Snoqualmie Falls mist sacred to tribe

By Lynda V. Mapes
Snoqualmie Falls, Washington (AP) June 2010

Mist cruises through the air in great clouds, twining through the branches of a giant cedar and falling in crystal drops, renewing the cycle of life.

The falls are held sacred by the Snoqualmie Tribe, particularly the mist, believed to unite the worlds of heaven and earth. Its cool touch is the kiss of their ancestors, and the majesty of the falls connects with the sense of the sacred in all peoples, not only tribal members, said Lois Sweet Dorman, a spiritual leader of the Snoqualmie.

She gathered at the cedar by the falls with members of her family for a morning prayer circle Monday, part of the eighth annual National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places, from June 18 through 23. The event is organized by the Morning Star Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for protection and access to Native American sacred sites.

Prayers also are being directed to sacred sites all over the nation, from Mount Graham, the holy landscape of the Western Apache people in Arizona, to Ganondagan in New York, the former capital of the Seneca Nation, destroyed by the French in 1687.

At Snoqualmie Falls, the remembrance was bittersweet, as the sound of 18-wheelers grinding upgrade to Highway 18 battled the roar of the falls, their waters diminished much of the year by diversions to fuel two hydropower plants owned by Puget Sound Energy (PSE).

The tribe fought to decommission the plants, but lost that battle at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008. However, the tribe in 2005 won increased flows over the falls during May and June, to allow the falls to generate the mists they hold sacred.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) concluded “the importance of the mist at this site to the Snoqualmie Tribe” justified “the relatively small effect on net annual benefit” to PSE, according to the court decision.

Sure enough, the falls threw a furious mist Monday as the Snoqualmie River tumbled, green and white, 270 feet to the canyon below.

The mist clung in silvery drops to the celebrants, glimmering in their hair and coats as they eschewed the paved paths and clipped lawns of the company’s park, and gathered instead under the canopy of the big cedar, amid its twining roots.

“The roots of this tree remind us of our roots,” Dorman said. “Our sacred places need us, and we need them.”

PSE operates the world’s first completely underground power plant at the falls, at a powerhouse carved in 16 months out of bedrock.

Finished in 1899, it is one of the oldest operating plants in the country. A second powerhouse was built above ground in 1910, downstream of the falls.

The company is in the midst of a 3-plus-year, $240 million renovation of the facility and grounds as part of its 40-year relicensing agreement granted by FERC in 2004. The company will install new, more efficient turbines that increase the plants’ generating capacity by 23 percent using the same amount of water.

The new plants at peak output will be able to power about 40,000 homes, up from 33,000 today. Construction is under way, including upgrades to the upper and lower parks.

PSE has closed access to its lower park and trail during construction, and they will remain closed to use for three years. The upper park is open.

And the power of the falls to renew and refresh the spirit of any visitor is undiminished, Dorman said.

As celebrants touched hands lightly to close their prayer circle, tourists passed on the walkway by the tree, eager for their look at the falls and fuming mist, too.

“We are uplifted here, and we take that with us when we go, and give that to everyone we meet. That is what sacred places do,” Dorman said. “And that’s for everyone; it’s not bound by race.”