You can look at the old pictures and try to hold it in your mind: the constant roar of thousands of gallons of water cascading over treacherous, steep rapids, throwing up spray, borne by the wind directly into your face. You can visualize the hundreds of salmon leaping up, up, up impossible heights, driven by the primal and primary need to reproduce at all costs. You can try to imagine how it felt to stand barefoot with a dip net on a precarious platform built out over sharp rocks. You can try, but you can never experience it: on March 10, 1957, The Dalles Dam, on the Columbia River, permanently flooded Celilo Falls, forever ending 11,000 years of continuous aboriginal habitation and destroying the fishing economy and culture of the Warm Springs Indian tribes.
I used to fish at Celilo Falls before The Dalles Dam was built. We used to be able to fish all year long. We caught lots of different kinds of fish – spring chinook, summer chinook, bluebacks, fall chinook, steelhead, and coho. When the fish were coming in good, I could catch one ton of salmon a day. And, it didn’t take a lot of fancy gear or expensive boats to fish. For the cost of one or two balls of twine, about 6 to 12 dollars, I could make the fishing gear necessary for me to catch enough fish to supply my family and many others for a whole year.—Delbert Frank, Sr., Warm Springs
The site at Celilo Falls (Wy-am) at present day The Dalles, Oregon, was a central link in an extensive Native American Indian trade network extending from the West Coast to the Great Plains and from Alaska to California. Indians from all over the Northwest came to trade, socialize, and fish. Archaeological excavations in preparation for The Dalles Dam construction showed the site to be one of the oldest continously inhabited sites on the North American continent.
The abundance of salmon taken from the Columbia River was key to this trade network; the arid climate of the mid-Columbia gorge allowed Indians to air dry much of the salmon they caught for trade. Salmon was traditionally caught with dip nets or occasionally spears, by men standing on wooden platforms they built out over the river. It was dangerous work; only in later years, under pressure from white residents, did the Indians secure themselves to the shore with ropes. Fishing was regulated by the chiefs. No fishing was allowed before the First Salmon Festival. No fishing was allowed at night. If someone fell into the river, a constant risk, fishing was halted for the day. The Indians successfully defended their fishing rights, guaranteed by an 1855 treaty with the U.S. government, against encroachement by whites during the 1930s.
The 20th century brought many disruptive changes to the traditional Indian way of life. As white settlers moved into desirable areas, the U.S. government sought to remove Indians to reservations. Many along the Columbia River resisted giving up their traditional homes. In 1913, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Dalles-Celilo canal, providing passage around Celilo Falls. The Indians were not compensated for its impact on their lives and livelihood. Neither were they compensated as they lost land to highway and rail easements.
The final killing stroke came with proposed construction of The Dalles Dam, about 8 miles downstream from the thunderous rapids of Celilo Falls. The dam would wipe out Celilo Village and the 480 or so fishing platforms in use at the time. The Indians united against the threat, forming the Celilo Fish Committee; along with the Yakima, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribal councils, they protested the dam in formal resolutions and in testimony before Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers, after months of meetings with tribal representatives, came to a settlement that totaled about $26 million. Chief Tommy Thompson refused to accept the money, even after Celilo Falls was submerged. The Indians were relocated; their traditional home and fishing grounds now lay still under placid Lake Celilo behind The Dalles Dam.
No compensation could be made which would benefit my future generations, the people still to come.—Watson Totus during the appropriations hearings for The Dalles Dam, 7 May 1951.
This Google image search returns an impressive gallery of photos.
You have to see the pictures to get even the smallest sense of the grandeur and power of the Celilo Falls.
Sources: Center for Columbia River History, http://www.ccrh.org/comm/river/celilo2.htm
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, http://www.critfc.org/text/celilo.htm