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Still Waters, Stolen Lives

by Eric Mortenson
The Oregonian, March 4, 2007

For centuries, the "salmon people" of Celilo Falls netted nature's bounty,
but 50 years ago their Columbia fishing grounds were dammed and buried

CELILO VILLAGE -- Karen Jim Whitford quickly spreads the word: food in the longhouse, come get a box. Within minutes, Ada Frank, a tiny woman and one of the tribal elders, arrives, followed by Gina Meanus, the chief's wife.

"I can't tell you how happy I am to get this." Meanus says. "My cupboard was about empty."

Kids stream in from the collection of single-wide mobile homes that dot the village. Karen's older brother, Ronny, rolls up in his two-tone Ford pickup, driving because he uses a cane.

Women divide up the groceries. In the old days, the village mothers and grandmothers split and cleaned salmon caught in the thundering falls less than a mile from here -- now entombed behind a Columbia River dam and walled off by railroad tracks and four lanes of Interstate 84. Today the women cheerfully sort boxes of Froot Loops and Cream of Wheat, piles of frosted energy bars, jugs of strawberry syrup, bottles of salad dressing and half a dozen kinds of juice.

It's an unexpected bounty. A hobbling, 84-year-old white preacher from Portland, Donald Cline, arrived out of the blue with "First Nation Ministries" painted on the side of his pickup and a trailer full of store food past its pull date. He stopped at Karen's driveway, prayed with her and her husband, Fred Whitford, and unloaded 18 food boxes at the longhouse.

Karen, 55, directs the distribution. She grew up in Celilo Village, and her late father, Howard Jim, was a chief. She's one of the village's organizers these days, returned to help her people after many years away.

They need help. A 1998 study by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation showed that nearly all of the then-50 village residents lived below the poverty level. They come to the longhouse in basketball shoes without laces, some in soiled clothing. A few smiles lack teeth.

Homes here, jammed at the base of brown basalt cliffs lining the Columbia, have missing siding and broken windows. Dead cars angle between the houses and wind-blown trash mars most sightlines. Dogs trot the gravel road or strain at ropes. A hand-painted "Smoke salmon for sale" sign leans against a dismounted pickup canopy.

Money is short. Last night three families pooled their food for dinner, Karen says. Her cell phone service was just cut off for the third time. Her husband says he made $30 the other day and applied it to the bill, but they still owe $75.

But this month marks a 50-year commemoration of the flooding of Celilo Falls, a once vibrant tribal nexus buried under the flat pool that the Columbia River has become, and it may provide work. Fred and other men hope to get hired to pick up trash for a few days before the activities begin, next weekend. It will be good to make some money, Fred says; the villagers' monthly food stamps won't arrive for 10 days.

Sometimes Karen wonders what they did wrong, for a place they considered sacred to end up like this. But those are thoughts for later.

Now it's time to share and enjoy this gift.

"Isn't this nice, Ada?" she asks the older woman. "Ronny, get a box," she directs.

Someone asks Ronny Jim whether he wants more food, and he declines.

"No, his cup runneth over," Fred quips, and the longhouse rings with laughter.

"That's a good one," Gina Meanus says.

The days of salmon

The people of Celilo for centuries needed no help gathering food.

It was here, about 90 miles east of Portland, that the big river turned on its side, becoming more deep than wide as it shot through a 14-mile series of fierce falls and rapids. Huge migrating salmon were forced into a narrow chute, becoming ready catch as they milled and leapt in the falls.

It may have been the richest freshwater fishery in North America. In October 1805, explorers Lewis and Clark estimated seeing 5 tons of dried salmon stacked in a single village at present-day The Dalles.

The tribes called themselves "salmon people," and they considered salmon a gift from the Creator. Gathering for the seasonal runs, they stood on precarious scaffolds above the roaring water to net chinook and other salmon weighing 40 pounds or more. The main risk of fishing here was in netting two and, because of the sheer weight, being yanked into the falls.

Bands now confederated under the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce nations made Celilo one of the largest economic centers on the continent. Carbon dating of campsites shows that native people used Celilo for at least 10,000 years.

But all of that disappeared in just six hours on March 10, 1957, when the gates closed on The Dalles Dam, eight miles downstream. That action, taken to deliver industrial-strength electricity to the Pacific Northwest, buried a timeless way of life .

Until then, Celilo Falls was a real traffic stopper, Gary Honald says. White people like himself were up there all the time, buying salmon.

"I can certainly remember all that," he says. "I went to the falls with my folks, and you could buy salmon for two bits apiece, buy it right there on the rocks."

He got a job with a painting contractor after high school and at age 19 found himself working on the biggest project the area had ever seen -- The Dalles Dam. He worked as a painter and sandblaster from 1955 to '57 .

Authorized by Congress in 1950, The Dalles Dam was part of an aggressive federal program to harness the Columbia for hydroelectric power. Like the Bonneville Dam downstream and the John Day Dam upriver, however, the reservoirs formed behind them flooded traditional Indian fishing sites.

Led by revered Chief Tommy Thompson, the tribes fiercely fought construction of The Dalles Dam and what they knew would be destruction of the falls. But they couldn't stop what was seen as progress. The village was hastily relocated, and tribal members were paid off in one-time sums approaching $4,000. With those payments came federal promises of sustained fishing levels.

