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Echoes from Celilo Speak Volumes Today

by Pat Ford
The Oregonian, March 8, 2007


Fifty years ago this month, an American tradition of many thousands of years was silenced. In March 1957, on the Columbia River east of Portland, The Dalles Dam was closed. The rising waters of its reservoir silenced Celilo Falls and its companion cascades and drowned one of North America's greatest fishing, gathering and trading places.

Two visual icons of the Columbia River are known most widely: the great sweep of Grand Coulee Dam and the cascades at Celilo Falls, where Native American fishermen on planks worked with spear and net over churning waters. The first shows what was gained in the river's brief span of dam-building, the second what was lost. Both gain and loss were great.

So consider a question: If Celilo Falls still roared today, would we choose to drown it and all it hosted for 800 average megawatts of electricity? Even those who might still argue for the dam would probably agree that America and the Northwest would likely choose not to.

Clearly, the tribes that lost so much in 1957 have far more sway today with the legal, scientific and political power they've since built. It's also likely that one-of-a-kind Celilo would seize the imagination, just as large dams did back then. And even if the choice were made strictly on economics, that analysis would show Celilo Falls worth more for prosperity -- in terms of livelihoods, commerce and climate -- than the dam.

I don't belittle the past and present benefits of The Dalles Dam. But today Celilo's falls and fisheries, sights and sounds, places and uses, would deliver something more valuable than electricity. If we could reach back and have that decision to make again, it would likely be different.

There's a lesson here for the choices we face today. Salmon are endangered across the Northwest, and we must decide how to respond. By "we" I mean Northwest citizens and our elected leaders. For at least the next two years we will have no real federal partner in restoring salmon or fostering dialogue toward solutions among all who have vested interests in the waters of the Columbia. Many good federal workers would help if they could, but they're not in charge.

So with the ghosts of Celilo Falls over our shoulders, looking with us into our future, how will we respond?

As I listen to those who knew Celilo, a lesson emerges that is lost in today's debates. We tend to isolate salmon -- an endangered species, a numbered/tagged/tracked resource, a cared-for thing to weigh against others. But Celilo says salmon cannot be plucked out of places -- the gathering places that salmon, people, land and water make together. When we lose wild salmon, we lose the places of our lives as God gave them to us and us to them. When we restore salmon, we restore our places with theirs. Places to gather, talk and trade, to live, grow up and, in departing, hand on.

People who remember the life of Celilo are now doing a hard thing, with intention. They are remembering its death, reopening the deep and dark wounds it left. May we learn from their act.

We are close to forgetting what salmon abundance is, and gives. We are close to accepting the flawed foundation, concealed but so clear, of today's federal salmon policy: That our future must be less than our past, our places for life fewer and emptier. That bountiful salmon lighting our rivers cannot coexist with light in our homes. That the surge and sustenance of salmon is dying for us now, and dead for our children 50 years from now.

Pat Ford is executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Echoes from Celilo Speak Volumes Today
The Oregonian, March 8, 2007

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