Celilo Falls Columbia River Gorge
March 10, 1957
Nelson Queah told himself he would not watch, but there he stood, his eyes drawn to the rising river like some fool gawking at a car wreck. He watched, transfixed, as the water rose, taking the small, rocky islands first, then the south bank of the river where his village had stood, and finally the falls. He would never again stand in the spray and deafening roar of the falls, waiting to take the next salmon like his father and his grandfather and his people stretching back to the beginning of their collective memory.
He glanced at his watch when it was over. Four hours had elapsed. Less than the blink of an eye for a river that had flowed unfettered since the Ice Age torrents, yet gradual—like watching a loved one die a slow death. But it was more than that. Snuffed like a candle in the east winds of the Gorge, the light burning in Nelson Queah’s heart went out that day, and he could feel his soul begin to wither around the edges.
The silence. The awful silence.
Had Nelson been in the bowels of The Dalles Dam that morning, he would have heard the “gates down” command. He would have seen twenty-two white men—each selected for the honor by the Army Corps of Engineers—press the buttons that simultaneously closed twenty-two massive steel and concrete floodgates. He would have experienced the exact moment when millions of gallons of water roiled in mad confusion before reversing course and surging upriver through the Long Narrows to the mighty falls at Celilo, sacred fishing grounds of his people for ten thousand years.
Nearly all the villagers, some thirty families, along with members of other tribes who had fishing rights at the site, stood on the river bank with Nelson. Some wept openly and others sang funeral dirges in the Sahaptin and Kiksht languages to the rhythmic thrum of rawhide drums. Behind them and across the Columbia River on the Washington side, thousands of curious onlookers lined the highways. A new lake—named Celilo for the falls it buried—had formed behind the dam. The name is another insult, Nelson told himself. It would be a constant reminder of what his people, the Wasco, and all the tribes who fished the falls, had lost.
When the river was nothing but a flat expanse of slack, rain-pocked water, Nelson turned to leave. He vowed that he would never allow himself to look at a photograph of what had been. Instead, he willed an image of the place into his mind— weathered basalt cliffs on the horizon, the placid sweep of water before the violent funneling down, which sent the entire volume of the river hurtling over a narrow lip of jagged rocks. Below the falls, wooden scaffolds jutted precariously above the rapids amidst a web of cables that carried fishermen across in hand-pulled chairs. He pictured his family’s scaffold. There was his father, straining at the long-handled net dipped deep in the boil. At his feet, Nelson saw himself as a young boy, spreading sand to reduce the slickness under his father’s feet.
This is what he would remember.
Nelson made his way slowly toward the village, which had been unceremoniously relocated by the Corps of Engineers across the railroad tracks and the highway to a piece of rocky, uneven ground with no power, water, or sewage services. Only a handful of families had chosen to remain there. The rest were scattered around the area, most going eighty miles south to the Warm Springs Reservation.
When he reached the highway, a voice called to him, “Hey, Queah, what happened to your waterfall? I don’t see it.”
Nelson spun around to face two men leaning on the side of a black Cadillac gaudy with chrome. The speaker was Cecil Ferguson. He stood on the left, a large, well-muscled man with a scarred and pitted face, flaming red hair and light blue, almost colorless eyes. The other man was a big Yakama Indian named Sherman Watlamet. He laughed like the gutless ass-kisser Nelson knew he was.
“Go to hell, Ferguson,” he spat back at them, not bothering to even acknowledge Watlamet’s presence.
The two men pushed themselves away from the Cadillac in unison. Ferguson said, “Well, maybe now their women won’t smell of fish all the time.” Ferguson erupted in laughter at his comment. Watlamet smiled uncertainly, and then when Fergu- son poked him in the ribs with his elbow, joined in.
The sight of Sherman Watlamet laughing with the white man sickened Nelson, and blood rose in his neck. He closed half the ground between them and stopped, expecting them to do the same. But to his surprise, Ferguson nodded in the direction of the Cadillac, and they both turned on their heels. Apparently this would be settled another day.
But Nelson couldn’t resist a parting shot. “You shame your own people, Sherman. You’re lower than a goat’s tit.” Then he turned and crossed the highway without looking back.
He entered the Army surplus house he’d been given. It reminded him of the barracks at Quantico, where he had done his basic training during the war. He let the dog out, took a can of beer from the icebox and sat down. He was still seething with anger. Deep down he was disappointed Ferguson hadn’t followed him across the highway, although he knew that if that had happened, one of them would probably be dead now.
