Celilo Falls latest memorial along Columbia River

By Phil Ferolito
The Dalles, Oregon (AP) November 2010

Not everyone is old enough to remember the roar of the once-great Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. A dozen miles east of The Dalles Dam, water once crashed over jagged basalt walls that formed the falls and created one of the greatest fisheries and trading hubs in the Pacific Northwest.

But that was before the falls slipped beneath the water after the dam was constructed in 1957.

For the past eight years, tribal leaders seeking to preserve memories of the falls and the people who flourished in its shadow have been working with world-renowned architect and artist Maya Lin – creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. – to erect a memorial.

Tribal elders have shared their oral history, culture and traditions with Lin to help her design a 300-foot-long walkway – evocative of a fishing scaffold – that will jut over the massive and now-tamed river.

It’s just one of several major art pieces she’s designed in what is known as the Confluence Project, a series of memorials planned for or already installed at the request of tribal elders along the Columbia River.

The memorials are intended to preserve the memory of how the river shaped the lives of those who lived along its banks before it carried Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean.

The memorials also aim to explain the loss those indigenous people suffered when the river was choked with dams to provide cheap electricity.

“The wounds have to see the light of day and people have to learn and understand that history,” said Umatilla tribal member Bobbie Conner. “It’s more than symbolic – it’s the beginning of a conversation or dialogue that this country has yet to have.”

The walkway will be placed at Celilo Park, a grassy area and boat launch at the river’s edge just below Celilo Village, near the historical site of the falls. Built of wood and anchored to steel support beams, the walkway’s wood floor symbolizes traditional fishing scaffolds while its wood-woven sides represent baskets commonly used by Columbia River Indians.

Along the walkway will be inscriptions about geological formations, tribal explanations of their creation and meaning, as well as excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark. Tribal protests of the construction of the dam will also be documented.

Toward the end of the walkway will be a description of what it was like to be standing at the falls.

But it’s also at the end of the walkway that visitors will experience all that’s been lost, director of the project, Aili Schreiner of Portland, said on behalf of Lin, who rarely gives interviews.

“The visitor will walk toward the end and not see the falls, not feel the mist, not hear the roar,” Schreiner said.

Late last week, the Confluence Project unveiled a model of the walkway at a local winery in The Dalles. The event attracted more than 100 well-wishers who examined historical pictures and newspaper articles of the falls and construction of the dam.

Members of The Dalles City Council and Chamber of Commerce spoke in support of the project and its anticipated economic development benefits.

Confluence Project officials said they hope to raise $2.5 million to complete the project at Celilo Park. The Confluence Project, a nonprofit organization, so far has raised $25 million for four of the existing memorial projects plotted along the river from its mouth to its confluence with the Snake River near the Tri-Cities.

“Celilo is worthy of something remarkable because Celilo was a remarkable place,” said Jane Jacobsen, the executive director of the Confluence Project. “This is the heart of this – this is so important.”

Depending on fundraising, officials hope to begin the project in early 2012.

Umatilla tribal elder Antone Minthorn and Conner told the crowd of mostly non-Indians what they hope visitors will gain from the memorial.

“That they understand what Celilo Falls was and why it was important to us,” Minthorn said. “Celilo was a huge fishery – the largest in the Northwest.”

For thousands of years, tribal fishermen mounted wood scaffolds anchored to cliff walls in order to scoop salmon into nets at Celilo Falls.

Villages such as Wyam (Celilo Village), Wishcum and Tenino sprawled along the river, and Indians from as far as California and the Great Plains would come to trade goods for fish.

“This river connected all those people,” Conner said.

But following the signing of the 1855 Treaty, river Indians were moved to one of four reservations – Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs.

Conner told the story of her great-grandmother, Wyassus, who was about 14 when she was forced from Celilo Village by the federal government.

U.S. soldiers threw her family’s winter food storage into the river, and her parents were killed in a resulting clash, she said.

Wyassus paddled a canoe hidden in a nearby cave upriver to a place where her father had said she’d find people who spoke her native language – the Umatilla reservation.

Such stories abound among the four river tribes.

Today, there is still a village at Celilo, though it is much smaller than the great hub that flourished prior to the construction of the dam.

“While you don’t see us all living in The Dalles now, in Celilo, we all have ancestral ties to the river,” she said. “Our connection to the river is still strong.”

Efforts behind the Confluence Project began in 2002, when river tribes wanted to have a voice in the national commemoration of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Tribal elders began meeting with a committee that planned the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and eventually traveled to New York City to ask Lin to design art that would focus on the historical, cultural and environmental viewpoints of the river.

After hearing the request from tribal leaders, Lin agreed.

The project is considered the largest and longest that Lin has undertaken. When complete, a total of seven memorials will be built at sites stretching from the mouth of the Columbia River more than 400 miles upriver to Lewiston, Idaho, on the Snake River.

So far, four sites of the Confluence Project have been complete: A fish cleaning sink made of basalt and inscriptions along a pathway of Lewis and Clarks journey at Cape Disappointment State Park near the river’s mouth; a pedestrian bridge that reconnects Fort Vancouver to the river; a trail that leads to a rustic bird blind at the Sandy River Delta near Portland; and seven story circles set into the ground at Sacajawea State Park in Kennewick that tell how the Columbia River’s confluence with the Snake River shaped the lives and culture of Native Americans.

The project doesn’t just focus on history, but also the environmental changes and impacts the river has endured from development over the years.

Tribal elders have been pleased with Lin’s work so far, and like her design for Celilo Park, Minthorn said.

“I trust Maya, that she will get the job done,” he said.

Minthorn said he hopes the project will bring more interaction between Indian and non-Indian communities along the river, where tribal members continue to fish for salmon and sell it to the public.

“I think that’s real important,” he said.