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The Drowning of Celilo Falls:
One Family's Sense of Loss

by Phil Ferolito
Yakima Herald-Republic, March 12, 2007

(Andy Sawyer) Gill nets hang like a curtain in front of the concrete slab that was once the home of Celilo Chief Tommy Thompson. CELILO VILLAGE, Ore. -- I can only imagine how great the roar of the Columbia River was at Celilo Falls, where my wife's grandmother was raised before The Dalles Dam flooded the area a half-century ago.

For my family and countless others, the sound of the water crashing over the cliffs and rocks that were once the falls can only be heard now through the vivid stories told by elders.

A somber overcast hung over Celilo Village, about 100 miles east of Portland, this past weekend as tribal members opened their village and longhouse -- where traditional ceremonies are held -- to the public. The two-day observance marked the flooding of the falls 50 years ago Saturday.

Hundreds of Northwestern Indians, and nearly as many non-Indians, showed up to hear tribal elders recount what it was like when the falls were still there, and tribal fisherman could catch a ton of fish a day.

I brought my wife, Anndrea, and our three children, 13-year-old Anthony, 6-year-old Leslie and Angelo, 3. I wanted them to see their family's connection to this place, to understand why it's important.

Parked cars lined the single dirt road that loops through the village, and adjacent parking lots and nearby Celilo Park were full.

It was standing-room-only in the longhouse, where tribal members beat on deerskin drums, singing ancient songs giving thanks for all living things.

The moccasin-clad feet of men, women and children touched down on the wash -- a wide strip of earth in the center of the longhouse -- as they danced for the arrival of salmon and other foods.

Tribal leaders were recognized for their efforts to preserve what little is left of the village, roughly 14 homes and the longhouse backed by cliffs and situated along a busy rail line and Interstate 84, the only thing that roars around here anymore.

Representatives of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which built and still maintains the dam, also attended and honored tribal elders as well. River chiefs wearing eagle-feather bonnets sat quietly.

Stick games -- a traditional form of gambling -- were held in a nearby building, and an evening powwow was held.

People greeted one another as they passed through the village, where vendors were selling beaded items, clothing, baskets and other goods. A few men worked to cut up a deer and prepare salmon for a traditional dinner.

Many walked from the village to Celilo Park at the river's edge to view an exhibit of historical photographs of the falls before the dam went up.

A few tepees dotted the area, and a woman dressed in a shawl-draped dress stood by salmon being cooked the traditional way, propped by sticks over an open fire.

I couldn't help but think of the stories I'd been told of how the once-vibrant village and falls drew Indians from as far as the Great Plains and California to trade and fish.

Tourists and movie stars would come as well, I've been told, just to have their pictures taken with the falls and fish drying sheds in the background. It was a huge economic hub for Northwestern Indians rooted in Mother Earth.

But today, the tamed river is quiet, and only a few Indians rely upon it for their survival.

The gathering, a memorial for many, may serve as a lesson for people like myself and my family -- too young to have witnessed the great roar and massive fish runs the river once carried.

Our children were excited by the crowd, marveled at the wide expanse of the Columbia. But they couldn't have grasped the depth of the loss that many of the people there had experienced first-hand.

While the gathering drew tears from many who recalled the day the dam's doors closed, it also sparked stories about the great times people had living together along the river.

Some stories tell of how there were enough salmon to cross the river by walking along their backs. Another is about the kid whose first catch was nearly as large as he, and it was chock full of gravel after dragging it from the cliff where he caught it.

Anndrea's grandmother recalls living in a tent in the lower part of the village along the river when she was just a little girl.

While the family lacked the comforts of most homes, they always had money from fish sales and plenty to eat.

Passing through the exhibit, my children kept pointing out pictures of salmon and asking which parts of the river the dam flooded and why the dam -- which provides enough cheap electricity to power a city the size of Seattle -- was built.

Stories abound about a time when Indians had no need for money. Everything came from the land, and the modern comforts of life had not yet separated Indians here from their mother, the Earth.

They were never poor and never went hungry. Needed goods were acquired through trade, and the sacred salmon proved an invaluable bartering tool.

After the coming of the white man, it became a profitable commodity.

But that was before the dam went up to provide cheap electricity for all the comforts that many of the Indians fishing the river didn't seek.

Few realize how the dam displaced the Indians -- uprooted them from the only way of life they knew and hurled them into a foreign world where the things that mattered most were efficiency, money and time.

Now, we have only the memories passed down by elders about the falls, and the countless historical photos commonly found on walls of tribal members' homes and offices.

I walked little Angelo to the end of a narrow dock near the boat launch where two boys were playing with a piece of rope tied to the end of the dock. Anndrea, and our two other children followed close behind.

Looking out over the calm river where his great-grandfather and great-uncles used to dip nets into the swift water for salmon, Angelo said: "I want to fish, Dad."

Phil Ferolito
The Drowning of Celilo Falls: One Family's Sense of Loss
Yakima Herald-Republic, March 12, 2007

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