Nelson dropped in a chair, held the cold beer can against his cheek and let out a long breath. Thoughts of war came to him. Despite the trail of broken treaties, the racial slights, the failed BIA policies, he joined up and hit the beaches of Sicily with the 5th Marine Division. But Sicily was a walk in the park compared to Anzio. He could still feel the grenade fragment in his leg when the weather turned, and flashbacks of the slaughter of his reconnaissance troop were never far behind. He had taken out a machine gun nest single-handedly that day, and for that his commanders gave him a Silver Star.
But fighting to stop the dam was not like fighting the Germans. It was no fight for a warrior. Nothing but endless hearings and testimony, lies and deceit. Treaty talk. All of it. His people knew about treaty talk. He had stood shoulder to shoulder with his brothers and even some white fishermen who understood what the dam would do to the migrating salmon populations. But the Corps of Engineers and the white politicians were clever. They fought with numbers and words and promises. The dam would bring cheap power and prosperity to the cities along the Columbia, the salmon would be protected, and the tribes would be fairly compensated. How could he make his people understand what was being taken? No. This had been no fight for a warrior.
He sipped at his beer but didn’t begin to relax until he thought of his girls. His ten-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was visiting her cousins at Warm Springs, where his beloved wife, Tilda, was recuperating in the TB ward of the hospital. He missed them both, especially at this moment, although he was thankful they had missed the flooding of the falls and the ugliness afterward. Because of Tilda’s quarantine, he’d resolved to write her at least once a week, and it was Sunday, the day he had set aside for the task. What would he say to her, today of all days? How could he hide the deadness he felt in his heart, the humiliation? Nelson drained his beer, sighed deeply, and got up to fetch pen and paper. Tilda must not hear your sorrow. Lie if you have to, he told himself.
March 10, 1957
I hope you are feeling much better, my dear. You have been in my thoughts constantly. I am driving down to Warm Springs
tomorrow to pick up Rebecca. I am sure she is having fun with her cousins. She will probably not want to come home with me. I will drop this note at the hospital. Perhaps they’ll allow a brief visit tomorrow. I long to see your face!
We had a feast in the longhouse last night in honor of the falls. Everyone was there except Chief Thompson, who is still ill. Many people asked about you. Oliver Tam told us all the story of how the salmon were first released in the river to be shared by all people. Do you remember the story? Two old women were hoarding them behind an earthen dam. Coyote disguised himself as an infant and tricked them into going to pick huckleberries for him. While they were busy, Coyote destroyed the dam and released the salmon. We all howled and screamed at this!
There is a silence in the village now, Tilda, but there is no cause for despair. The salmon will find new ways to their spawn- ing grounds. Our people will still fish, and perhaps Coyote still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Your loving husband, Nelson.
Nelson started to set the letter aside then below his signature he added—
P.S. I am waiting for the young man I told you about last week, Timothy Wiiks. He has promised to bring the evidence he found about money being stolen at the dam. I saw the man he is accusing today on the river, but there was no trouble. I told the newspaperman about the stealing. He is anxious to meet with Timothy and me tomorrow. I think this is the right thing to do.
Nelson awoke in the chair later that night, the finished letter resting in his lap. He tore it from the pad and laid it on the kitchen table. He had let the dog back in, and it was now standing at the door growling. He looked at his watch. It was nine-twenty. Hoping it was the young man, Timothy, he went to the door and nudged the dog away with his knee. If it was a deer instead, he didn’t want the dog off chasing it at this hour. He opened the door and stepped outside. It had stopped raining, there was no moon, and it was deathly quiet. He had only gotten a few steps down the path when he heard a boot scuff behind him. The blow that followed was decisive, buckling his knees and driving a shard of bone deep into his brain.
Fifty Years Later
“Come on, give the steelheads a break. I’ve got hot coffee.”
It was my friend, Philip Lone Deer. He’d come up behind me on the riverbank. We were on the Deschutes River, just south of the Warm Springs Reservation boundary, on the Indian side. It was mid-morning and brutally cold, but the sun sparkled and danced off the river. I was standing hip-deep in fast-moving water. “Wait a sec. I’m feeling it here.”
I was a novice fly-fisherman, so my comment made him laugh. Fly fishing for steelhead is the big leagues. “In your dreams, Claxton.” Then with sudden urgency, he added, “Whoa, you’re right. There’s a fish out there. I can see him from up here. Cast out about forty feet and swing your fly to the bank. He’s at three o’clock. A big one.”
I flicked the lure—a big fly called a fire butt skunk—off the surface and back behind me and then cranked it forward, hoping for a decent cast. The fly hit downriver at about the right distance. I lowered the rod tip and began working the lure toward the bank. Sure enough, at three o’clock a big steelhead crunched the lure on a violent upward pass. The surface erupted, and the fish came out of the water like a chrome-plated missile.
