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Ancient Petroglyphs Finally Returned Home

by Grant McOmie, April 20, 2004

Ancient Petroglyphs finally returned home After nearly half a century, the government has made good on a terrible mistake that was made during the era of the Columbia River dams construction period. Near The Dalles Dam, ancient artifacts - thousands of years old - have been returned to their historic home.

For just a moment put yourself in the shoes of native people who fished for salmon at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. For five thousand years, the people and the place were centerpiece of the most productive salmon fishery of the Pacific Northwest.

The heritage ended when The Dalles dam was finished in 1957 and the rising Columbia River flooded the site forever. However, less known is what happened just downriver from Celilo at "Tamani Pesh-Wa" or "Written on the Rock;" a place the locals called "Petroglyph Canyon."

Viola Kalama, a Wasco tribal elder, remembers the place well: "It was very sacred - that canyon of rocks - pictured rocks and that's where the people went to get their spiritual help."

Ancient Petroglyphs finally returned home Viola adds that it's important to think of the canyon like a community church, a holy place. And then imagine how you'd feel if someone took your church's most valued objects away. That's what happened when Viola was a young woman in 1956 and the National Park Service selected 43 petroglyphs (rock etchings), from the hundreds that were on the canyon walls, to be removed.

The government wanted to save the petroglyphs, so they were blasted or jack-hammered off the canyon walls. Trouble was, they never asked the tribe's permission.

"We cried," Viola recalls. "A lot of people felt so bad, you know - they just cried and mourned - it was like some loved one had been lost."

Like so many forgotten promises, the petroglyphs were stored under a fishway at The Dalles Dam for decades, but in the late 1980s, things changed and the tribes insisted that the sacred relics be restored.

According to tribal anthropologist, Brigette Whipple, the tribes gave the government little choice: "You are going to negotiate with us and you're not going to stop us. That was our attitude. You're going to give us funding for this because you owe us."

Last year, the Army Corp of Engineers cleaned and restored the petroglyphs before carefully moving them to Horsethief Butte State Park in Washington. The collection, bordered by a paved trail for easy public viewing, is less than a mile from the long flooded Petroglyph Canyon.

Corp's architect, Gail Lovell says, "we really did want to do the right thing and we wanted to put them wherever they wanted them. We just hope the public comes to respect that and view it as such."

Perhaps people will view it as such: an old mistake that's been corrected.

From Oregon: driving east or west on I-84, take exit #87 and drive north on U.S. 197 across the Columbia River bridge. Continue north about four miles to SR 14, and turn right, heading east. The park is located at milepost-85.

Grant McOmie
Ancient Petroglyphs Finally Returned Home, April 20, 2004

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