treaties of 1855 then herded the American Indians onto reservations after they signed away huge tracts of traditional lands and other wealth.

Some stayed on the river, but all members of the river tribes kept their fishing rights to the ''usual and accustomed'' places, and the falls remained known as ''an Indian place.''

But access to those fishing areas, guaranteed by treaty but not well-defined, often was blocked by whites who had taken over land.

And murderously efficient fishing methods by non-Indian fishermen (such as fish traps and fish wheels, since outlawed) fed the voracious downriver salmon canneries.

Pollution and destruction of spawning grounds also played a role in reducing the salmon runs to a trickle of their historic highs. But dams were a major factor.

At the height, as many as 16 million salmon passed through the river. By 2006, only about 1 million adult salmon and steelhead heading upriver to spawn were counted at Bonneville Dam.

Looking back, there was little the tribes could do to prevent the dam from being built. They argued for its placement where it would not bury the falls, but America in the 1950s - emerging from a hot war and entering a cold one - was about progress and patriotism. Dam advocates stressed a need for cheap hydroelectric energy to power the aluminum smelters on the river.

The Bonneville Power Administration presented the falls as a nuisance to river commerce and transportation, and painted glowing images of the abundant, cheap electricity. Meanwhile, the Eisenhower administration was nullifying the reservation status of many tribes and school books still depicted American Indians as defeated historical footnotes.

At the same time, bad blood remained between tribes and whites over river access for fishing. Sometimes, the Natives successfully defended their rights in court.

As a result, Hudson said, many non-Indian fishermen supported inundating the falls, believing it would end the Indian River fishery. Perhaps it would do to the river what the loss of the buffalo did to the Plains - get rid of the food supply; get rid of the Indians.

And so, the falls disappeared.

After considerable dickering, most members of the four tribes got about $3,750 each for the loss of their fishing place. Some refused the money, saying nothing could replace what was lost.

River towns, including Celilo, were relocated to allow for the rising reservoir.

Those who remained at Celilo got new homes, many built with ''weathered'' surplus World War II materials, in the new Celilo Village, said George Miller, Celilo Village project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It became a dreadful slum. Water pressure, residents said, was so low that sewage sometimes backed into the water pipes.

Antone Minthorn, 71, chairman of the Umatilla tribal confederation based near Pendleton, said non-Indian towns that were relocated got good-quality modern facilities. Not so for Celilo, ''because we were Indians. We were out of power.''

Congress did not authorize money for repairs until 2004. It is now being renovated by the Corps with new sewer and water systems, new streets and housing.

About 60 people call the dilapidated village home, a number that can double when tribal members arrive for fishing season. In its prime, the population probably was 5,000 - 10,000.

The fishery is controlled, and today the tribes' catch is limited. Some isolated platform fishing continues, but the tribal fishery generally has become a much smaller and placid, mostly stillwater, operation.

''There is an economy here only when there are fish,'' Jay Minthorn said. ''Young people go to work in Portland. The challenge is to keep the village together; to build an economy for them.''

Celilo Falls, he said, was a living, a livelihood.

''We had an abundance of fish,'' he said. ''They were 30-, 40-, 50-pounders,'' and salmon sales to visitors were brisk. The fishery was a tourist draw. ''People come from all over to witness the fishery,'' he said. ''They'd give you a dollar to take your picture. A dollar was a lot of money in them days.''

Today, windsurfers frolic where the falls once channeled a roaring river. A sign at a freeway wayside tells visitors what they missed.

But the tribes remember.

Ronald Jim remembers his father, Howard Jim, a long time chief who fished the falls. When the gates closed and the falls vanished, the elder Jim couldn't bear the sight. He went away and didn't come back for two years.

The Dalles Dam can generate enough electricity to serve a city the size of Seattle, and there is no talk of removing it. A few have suggested dropping the reservoir 40 feet or so to expose the falls again, if only briefly.

''But there is an opinion that, 'Don't bring them back only to take them away again.' That pain should not be felt by others,'' Hudson said.