Revered leader loved passing on Yakama traditions

Bobby Begay (Photo: Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission)

Kalle Benallie

PORTRAITS FROM THE PANDEMIC

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Bobby Begay was once featured on a TV show doing what he loved best  passing on his knowledge of traditional Yakama fishing.

It was 2017, and he was with his four kids at Oregon’s Willamette Falls. Ian McCluskey, a reporter, producer and writer with the show, “Oregon Field Guide,” watched from the slippery rocks as Begay and his daughter Daisy navigated their way to the base of the roaring falls.

“The water plummeted a height of four stories — the largest waterfall in Oregon by volume,” McCluskey said. “And yet, Bobby seemed right at home.”

Begay, leader of the unincorporated community of Celilo Village, died April 24 from COVID-19 complications. He is survived by his wife, Megan, and his children, Daisy, Steven, Henry and Jackie.

He also served as lead fish technician at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, where he worked for over 20 years.

Friends and family recalled his warm and caring nature, particularly when it came to passing down all aspects of his tribe's fishing traditions.

“Bobby was dedicated to his family, the Celilo community, salmon, the river and tribal culture,” the commission said in a Facebook post. “He was a bridge builder who connected many groups and individuals across cultural divides.”

Commenters on the post described Begay’s intelligence and integrity as a credit to the Celilo people. His basketball refereeing and community involvement with the sport also were a highlight for many.

In a separate Facebook post, National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson reminisced about going with Begay on a fishing trip on the Columbia River. It was 20 years ago, but he still remembers it vividly.

“When he caught this Salmon near the Maryhill Bridge he held it such a way that I quickly felt his connection with the fish and with the tradition of Native fishing in his family that went back for centuries, if not millennia,” Richardson wrote. 

McCluskey, with “Oregon Field Guide,” said the show’s team was saddened to hear about Begay’s passing. 

He described his outing with Begay and his kids in an April 27 post.

“He reached his hand out to catch Daisy as she swam across a narrow channel of rushing water. He dove under the churning froth of the falls. After what felt like far too long, he popped back up with a net full of lamprey,” McCluskey wrote.

"That day, his son Henry caught lamprey with his bare hands, as Bobby had taught him. And then Henry showed his sister Jackie. Jackie caught her very first lamprey that day.” 

The “Oregon Field Guide” episode, called “Oregon Desert Trail, Willamette Falls and Pyrosomes,” aired on the Oregon Public Broadcasting network in November 2017. Begay’s section begins at the 16:30 mark:

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com

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