Photographs by JOE CANTRELL. Story by BOB HICKS.
On a sunny Thursday in early March, on the green stretches of Blue Lake Regional Park east of Portland toward the Columbia River Gorge, a gathering of the original River People was taking place. Salmon was baking. Moose and deer were on the grill. A canoe was in the water and canopied shelters were scattered on the grass. Tribal elders and veterans from several tribes of River People were on hand, greeting one another with open arms. Lots of gifting was going on: blankets and other items of friendship and relationship.
Singing and dancing and prayers were enlivening the atmosphere. Kids were watching and learning and cutting loose. “The young people got to dance, and listen to the prayers, and listen to the messages,” Aurolyn Stwyer, Celilo and Warm Springs/Wasco member and master beadwork artist who was one of the gathering’s main organizers, said the morning after the event.
It was a celebration, and a remembrance, and also an act of determination. Sixty-five years to the day earlier, at 10 a.m. on March 10, 1957, the floodgates of the newly completed The Dalles Dam were closed. Within hours the mighty Celilo Falls, river-broad and forty feet high and about thirteen miles upstream on the Columbia River, disappeared. The river flattened, the waters opened for barges and closed for salmon, electricity began its flow to urban areas and irrigation water to vast parched agricultural fields. And a way of life that had survived and thrived for at least ten thousand years disappeared along with the falls.
It’s difficult for people who never saw the falls flowing freely to comprehend what was lost. “Our falls flowed three times greater than Niagara Falls,” Stwyer said. And the river was thick with fish: “Twenty-two thousand salmon a day was the marker. And now the count is so low.”
The dam changed everything. Celilo Falls had been the center of river life. People fished there, gathered there, traded there, on routes that extended into present-day British Columbia and California and eastward to the Great Plains. They celebrated there, arriving from up and down the river that linked their lives. No more. The flooding of the falls followed by a century the U.S. government breakup of the river tribes and scattering of their people to reservations on either side of the Columbia River – some, including the thousand-plus-square-mile reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, on lands far from the river and what had been their primary food for thousands of years, requiring a completely different relationship to the water and land. The Middle Oregon Treaty of 1855 also transferred ten million acres of traditionally Indigenous land to the United States government; land that was then opened to white settlement and exploitation, including industrial havesting of salmon rather than the Natives’ one-on-one relationship with the fish.
On this Thursday in 2022, all of that history was in the background. But the emphasis was on now, and on this regathering of Celilo, Rock Creek, Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Colville people. “All of the river tribes were in the lineup, equally,” Stwyer said.
It was the river, in a way, gathering back its own: roughly 400 people, many of whom hadn’t seen one another for a long time, in large part because of the long Covid isolation. “It was just really good to be out together,” Stwyer noted. “We haven’t done much for three years.”
The gathering began at 9 in the morning with sacred ceremonial greetings and continued through the day, with everything from the traditional preparation of salmon over flames to veteran honor guards. (“The veterans came out and totally stole the show,” Stwyer said.) Tribal elders were honored. A grand piano sat onstage. Thomas Morning Owl, a Umatilla storyteller, musician, tribal leader and beadwork artist who also was an actor in the musical-theater drama Ghosts of Celilo, was master of ceremonies.
Grants from Metro and the City of Portland helped underwrite the gathering, and everything was done by volunteers. “We didn’t want anyone to pay for a meal,” Stwyer noted. A golf cart was on hand to help those who needed it get around the park grounds. The salmon and moose and deer meat were donated. At the end of the day, kids folded up and collected 150 chairs, and picked up and deposited all the garbage. And the Confluence Project, which connects the Indigenous cultures and lands throughout the Columbia River system, donated 500 commemorative coins. “That was a big hit,” Stwyer said. “Everybody loved those coins.”
The gathering was a memorial, but it was also, Stwyer emphasized, about the future – a statement that “we are still here. The echo of the water was lost sixty-five years ago, but we won’t give up. We’re still looking for the return of our falls.” Maybe, she added, in ten years, on the 75th anniversary of the inundation, the people can be celebrating the falls’ return.
And, maybe, said photographer Joe Cantrell, who was documenting the day’s events, the signs were good. “There were about a thousand geese flying in circles above us,” he said. “And there was a rainbow circle around the sun. All day.”