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Enduring Village

by Cory Eldridge
The Dalles Chronicle, July 27, 2008

After 50 years, Celilo's new homes are in place, but are they the measure of success?

As Karen Whitford sits at the laminate-topped foldout table to sign the lease for her new home at Celilo Village, a new gallery-size, amber-tone print of an aged photograph hangs on the wall before her. Chief Tommy Thompson, shoulders rolled forward by age, stands on a bare, weathered rock dressed in his white buckskins and knee-length feather bonnet, holding a fan of eagle feathers. Behind him, water tumbles in a torrent over Celilo Falls and Chief Thompson's face, as bare and weathered as the rock, creases in a smile.

As a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officer organizes the papers, Whitford's eyes trace the photograph, moving from Thompson to the falls and back, and the first word she speaks cracks. She says memories of Thompson, her parents and so many other lost elders stream through her - the history they saw, suffered, survived.

"I don't know of any other place that went through something like we did," she says, looking at the BIA officer. "Maybe, I feel like, we're the only ones in the world."

Even the tribes to which the residents at Celilo Village belong don't understand them, don't understand the village, she says. Then she looks at the photograph and what she says next isn't to the officer or his support staff, not to her husband, not to the photographer making pictures of her tears. It must be to Chief Thompson, the one she calls the wise old man, a holy person. Or maybe it's to the memories.

"They don't realize that we're fighting for our fishing rights, our religion, for this river. We could have moved onto the reservation, but that was not our choice. Our choice was to stay at Celilo. I've watched the elders, my parents. I've read the records - all the abuse and all the heartache and all the struggle for the people here... Families divided in the enrollment act. For that falls to disappear," she whispers, "irreplaceable."

Whitford slides her hands down her face, wiping tears away. She looks over at the BIA agent and says, "It's happened. The falls isn't here." Then she smiles, saying, "If we had a choice, we'd take the falls."

She laughs, and so does the BIA man, who says, "Oh, I've learned that." "I wish we had been strong like the Sioux," Whitford says, her voice swaying somewhere between laughing and crying. "The Sioux didn't give up the Black Hills; I wish our people had never given up the falls."

She takes a black ink pen from the officer and signs the document that gives her part of what Chief Thompson, her parents (Maggie Waters Jim and Chief Howard Jim, Chief Thompson's successor), and all those other lost elders fought so long to receive but never saw.

As the words Karen Jim Whitford dry on the page, she says her father always told her to make decisions that will benefit the next seven generations at Celilo. "And we did something for the seven generations to come," she says.

Over the next month, Whitford and the other residents at Celilo Village moved from their temporary trailers into their new homes built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fulfill its 50-year-old promise to replace the houses destroyed by The Dalles Dam with a suitable village. According to the goals of the project, work is all but finished. The village has new homes and a functioning, up-to-code infrastructure. The last piece of the project, a BIA administration and classroom building, will be finished by September.

But does the project's completion equal success for Celilo? None of the groups involved in the development - village residents, the BIA, the Corps, the tribes - argue it does. How, given Celilo's history, can they measure success in buildings or years? What does success even mean at Celilo?


No ghost haunts the collective memory of the Columbia River Gorge with the same determination as Celilo Falls. All along the river, black-and-white, sepia and water-colored photographs of men plunging dip nets after salmon from rickety scaffolds jutting over the frothing water decorate walls in homes, offices, clinics, classrooms and lobbies.

The name Celilo has been used, or co-opted depending on the beholder, by a restaurant, a medical facility, a media consultation firm, an archery group, vineyard, a rock band and a converter station. Even the reservoir created by The Dalles Dam, the one that covers the falls, is named Celilo Lake.

For this region, Celilo Falls symbolizes the sacrifices demanded, whether justifiably or not, by modernity, progress, economics, survival, and success. Texas has memories of massive longhorn herds, southern California remembers clean air, Cleveland is a factory graveyard, and here the gorge eulogizes a wild river filled with vibrant salmon runs.

In a region with so few monuments to an ancient or even pre-Civil War past, the photographs of the falls provide witness to the sacrifice and elicit a sense of a long-ago existence - something beyond the memory of one or two generations. Except that the men in the photographs wear pants and suspenders, button-down shirts and jean jackets, baseball caps and cowboy hats. In the background of many photos, cars line the river edge, railroad tracks lie nearby, The Dalles-Celilo Canal cuts around the south side of the falls, and a still-used black railroad bridge crosses the river downstream.

The photos don't show the falls as it was before, the way Lewis and Clark saw it, the way it had been for millennia when the site served as the region's great place for fishing, trade, council and religion. They don't show an ancient past, either real or mythical.

The photos show a falls in its last decades, already changing, already affected by modernity. And they show that despite the changes, despite the effects of the wars, the treaties, and the reservations, the few who lived there year-round and those thousands who migrated with the salmon still held their history, their livelihood, their religion and their culture.


