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Wanapum Heritage Center honors the River People

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BEVERLEY, Wash. – There is an interpretive sign along Washington State’s busy Interstate 90 at the windy viewpoint overlooking the Columbia River where Dave Govedare’s sweeping sculpture, “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies,” crowns the ridge.

The sign introduces the Wanapum people who once thrived along this stretch of river; a peace loving tribe that did not fight wars with the U.S. government, therefore required no treaty. Their desire for peace left them without a land base, therefore they are virtually extinct, the plaque says.

The traveler is led to believe that the Wanapum people and their culture are forever lost to the sands of time, but fortunately, that is not the case.

Though their numbers are decimated, they persist in a rough country of sagebrush and bunchgrass, within a landscape drastically altered by the coming of the whites. Part of their story is enshrined in the small but enriching Wanapum Heritage Center four miles south of the bridge that spans the Columbia at Vantage. The center was established in cooperation with the Grant County Public Utility District at Wanapum Dam. Admission is free and the museum is open seven days a week.

The lobby features a 29-foot canoe that Puck Hyah Toot, a prophet and religious leader carved with the Tomanawash brothers in the 1800s. The people made canoes from driftwood provided by Chiawana, the Great River of life and myth, now called the Columbia, where salmon that provided sustenance once flourished.

The collection includes leather, cloth, beaded and woven items that belonged to Martha Johnny, the daughter of Puck Hyah Toot, nephew of spiritual leader Smowhalla. Some are her handiwork, some she purchased; others are keepsakes, handed down to her or acquired through trade. There are also samples of exquisitely crafted implements, such as spoons made from mountain goat horn, bone antlers, wooden needles, delicate arrowheads and various tools made from the basalt rock prolific in the area. The items represent a portion of the collection secured in a repository located in the bowels of Wanapum Dam adjacent to the heritage center.

Examples of the people’s inviting tule mat longhouses can be seen in historic photos and models, along with small samples of the weavings. Rushes were harvested at traditional gathering sites along the river and the mats sewn together with Indian hemp twine and fastened to poles salvaged from wood that drifted to them in the water. Some of these structures were 60 feet long.

In the early days, family bands roamed the expanse between here and present day Pasco. They gathered roots as far away as Soap Lake, hunted and fished at White Bluffs, which became off limits when the Hanford Atomic Works began operation in the 1950s.

A few years later, the Wanapum’s existence was threatened when their village was to be flooded due to construction of a dam at Priest Rapids. Negotiations with the Grant PUD resulted in relocation to their current settlement just west of the dam.

The PUD, Wanapum, several government agencies and the University of Washington cooperated in an “archeological salvage” operation before the flooding. A portion of this operation entailed blasting ancient petroglyphs from sites along the river and removing them to the Ginkgo Petrified Forest near Vantage.

The Wanapum dreamer prophet, Smowhalla predicted the cataclysmic changes of the past 150 years. A few changes in the area are addressed in the museums’ displays, such as the introduction of steamboats on the Columbia, mining and great cattle herds introduced to supply food to teeming Northwest mining camps.

Travelers from all over the world have discovered the exhibit at the Wanapum Heritage Center. The guest book includes entries from as far away as France and Bulgaria. “Cool,” “awesome” and “wonderfoll” are some of the comments recorded. The center’s proximity to I-90 makes for a convenient stop between Seattle and Spokane.

The Wanapum will also bring the story of their culture to groups and schools with their museum on wheels. The Wanapum Native American Discovery Unit includes displays on traditional foods, artifacts and a miniature model of the old Priest Rapids Wanapum Village. To schedule the WNADU for an event, contact Angela Buck at (509) 754-5088, ext. 3126 or