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Remembering Celilo Falls

by Emily Alpert, staff writer
The Dalles Chronicle, July 10, 2006

Upcoming documentary tells complex story of 20th Century decisions

Fishing at Celilo Falls In 1957, Ed Edmo watched his village, Celilo, go underwater. "My dad took me out of school to see it," said Edmo, who is of Yakama and Nez Perce descent. "It was like a bad dream. I couldn't believe it."

Celilo Falls, where he grew up, was once known as 'The Wall Street of the West,' a bustling Native American fishery and trading post. With the completion of The Dalles Dam, however, Celilo was inundated, its people scattered, and the Columbia River was forever changed.

This week, Oregon Public Broadcasting will screen a new documentary film that revisits Celilo and the dam that erased it. The film, "Celilo Falls and the Remaking of the Columbia River," was written, directed and produced by Joseph Cone, assistant director of communications at the Oregon Sea Grant program.

Cone, whose work deals primarily with salmon conservation, became aware of Celilo Falls and its history in the 1970s, when he moved to Oregon. Ten years ago, a coworker shared a short home movie of Celilo Falls with Cone, shot by his grandfather in the early '50s. The rare color footage was the genesis of Cone's film, which he worked on intermittently over a ten-year period.

"I'm trying to tell a complex story complexly," said Cone. "I wanted to account for its 10,000 years of use and meaning from the Native perspective, but also to contextualize the development of the Columbia, and the motivations for that development."

Before the dam, the Columbia's rapids brought massive salmon runs to local fishers, who cast nets in the turbid waters of the falls. "Klamath people of my dad's generation -- their faces light up" recalling Celilo Falls, said Kathleen Hill, co-author of The Si'lailo Way: Indians, Salmon and Law on the Columbia River.

Fishing at Celilo Falls It was also an important cultural site: Edmo remembers salmon feasts and war dances at the Celilo longhouse, which brought Native people from as far as Idaho.

"The dam replaced all that with a lake," said Katrine Barber, author of Death of Celilo Falls. "In the 1950s, that seemed like a really good trade-off to some people ... They traded these wild, rapid rivers for lakes that could be used for transportation networks, that could be controlled for flooding, that produced hydroelectric power." Today, The Dalles Dam produces 1.8 million kilowatts of power, enough to power Portland twice.

In addition, explained Barber, many thought that manufacturing industries like aluminum and titanium, which benefited from the dam, would be more sustainable than resource extraction, like fishing.

To reveal this perspective, Cone used early public relations films from the Bonneville Power Administration, which he described as "well done and quite persuasive in their promotion of the development." In one BPA film, 'Look to the River,' Native fisherman are contrasted with "tugs and barges on the Columbia, rail transportation moving products in different directions. It makes them look like they're doing nothing."

With the construction of the dam, those who depended heavily on fishing -- primarily Native American peoples -- lost out. Salmon declined.

"The dams were one of the last major changes to the river that decimated the abundant salmon runs," said Elizabeth Woody, director of Ecotrust's Indigenous Leadership Program. "It covered up the most visible fishing village on the whole Columbia River."

Hill added,"It was a terrible loss -- not only for the tribes, who were directly impacted, but also for the non-Indian people of Oregon, who have memories of the fishing, of being engaged in the excitement."

Drowning the falls also took a human toll. Edmo's family and 35 others at Celilo were displaced, with limited government assistance. "We were split up between two states, five counties and three reservations," he said. "It was like a bomb hit, and everyone scattered."

Barber explained that though some displacees moved to 'New Celilo Village' (now known simply as Celilo Village,) most dispersed. "The government offered a $500 incentive if families were willing to move at least ten miles away," she said. "The people who were most dependent upon income from the fishery -- people at the height of their wage-earning, people with kids -- couldn't turn down that kind of money. The only ones who stayed were the elderly, and very young children. It was no longer a viable community."

"The dam-building on the Columbia River fits into a larger pattern of the taking of Indian wealth by non-Indian people," she concluded. "For me, that's the most significant part of this story."

Cone says regardless of "whether you think it's a good thing or a bad thing, or something else, something crystallized at Celilo Falls. There was a change in the way we understand the Columbia, from a natural system that the Indians were accustomed to, to the ways we use the Columbia today."

To round out his story, Cone used archival photos and video from the Library of Congress, the Oregon Historical Society and an independent film archivist in Portland. Hill regularly recommends the film for use by high school teachers and university professors, and the Center for Columbia River History will use Cone's documentary in a series of library programs on Celilo, culminating in a Celilo symposium next March on the 50th anniversary of the inundation.

The thirty-minute film will broadcast on Oregon Public Broadcasting at 10:30 p.m. July 12, 4:30 a.m. July 14, and 2:30 p.m. July 16. DVD copies are available from Oregon Sea Grant, 322 Kerr Administration Building, OSU, Corvallis, OR 97331

Emily Alpert, staff writer
Remembering Celilo Falls
The Dalles Chronicle, July 10, 2006

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