Antone Minthorn saw the last gathering of Indians at Celilo Falls, before it became another casualty on the list started by Bonneville Dam. He remembers the people before the enrollment act forced all but the most tenacious into artificial tribal groups and onto reservations their families had avoided for a hundred years. Minthorn never lived in the village, and he only fished there one year, but he remembered the place when he became a political power among Northwest tribal leaders.

How could he forget? He stood on the scaffold's rickety planks, breathing in the enveloping mist. The roar of the water, which echoed off the basalt cliffs and gave the small tribe that lived near Celilo its name, Wy-am, engulfed his hearing. He plunged his 18-foot pole into the rush, let the force pull the hoop-net down until he felt it hit the salmon, and waited for the frantic energy of a fish thrashing in its threads to stream up the pole to his hands. Then he yanked the pole, closing the net, and pulled the fat fish onto the rocks.

Five decades later, in the darkest hours of morning, Bobby Begay drives his fishing boat across the waters that cover the falls Minthorn fished. Begay and his teenage children, lifelong residents at Celilo Village, extend an 800-foot net in a sweeping, concave arc facing downstream, then drift with the current and haul the nets in with a powered wheel (a unique feature among Celilo fishing boats). He brings the fish to shore around 5 a.m., and as the salmon get gutted he returns to the river to set anchored, floating gillnets, docking by mid-morning.

Begay then takes the fish to market, sleeps for a few hours, or goes to his regular job as a fisheries technician with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fishing Commission, which sometimes means driving to Portland. Late in the afternoon, he returns to the river to check the nets. It takes hours to pull them in, remove the fish, store the catch in chests, and rid the net of any large clumps of seaweed, twigs or garbage.

He brings the boat in for the last time that day, cleans the fish and nets, and prepares the gear for drift-netting the next morning, just a few hours away. Then he sleeps. He does this every fishing season, sometimes for days upon days. He's lived at Celilo Village his entire life, and he never forgets the importance of the river.

When he wakes, he pilots his boat away from the dock. The river he crosses may be glassy or choppy, but always quiet.


Thousands of people crowded the Oregon Trail Highway and Washington cliff tops to watch The Dalles Dam close its gates on March 10, 1957. As 22 of the 23 gates shut for the first time, the river stopped and then swelled and swallowed rocks untouched by the river since the Missoula floods that carved the Columbia River Gorge more than 14,000 years ago.

Fifteen miles away, a smaller crowd watched the back-flowing water reach Celilo Falls. Karen Whitford, then just a young girl, saw the river rise. Her mother, Maggie Waters Jim, and other Indian women climbed on the cliffs that echoed the fading roar of the falls, and keened. Mourning the falls as it died, the women wailed until the last rapid became a ripple, then a swirl, then still. The Dalles Dam reservoir, Celilo Lake, filled in 4 hours and 30 minutes.

The inundation was the most destructive act at Celilo Falls, but not the first. The Corps built a railway bridge that cut across an island of the falls in 1894. In 1915, the 8½-mile-long The Dalles-Celilo Canal was finished, cutting around the south side of the falls. The village's homes lay along the river then, and the U.S. government demolished some dwellings, making the residents relocate nearby. The Union Pacific Railroad caused further relocation and the Oregon Trail Highway restricted the village even more.

Then in 1938 the Bonneville Dam closed its gates, inundated villages and fisheries upstream and sent displaced Indians to Celilo Village. This sole dam threatened to break an 80-year-old promise made to the tribes.

When the Yakama, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes, along with a loosely connected group called the Columbia River Indians, signed the treaties now collectively called the Treaty of 1855 and ceded their lands to the U.S. government, they required the right to live and fish at their traditional sites.

Though other elements of the treaty were abused or abandoned, high courts treated these fishing rights as sacrosanct. Before the dams, the U.S. Supreme Court twice ruled for fishing rights on the Columbia River. A lower court upheld the treaty just five years before the completion of Bonneville Dam. In 1939 Congress charged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the dam's builder, to not just pay compensation for property (which was often a pittance) but to replace 40 destroyed fishing sites. The Corps received no money to complete the "in lieu" sites, and 80 years later, though some sites have been built, the project remains unfinished.

Bonneville, a bolded, highlighted, pure-success-if-you-never-mind-the-Indians project in President Roosevelt's New Deal résumé, provided so much to the region in terms of flood control, river navigation and power it guaranteed more dams. The Dalles offered a great location, and its citizens lobbied hard for a dam. There was a fight, but the opposition, mostly white salmon barons and Indians, were shouted down by the arguments of progress, prosperity and popularity.

In anticipation, the BIA, which has overseen the village since 1929, decided to build a new village in the shadow of the cliffs across the highway and railroad tracks from the falls. The agency purchased 30 structures from the Army in 1947, and then left the prefabricated walls and roofs at the site for months, exposed and warping. The village residents opposed the plan, but 10 homes and communal drying sheds were erected and leased to residents in 1949.

