Tribes Gather for Salmon Celebrationby Kristi Turnquist
The Oregonian, April 16, 2001
The fishing village of Celilo plays host to a festival honoring a food source that is viewed as sacred
CELILO -- While Portland residents attended church and said prayers on Easter Sunday, a different kind of worship was taking place in the tiny fishing village of Celilo east of The Dalles in the Columbia River Gorge.
Meeting on land where their ancestors had gathered for 10,000 years, members of the Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes convened for an ancient celebration, the Celilo Wyam Salmon Feast and Pow-Wow.
Most of the estimated 1,000 people who participated in the three-day celebration, which concluded Sunday, were affiliated with the tribes. But the event is free and open to the general public.
"It's good that they know our spiritual side and our religious side, what salmon means to us," said Bobby Begay, who coordinates the festival. "Salmon is our sacred food."
The message seemed especially important this year, when a budding Northwest drought has contributed to an energy crisis. The Bonneville Power Administration is set to re-declare a power emergency today because of the water shortage, a move that will bar the spilling of water from federal dams for at least two more weeks. Releasing water from the dams is part of the salmon recovery plan, designed to help bolster endangered runs of salmon.
Complicating the situation is one of the biggest salmon runs in years -- the April chinook fishing season on the Columbia River is the first one in 23 years. The fate of the salmon was on the minds of many. One notable attendee, Steven Wright, BPA's acting administrator, was there to experience the event, not talk about the issue.
"It's bittersweet," said Charles Hudson, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "But this is a day of celebration."
Tucked between basalt cliffs and the now-calm Columbia River, Celilo is near the site of the legendary Celilo Falls, an ancient tribal fishing area. "Wyam," the tribal word for Celilo, translates as "echo of the water against the rocks." An ideal natural fishing site, Celilo Falls was a gathering place for thousands of years where people would come to fish, trade and meet friends and family. There has been a "first salmon" feast on the site for as long as anyone can remember, Begay said.
But the old Celilo Falls was swept away in 1957 with the completion of The Dalles Dam, which buried the falls in water. As one looks from Celilo toward the Washington side now, the once cascading Columbia is, on a quiet morning, as still as glass.
"Some tribal people say Celilo Falls was the Wall Street of pre-contact America, a huge social center," said Hudson, 41.
"It was Salmon Central, Salmon Street," said Begay, 32, as he sliced open a fat, silvery chinook, revealing the deep-orange flesh inside. Nearby, other men labored, cooking salmon on large grills over wood fires, arranging salmon filets on sticks around a low fire and hanging filets against the side of the longhouse to dry.
Begay, who also works for the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, is too young to have seen Celilo Falls, but he grew up hearing "how amazing it was," he said. "We'll never know how many fish were really here. But they say you could almost walk across the falls. You'd wake up in the morning and smell it. You'd wake up and hear the rumble of it."
As the feast -- which celebrates traditional tribal foods of salmon, deer, elk and roots -- was about to be served, the sound of drums from the longhouse mingled with the sweet, smoky tang of the grilling fish and meat.
Ella Jim, 59, took a break from her duties to compare the longhouse to a church.
And she credited the strong salmon run to the power of tribal prayers to the creator.
"The fish are finally coming back," Jim said, "which is what our people prayed for."
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