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50 years after flooding Celilo Falls

by Anna King
(with video report by Bethany Lee)
Tri-City Herald, March 4, 2007

CELILO VILLAGE, Ore. -- Bobby Begay sees his ancestors' Celilo Falls nearly every day.

As he plies his boat across the Columbia River in search of salmon, the contours of the falls appear on the blue and gray screen of his fish finder -- more than 100 feet below the surface.

"It's still there," he said, motioning toward the river as he huddled in the lee of the Celilo Village longhouse to get out of the wind.

Like many who live in the village now, the 37-year-old is too young to remember the deafening roar of the falls or to have dangled a dip net in its raging froth. The falls were silenced 50 years ago when it was flooded by rising water from The Dalles Dam on March 10, 1957.

Mid-Columbia tribes lost much more than a favorite fishing hole.

For thousands of years, Celilo Falls was a traditional fishing spot that produced millions of pounds of salmon each year. And nearby Celilo Village was a trading destination for tribes who came from as far away as California, Montana and Canada. At Celilo, the tribes traded salmon for medicines, dried meats and hides from the East and for cedar, shells and beads from the Pacific Coast. Friendships were renewed, and men found brides.

A half-century isn't long to a people who say they fished this place "forever" and to whom salmon is a sacred food.

"During good or bad times like funerals, fish is part of our meal," said Begay, who makes his living setting gill nets in the sluggish water of Lake Celilo, working on tribal salmon restoration projects and selling smoked fish from his porch.

To the river people, the silenced falls are a dead family member, and they still feel grief and anger.

In the coming weeks, dozens of events are planned to memorialize the drowning of the falls. The most significant of those will be two days of ceremonies, salmon dinners and history lessons March 10-11 at Celilo Village, which sits just off Interstate 84 about 10 miles upriver from The Dalles Dam.

For others, the dam brought inexpensive hydropower, a navigable river for barges and industry that has helped communities grow. But tribal people say they still struggle to live without the torrent that provided a clear purpose and rhythm for life.

"The younger people that never experienced the falls don't know what we're talking about," said Clifford Casseseka, 65, a Yakama Nation elder who fished the falls as a boy. "They can probably only vaguely imagine."

Falling away

Joe Jay Pinkham, 79, loved fishing at Celilo so much that he took his new bride there for their honeymoon.

Grinning, he recalled that Tallulah, 75, didn't balk. They've now been married 53 years and had seven children.

"He said, 'Let's go for a ride and maybe we will get a hotel room,' " Tallulah said. "But that's as far as we went. "We slept on the pickup. We cuddled and kept warm. I think we had about $30 between us."

Joe Jay lived on the Yakama Reservation during the winter but stayed near Celilo in spring and summer. He fished with a hefty set net that had 21 feet of net trailing behind a large wooden hoop that he had to work with skill. If more than one fish fell into the net, or if he didn't hold it right, he could be dragged into the frothing water. The fishermen poured sand on the slick platforms so they wouldn't slip and fall.

The falls were so loud that fishermen used sign language to communicate.

"It was one big roar all the time," Pinkham said.

When he returned to the reservation each year, the silence was unsettling. "It took a couple of months to get over that."

A 1946 letter by a U.S. Department of the Interior official estimated Celilo fishermen hauled out more than 2.5 million pounds of salmon a year. That was even after several Columbia River dams had damaged the runs.

Pinkham remembers thinking it was odd that a railroad bridge was built so high above the river's flood level. Later, the tribes learned the government was planning a dam and to flood the falls.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior recommended the government not dam the river and destroy the fish runs and tribal livelihood.

Since the late 1800s, the river tribes had filed dozens of lawsuits to fight for their traditional fishing rights near Celilo, and they fought again. Pinkham was among a small delegation of tribal members who traveled across the country to fight.

"We went to the people in Washington, D.C., and asked them why they were flooding the falls," he said. "They said that's the way it was."

The deluge

Tommy Thompson, a famous Celilo "salmon chief" whose word governed tribal fishing at the falls for 85 years, refused to sign away his tribe's fishing rights. But the government used eminent domain and built The Dalles Dam anyway.

The four Columbia River tribes were paid about $26 million for the loss of their fish. Each tribal member -- even many who had never fished at Celilo -- was paid about $3,755.

Corps records show Henry Thompson, the chief's son, told federal officials that did not even equal what he made in a single season fishing at Celilo, where historians say some fishing platforms produced tons of salmon a day.

