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Gorge Petroglyphs Moved to Place of Honor

by Terry Richard
The Oregonian, March 28, 2004

Ancient Petroglyphs finally returned home Nearly a half-century ago, rising waters behind The Dalles Dam forever changed a wild stretch of the Columbia River, submerging salmon-rich Celilo Falls, the Long Narrows below it and hundreds of ancient sacred petroglyphs.

The surrounding lands long had been a gathering place for people from the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and other tribes. Some lived there permanently, while thousands more visited seasonally to harvest spawning salmon, to practice their religion and to join the annual opportunity to trade and socialize.

The petroglyphs -- drawings that were chipped or ground into rock to depict tribal legends, hunting scenes and mysticism -- are evidence of these gatherings. One narrow slot just above the river had so many thousands of drawings that it was named Petroglyph Canyon.

But as the reservoir rose behind the new dam, most of these rocks were covered by water. A few were pried away and stored at the dam, perched against a wall of the fish ladder beneath roosting birds -- not a fitting home for what tribal elders consider sacred icons that provide a cultural connection between modern people and their ancestors.

A plan to give them a more fitting, permanent home took shape in 1996, and eight years later 43 petroglyph-covered rocks have been moved to Washington's Columbia Hills State Park, an hour-and-a-half drive east from Portland. They will be displayed for the first time when the park opens for the season Thursday.

Ancient Petroglyphs finally returned home Lillian Pitt, 60, a member of the Warm Springs, Wasco and Yakama tribes, remembers how she cried in 1957 as the reservoir rose to flood the sacred land of her people. She cried with joy this year when she saw the new home of the rock images.

"We don't know who made the drawings, or why," said Pitt, a Portland artist whose work is featured in the Oregon Convention Center and on TriMet's new light rail line. "Some are thousands of years old, perhaps made by the First People (tribes). Some images, like the deer, are obvious, but we don't know what the others mean.

"The removal and placement of the rocks has been very successful," she said. "The respect given them was phenomenal. It's great to have the move completed because it took so many years. Now the blessed rocks are clean and won't be covered by bird droppings again."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates The Dalles Dam, played the lead role in the $100,000 relocation project. Corps landscape artist Gail Lovell worked with tribal elders, Washington parks and the Bonneville Power Administration to accomplish the six-mile move to the recently renamed state park.

Formerly called Horsethief Lake, the state park is indisputably the best place to see native petroglyphs in the Northwest. The park is also home to Tsagaglalal, "She Who Watches," one of the most famous rock images in North America. Because of past vandalism, viewing of that image is limited to an escorted tour twice a week.

The park's newest petroglyph display is called the Temani Pesh-wa Trail, native for "Written on Rock." Open daily April through October, the paved, wheelchair-accessible trail is separated from the petroglyphs by a wood rail fence. Five alcoves along the 300-foot fence allow viewers to come within 20 feet of the petroglyphs.

Chipped into 5-foot-long rocks, the petroglyphs are easily visible. They depict deer, mountain sheep and the humans who hunt them. They show thunderbirds, owls, fish and a mysterious creature with long flowing tentacles.

Park officials are counting on surveillance cameras and the ever-present staff to discourage visitors from disturbing the display. Federal law prohibits removal of archaeological resources at the site, punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The display eventually will include an additional dozen rocks reclaimed from another site upriver at Roosevelt.

Before being displayed, the rocks were cleaned with air and water (no chemicals) by J. Claire Dean of Portland, one of North America's top ethnographic conservators, who specializes in petroglyphs and other rock images.

When the rocks were removed from storage at The Dalles Dam, they were swathed in natural fibers and trucked in a bed of gravel for protection. None was broken during the move.

Placed on gravel at the base of low cliffs, the rocks will eventually blend with the native vegetation. In this part of the Columbia River Gorge, the short spring growing season features native grasses and brilliant wildflowers.

Facing east upriver, the rocks sit within a mile from where most were taken in Petroglyph Canyon. The canyon is covered by Lake Celilo, the impoundment behind The Dalles Dam.

When members of the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through in 1805, they noticed a settlement of 1,500 at Big Beach in the future park. Before construction of the dam, the Columbia was placid and wide as it passed the settlement, then seemed to turn on its side as it rushed through the Long Narrows with what Clark described as a "bad whorl and suck."

The river's transition afforded a natural setting for large gatherings during late summer. The Native Americans harvested huckleberries nearby at Mount Adams, speared salmon from the Columbia and staged games on one of the rare flat spots along the river.

And they chipped designs on the rock walls of the canyons. Some of those images finally have been given a home that closely matches the respect, awe and wonderment felt for their original site by their creators.

What: Columbia Hills State Park; summer season opens April 1

Why: The Temani Pesh-wa Trail, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., passes 43 rocks decorated with ancient petroglyphs. The restricted "She Who Watches" Trail begins at the same parking lot. Tours offered at 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday, April through October.

Where: From Portland, drive east on Interstate 84 to Exit 88 for The Dalles Bridge. Cross north into Washington and drive three miles to State Route 14. Turn east and drive 11/2 miles to the park's entrance.

Cost: $5 a vehicle for day use

More info: 509-767-1159

Terry Richard
Gorge Petroglyphs Moved to Place of Honor
The Oregonian, March 28, 2004

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