Fifty years later, the wounds are still fresh.

"They hoped we would put down our fishing equipment and walk away," says Carol Craig, a Yakama. "In its death, they thought we would forget about it.

"We haven't."

She was 10 years old when the falls disappeared. She recalls traveling with her family to fish from her grandfather's scaffold, and her father would bring fish for her mother to process. If there were eggs inside, it was like finding gold.

Her mother would boil the eggs in water, adding a touch of salt and onion to the broth. "This is our medicine," she told Carol. "This keeps us well."

Joe Jay Pinkham says he and his fishing partner, Bill Yallup, stood on the bank and watched the water rising. They'd met at Celilo Village as boys when their families came to fish, and they struck up a friendship that would run until they were in their 70s.

Behind them, in the old Celilo Village longhouse, men were singing.

"That was one sad thing to watch," Pinkham says. "The songs they were singing were almost like funeral songs."

He'd come to Celilo since 1939, netting salmon from a spot his family used for generations. He joined the Marines after high school and was swept up in the Korean War in the early 1950s. Twice he traveled the length of the Korean Peninsula: advancing, retreating and advancing again as the bloody fighting ebbed and flowed. When he came back, he resumed his annual fishing trips to Celilo, until the day the water buried the falls.

On that day 50 years ago, Pinkham turned to Yallup and told him it was time to leave. He didn't return to fish in the Columbia for a long time, and when he did so it was 60 miles downstream.

He's 79 now, and executive secretary of the Yakama Nation, based in Toppenish, Wash.

"I think about Celilo," he says. "I think about the salmon I used to catch, the people I knew. I can still hear those guys singing their songs."

Most nontribal people didn't wonder what would happen when the project was finished, says Honald, the painter who worked on the dam.

"At that point, when all the construction people came to town . . . everybody was enjoying that," he says. "The stores were open until 9 o'clock, they were all busy. The construction workers were downtown spending money. The rest of it, I don't think people were thinking about it at the time.

"I was a journeyman painter making $1.79 an hour," Honald says. "I thought I was right on top of the world."

He watched from the dam when the gates closed.

And now the view looks different for him.

"It's a real shame we buried that place," he says. "It was a real piece of history."

Howard Rice ran a drilling machine during the dam's construction, boring 30-foot holes for dynamite charges. Now 85, he says it was a good time to be a construction worker. You never had to travel far to find work.

"Well, you know, I remember buying fish up there from the Indians, and you hated to see that go," Rice says.

"But during that period of time there was a lot of work. I remember one fellow from the Corps of Engineers speaking of how things would look. He said there would be industry cheek to jowl all the way up the river because of cheap power."

It didn't work out that way. A big plant, Harvey Aluminum, did come to The Dalles in 1958. But it closed in 1970, and a successor company, Martin Marietta, lasted only until 1984. The manufacturing process left the site tainted by arsenic, cyanide and fluoride, resulting in a cleanup directed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. A company making specialized aluminum products occupies the site now.

Restoring fishing sites

Hope, however, has returned to Celilo.

The Corps of Engineers, heeding an 1855 treaty that guaranteed the tribes the right to fish at "usual and accustomed" places on the Columbia, is nearly finished with a $88.9 million project to restore 31 fishing sites. The work includes building boat ramps, docks and other facilities.

At the tribes' insistence, the corps also has taken on a $13.9 million job to redevelop Celilo Village. The agency will rebuild 14 homes, install new sewer, water and electrical systems, build a play area for children and fix up the road. A new longhouse was completed in 2006.

The 50-year commemoration of the inundation is bringing renewed attention to Celilo Village, which will host the event. The tribes see it as an opportunity to educate the public about the cultural, environmental and economic loss they suffered -- and to "prevent such a far-reaching act of destruction from ever happening again," says Jeremy FiveCrows, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

But some things have remained as constant as the river itself.

Back at the longhouse, Fred Whitford and Karen Jim Whitford load two extra food boxes into their GMC. Karen doesn't want anyone left out, and one of the extra food boxes is for a young family up the road that didn't make it to the longhouse in time.

The other is for their longtime friend Leroy George, who is disabled by a stroke. He leans heavily on a cane and his speech is affected, but he's clearly grateful. "Yeah-juh," he says, beaming at the box of juice and energy bars. "Jesus."

Karen points out the books and copies of Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines that spill across the shelves in George's dilapidated and cluttered home. Such a smart man, she says.

They return home and Karen pulls out the old pictures she's collected since she was 11, always looking for information about Celilo in particular and Native Americans in general.

Her late mother, Maggie Jim, was a strict traditionalist. Go to school to be educated, she told her children, but at home you're an Indian. When you get older, she said, you'll be able to balance the worlds.

Karen, shy but bright and driven, studied secretly in the family bathroom and joined school clubs in an effort to fit in. After graduating from the former Wahtonka High School in The Dalles, she traveled widely, was the first Miss Yakama Nation and got involved in tribal political struggles as far away as Alaska. But in the end she came back to Celilo Village.

It's home, she says. The people need help. She flips through the old photographs, pausing at one that shows dozens of Native Americans pulling salmon from the falls.

"Look, they're all sharing," she says.

Eric Mortenson
Still Waters, Stolen Lives
The Oregonian, March 4, 2007

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