Many of those who were displaced ended up in small river communities near Celilo or on neighboring reservations where they had family ties, such as the Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama reservations.

Those who remained watched as the Corps of Engineers dynamited the basalt rock formations of the falls to create a navigation channel for barges.

On the day the falls flooded, Pinkham stood on the riverbank and watched the water creep up the rocks. He and others sang songs to say goodbye.

"They were all honor songs," he said. "We have no sad songs. You can't sing a sad song when you are singing something for the last time."

But, Pinkham said, "I was sad and angry. I am still angry."

After Celilo was gone, Pinkham said, many of his family members lost their way.

Many of the Yakama fishermen started fishing at Parker Dam on the Yakima River near Sunnyside. But the area already had too many fishermen for the number of fish, he said.

"Some of my uncles that were fishermen, they didn't know what to do for a long time."

Current reckoning

Those who wouldn't leave Celilo were moved to higher ground.

The government originally promised the people of Celilo 400 acres, then told them to go to other reservations. Finally, the tribe was given 40 acres and old Army barracks homes, which have steadily declined into a slum. Residents say the homes have asbestos, inadequate sewage treatment, contaminated wells and other problems.

Fifty years later, the federal government is finally reckoning with the people of Celilo Village.

"When we built The Dalles Dam our intent was to construct the dam for hydropower and navigation," said George Miller, Corps project manager for Celilo redevelopment. "Relocating the people who lived there was sort of an afterthought. Clearly that relocation was not successful and the conditions at Celilo are not acceptable."

The Corps built a new 7,000-square-foot longhouse last year as part of a nearly $14 million overhaul of the village. Work is almost complete on a new waste water treatment pond and well system.

This summer, residents will be moved into temporary mobile homes while workers construct 14 new 1,700-square-foot homes for tribal families.

And nearly 30 treaty fishing sites have been built along the river as the result of legislation Congress approved in the late 1980s. The sites provide Native Americans places to park their boats, camp and prepare fish.

Slackwater life

Other effects of losing the falls lay deeper under the surface.

While some Celilo residents have carried on fishing with nets from boats, others say they can't afford a boat or other equipment.

Without a steady income and job, many Celilo residents struggle with alcoholism, unemployment and poverty.

Olsen Meanus, 46, said he grew up at Celilo but left the village when he was 15 to rodeo and chase women. But he said he returned with his family to fish the Columbia and keep his children from "rez life" and the influence of gangs, drinking and drugs.

"I thought there was something better out there beyond that freeway and beyond those (train) tracks," he said as he sat repairing a salmon net. "It wasn't much different -- just worse. I got into drugs and drinking. Now I can't even own a license."

Meanus, who recently was chosen by elders to be the next Celilo chief, said he's trying to better provide for his wife and children. He also hopes to help the people of Celilo put aside their differences.

Squabbles over property, traditional fishing sites and disputes between families are tearing at the fabric of the community, he said. And many native people aren't attending longhouse ceremonies or adhering to traditional tribal laws and understandings.

"People really start to hate one another," Meanus said. "That's a word that isn't in our vocabulary. If you do that, your mind and heart will be black."

Future rapids

The people of Celilo also worry about coming generations, such as Bobby Begay's 13-year-old son Steven, who as other Celilo children bridges modern and ancient cultures.

At a recent basketball playoff game in Umatilla for his sister Daisy's high school team, Steven played trumpet for the Dufur Pep Band. He is one of the stars of the Dufur Middle School boys' team, but it already had ended its season undefeated so he joined the band for the trip.

In the gym at Umatilla High, wheat farmers wearing cowboy hats sat shoulder-to-shoulder next to tribal members with long black braids cheering on their children.

The Celilo children began going to school in Dufur six years ago, taking an hourlong bus ride from the village to the small farming community. At first, the children had a hard time being accepted and adjusting to their new school, but Begay said that has improved, and the smaller school gives Celilo children more personal attention.

While Begay and other Celilo parents want their children to do well in school, they also want them to learn their traditions. But they worry there are few elders left to teach them the stories and traditional language from the days when the falls roared. So younger generations are having to assume the role of teacher.

"All of the other people are looking at me and saying, 'You are the elder now,' " said Ron Jim, 58, of Celilo. "I want to be young for a few more years."

The lure of fancy clothes, iPods filled with rap songs and big cities is hard for parents and elders to compete with. And with only 14 new homes coming to Celilo, the children still may need to leave, Begay said.

