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Bury my Heart at Celilo Falls

by Matt Love
The Oregonian, February 19, 2006

Whenever I'm in the vicinity of The Dalles, I pull off Interstate 84 at exit 97 to visit Celilo Park. There, I walk a few feet to the Columbia River's edge, where, a few feet farther out, Celilo Falls used to be.

On each visit I ask the same two questions: What was the awesome roaring sound here really like? And when is someone going to write a book documenting how the falls came to be drowned by a dam in 1957, arguably the single most poignant cultural episode in the history of the Pacific Northwest?

I'll never know the answer to the first question. As to the second, thankfully, "Death of Celilo Falls" by Katrine Barber has arrived. Barber, an assistant professor of history at Portland State University and an associate at the Center for Columbia River History, has written the first book-length treatment of the Celilo Falls inundation. It simply is a must-read for anyone interested in this momentous regional event.

At 10 a.m. on March 10, 1957, an engineer at The Dalles Dam gave the "down gates" command. Less than five hours later, Celilo Falls was dead, and so was the 10,000-year-old spiritual and economic tradition of thousands of Native Americans who gathered there to trade and fish for salmon.

About 10,000 people showed up to watch the inundation, in what must have been an agonizing experience for members of the four affected tribes: the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce.

As far back as the 1920s, the federal government envisioned 10 large dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. In 1946 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held its first public meeting about building a dam in the vicinity of Celilo Falls. By 1950 President Truman had approved the project. Congress appropriated the funds in 1952. During the run-up to the dam's construction, The Dalles Chamber of Commerce and The Dalles Chronicle provided enthusiastic, relentless and, as Barber reports, often racist support of the project.

What is especially fascinating about Barber's book is its showing how the federal government framed this project (and all dam projects) as essential to winning the Cold War. The propaganda was: Dams mean cheap electricity, boundless economic growth, more jobs and a defeated Soviet Union. In that context, how could native peoples and their ancient customs stand in the way?

They couldn't. Although Barber documents some opposition to the project, the march to build the dam at Celilo Falls had an inexorable feel to it. Thus, with the decision made, the last half of the book examines the relocation and compensation issues surrounding the four affected tribes. The federal government paid out a combined $29 million, a dubious sum in that the formula used to determine it seemed, as Barber explains, wholly flawed, even absurd.

A few problems mar this book. For one, the voices of the affected tribes are mostly absent, a jarring omission that Barber is not to blame for since they apparently refused to participate in her project. Second, in spots the narrative arc of this story is completely lost as Barber jumps back and forth, choosing a thematic and analytical approach rather than a chronological one.

Nevertheless, Barber has produced an important book that others, including writers, artists, shamans, perhaps even politicians, will reference for facts and insights as they interpret or reinterpret what happened only a half-century ago.

And, with a pun fully intended, one can expect a bursting dam of interpretations in 2007, the 50th anniversary of the death of Celilo Falls. How fascinating it will be to watch how this event will be remembered, officially and unofficially. This story is not over.

Matt Love recently wrote about the cult of Lewis and Clark for The Oregonian.
Bury my Heart at Celilo Falls
The Oregonian, February 19, 2006

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