Congress authorized the Corps to construct The Dalles Dam in 1950. The BIA, finding its 10 homes inadequate for the hundreds of people living at the old village, wrangled the Corps into funding a relocation plan. That put the Corps into Celilo's life for the next five decades.

By this time, termination, the policy to abolish tribes and assimilate their members into the wider, white culture, became Eisenhower's policy. As part of the relocation, many Columbia River Indians - a group unrecognized by the government but still guaranteed treaty rights - were forced, even bullied, to join the Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes. The enrollment, which would make ending the government's treaty responsibilities easier, split small tribes and bands along the Columbia River among the larger tribes.

Before this period of enrollment, many fulltime Celilo residents, including Chief Tommy Thompson, were Columbia River Indians not connected or bound to a reservation. Now, just a few hold that title.

Celilo's relocation sped the breakups started by enrollment. When 50 families applied for relocation assistance, only 36 were approved and then only five were allowed to stay at Celilo. In 1956, four new, stick-built homes were constructed at the new Celilo Village for these families. (Though only two survived the years, these last homes were much better structures than the original ten.) The fifth family moved into one of the original BIA houses. The other 31 families went to reservations, surrounding communities or the Portland area, the home of more Indians than any other place in Oregon.


With the relocation over, the new village built and the falls gone, the Corps - and the BIA to a lesser extent - left Celilo.

Since then, Celilo Village has existed in a political abyss unique in the United States. Nearly every government and tribal body that could bear responsibility to the village does, and none, until the late 1990s, regularly fulfilled those responsibilities. The argument over who owns Celilo Village - and who has jurisdiction - rises often, but the United States government has held just one view, last articulated in 1974: Not a reservation, Celilo Village is owned by the United States and held in trust by the BIA for the use of the Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes and Columbia River Indians.

That distinction made Celilo Village the eye of a decades-long storm of government negligence. The land is federally owned, so no state or county money reaches it. The land is not a reservation, so Congress allocates it no money. Residents at the village have belonged to all three tribes, or none, so the little reservation money sent there goes to individuals, not the village. To even access their reservations' services, tribal members must drive at least 80 miles, at most 120.


In February 2006, Olsen Meanus stared up at the sagging ceiling of his house, inspecting the cracks and fissures winding across it like varicose veins. Just 46 then, the history of hundreds of rodeos and the lash of the river's wind creased his face. A naked 40-watt light bulb dangling above him casts his deep-set eyes in a soft, yellowed hue. The heavy lines brought by the burden of serving as chief were shallow then.

"Man," he said, turning to look out his window at the other homes and trailers on the village's west half, "we live in our own third world here."

The Corps' options for the layout of the redevelopment project's homes sat propped against the windows in a room attached to the new longhouse. They faced out so anyone walking by could see them and voice any problems. Even with the project's $13 million already appropriated to the Corps by Congress, the longhouse completed and a new sewage reservoir being dug, many residents thought the project would collapse.

The longhouse, though appealing, was not the most important thing to happen at the village in the past year. Chief Howard Jim had died. With him went a piece of the village's soul. One of his grandchildren, Billy Jim, had said, "Like if God or Mary came through the door, when Chief Howard and his wife came in people would do what they asked. Go to Sunday service, hunt, and gather roots; we did it with a good heart."

Now that Chief Howard was gone, only one resident at Celilo remains who saw the falls as an adult. In her mid-90s, the woman received, and still receives, universal awe and respect like none other in the village.

Though Chief Howard's eldest male grandchild, Chief Olsen received little grooming for his position. The elders' selection actually surprised him. He didn't receive special lessons from Chief Howard on how to lead the salmon feast or how to welcome visiting tribes the way he had to at the 50th anniversary of Celilo Falls' death last year. He wasn't taught the nuances of politics. He was expected to learn them by watching the ceremonies, by sitting at his elders' feet as a child, by being a member of the village, through "Indian education." Chief Meanus, in the weeks leading to his confirmation ceremony, said he didn't always feel prepared. His elders said the skills he needed would rise.

As the first fishing season opened that year, Chief Olsen stood in the village's tottering dancehall and showed his son, Shaniko, how to string a gillnet. As a portable radio blasted AC/DC, the chief drew a loop of the green nylon net and held it and the rope in his left hand. With his right, he sent a large plastic needle threaded with white nylon string through the loop, wrapped it around the rope, passed the needle back through a circle made by the white nylon and cinched the net, rope and string together.

Chief Olsen handed the needle and net to Shaniko, saying, "My uncle taught me this. He gave me a net and said, 'Make it.'"

Chief Olsen stood in the doorway of the dancehall for a while, watching his son fumble with the net, but he never intervened. Shaniko needed to learn on his own, needed to ingrain the motions into his hands so he can teach them to his sons. So he can give them this piece of their Indian education.

That knowledge now lives in Shaniko's fingers and the new home he inhabits. He knows that everything that happened at Celilo, everything his ancestors fought for since the falls disappeared, compels him to hold onto these things.

Cory Eldridge
Enduring Village
The Dalles Chronicle, July 27, 2008

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