"We are losing our kids, they are moving to the reservations or into town," he said. "When kids do that, they lose their culture, ancestry and teachings."

Chief Meanus believes people always will live at Celilo as long as the children learn their traditions and don't adopt ways of other cultures. But he dreads the day when the government tells his people they can no longer fish because the Columbia is too polluted and there are no more salmon.

"I sit here and look at the river and wonder what it would be like if the falls were still here," he said. "I worry about my kids a lot. I worry that they will go and never come back."

But while the children live in the modern world, they also are strongly tied to the ways of Celilo. They are being taught the ancient traditions of the tribe's language and religion, and their culture is always with them.

Such as Steven Begay, who during a break in the basketball game flirted with a classmate, poking her in the leg. Then, still giggling, he answered a question by saying he equally likes playing basketball and hunting deer. He was honored two years ago in the longhouse with his first kill ceremony.

After her game, Daisy Begay, 17, said she's applying for a tribal scholarship to attend Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., and wants to become a fish biologist.

She isn't sure where she wants to go after college, but for now she's leaning toward coming home to the river.

Celilo Village commemoration
What: An event to remember the 50th anniversary of the loss of Celilo Falls.
When: Starts at 10 a.m. both March 10-11
Where: Celilo Village, I-84 Exit 97 near The Dalles.
Details: Includes a traditional salmon dinner, Celilo Falls history exhibit, stick games, canoe ceremony and honoring ceremony.
Tickets: Free
More information: or call 1-888-289-1855

Great River of the West
What: Great River of the West percussion concerto
When: 7:30 p.m. March 6
Where: Cordiner Hall, 280 Boyer Ave. at Whitman College, Walla Walla
Details: The piece composed by Forrest Pierce is inspired by the Columbia River, and includes instrumentation with natural objects like wood, tree bows and rocks. The central movement features Celilo Falls.
Tickets: $12-$25
More information: or call 509-529-8020

Remembering Celilo: Indian Fishing and the Columbia River
What: An event presented by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and Tribal Leadership Forum
When: March 8-9
Where: Lloyd Center Double Tree Hotel in Portland.
Details: The event will highlight issues surrounding tribal treaty fishing rights, salmon, the Endangered Species Act and the Columbia River. The program is accredited by regional bar associations and offers continuing education for legal professionals, scholars and students.
Tickets: $400 per person
More information: 503-238-0667

An Evening to Remember Celilo Falls
What: Columbia Riverkeeper's historical photo exhibit on Celilo Falls
When: 7 p.m., March 10
Where: Hood River Hotel, 102 Oak St., Hood River.
Details: Historical photo exhibit, movie, audio recordings and personal accounts of life at the falls, Native American basketry, salmon hors d'oeuvres and no-host bar.
Tickets: $20
More information: or call 541-387-3030

Multnomah County Library exhibit
What: Celilo Falls: The 50th anniversary of the flooding of Wy-am
When: Through March 13, call for hours or appointment
Where: Multnomah County Library, 801 SW 10th Ave., Portland.
Details: The exhibit features rare photographs, documents and maps that show the importance of Celilo Falls to Native Americans and to the broader American society.
Tickets: Free
More information: 503-988-6287 or e-mail to

Celilo stories: New conversations about an ancient place
What: Free public symposium offered by The Center for Columbia River History
When: March 17-18
Where: Gorge Discovery Center, 5000 Discovery Drive, The Dalles.
Details: The event features more than 20 scholars, authors, artists and tribal elders who will discuss Celilo's legacy.
Tickets: Free
More information:

Blessing at Celilo Falls
What: A traditional blessing will be conducted at Celilo Park for the Confluence Project
When: 3 p.m. March 18
Where: Celilo Park, I-84 Exit 97 near The Dalles.
Details: The blessing is the first step toward installation of artist Maya Lin's Celilo artwork for the Columbia River Confluence Project.
Tickets: Free
More information: or call 360-693-0123

Tamastslikt Cultural Institute's Celilo exhibit
What: Pawiyalst'aksha Wayamna, Memorializing the Death of the Sound of the Falls
When: Through June 10
Where: Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, 72789 Highway 331, Pendleton.
Details: The exhibit will feature Celilo memorabilia, aerial photographs of Celilo Falls, rare photos and artifacts.
Tickets: $6 adults, $4 students, children 5 and younger free
More information: or call 541-966-9748

Anna King
50 years after flooding Celilo Falls
Tri-City Herald, March 4, 2007

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