“All right!” Philip cried. A Paiute who lives off reservation, Philip was a professional fishing guide, one of the best in the Northwest. I’d hired him to teach me to fly-fish after I arrived in Oregon, making good on a promise to my daughter that I would find a hobby. Our friendship had grown from there, and now we fished together as friends when our schedules permitted it. With my heart rapping against my ribs, I set the hook at the top of the leap. The fish re-entered the water and wrenched the tip of my rod downward as it ran for the center of the river. It took me a good five minutes to bring it alongside. I slipped out the barbless hook and gently supported the fish from underneath with my hand until its crimson gills pumped hard. It rolled on its side, and its iridescent scales flashed in the sunlight. My heart swelled at the sight of such a beautiful creature, my first steelhead. I said, “Thanks, big boy,” then watched it vanish with a flick of its powerful tail.
Afterwards, up on the bank as we huddled in the sun sipping coffee, Philip said, “Next Saturday there’s going to be a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the flooding of Celilo Falls. If you’re free, why don’t you come over to the Gorge and join me.”
“Won’t it be more of a wake than a commemoration?” I knew the story of how the construction of The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River had led to the flooding of the great Native American fishing grounds and village, and what that had meant to the tribes in the region.
“Nah, not really. We Indians know how to put things behind us. A matter of necessity. It’ll be some speeches, some dances, a lot of good food. But don’t come for all that. I want you to come and feel lots of guilt for what the white man did to us, man.”
“But what about all those casinos we’ve given you?” “Seriously, I want you to come, Cal. You can check out the work on the new village and the longhouse. The Corps finally admitted they’d screwed up the original relocation and coughed up millions of bucks to rebuild everything.”
I whistled. “I don’t feel so guilty anymore.”
“Besides, you’ve got to see my father. He’s going to wear his full headdress.”
I told my friend I would go but intended to avoid the speeches if I could. I didn’t see how anything good could be made out of what had happened and didn’t want to hear any of the great white fathers from Oregon and Washington, D.C., try to spin it that way. To me, the flooding of the falls was just another gut shot to the Indians, and it was the dams that spelled the slow but steady decline of the migrating salmon populations, the lifeblood of the Columbia River tribes for millennia.
# # #
I headed out for the commemoration that following Saturday from my place in the hills above Dundee, a small town perched some twenty-five miles south of Portland at the epicenter of Oregon’s wine country. I’d moved to an old farmhouse there six months earlier after taking an early retirement from the city of Los Angeles. Celilo Village was better than a hundred miles to the northeast, but it was a good day for a drive. The air had been scrubbed to a sparkle by a hard shower the night before, and the sky had that color, that achingly pure blue that seemed peculiar to the Northwest and always lifted my spirits. Of course, there’s more rain than sun up here in Oregon, but I was beginning to realize that one day like this one was worth at least thirty days of rain.
Traffic was light when I reached Portland. Its handsome, com- pact center was cleaved east from west by the Willamette River and stitched back together by a series of eight bridges, earning it the nickname Bridgetown. As I cleared the river high atop the I-5 Bridge, I found myself wondering what an earthquake would do to the aging structure and quickly suppressed the thought. A reflex from my L.A. days, I suppose.
I took the I-84 turnoff and headed east toward the Columbia River Gorge, a passage carved through sheer basalt cliffs that funneled the mighty river for over eighty miles. A low cloud cover had formed, but when I entered the Gorge the sun broke through and began playing off the whitecaps flecking the gray-verging-into-blue water. I played tag with heavily laden eighteen-wheelers for ninety minutes before The Dalles Dam came into view—its low profile set against the humped, treeless hills on the Washington side of the river. White water from half a dozen open floodgates cascaded down the center of the dam and stretched downriver like a huge, white tongue.
I arrived at Celilo Village at quarter past one. It must’ve been a sellout crowd, because I had to park out near the highway and walk in on the frontage road. I knew lunch was scheduled for two, and the aroma of meat and fish being cooked over open fires greeted me at the edge of the village. Calling the place a “village” was a stretch, since what I saw was maybe a dozen manufactured houses jammed in on either side of a short dirt road off to my left. A single basketball hoop and a couple of dirt bikes leaning against the supporting pole were the only suggestions that kids lived there. On either side of the broad road, stakes and plywood forms gave me a sense of the shape of the village to come. It promised to be a real upgrade, but then again almost anything would be.
I followed the rich aromas to the large wooden building that I took to be the longhouse. An elongated A-frame structure, it sported a set of huge, old-growth timbers that crossed at the roofline, tepee style. A small army of cooks was busy preparing lunch along one side of the building. I slipped into the front entryway, stood at the back, and scanned the standing-room- only crowd for Philip.
I didn’t spot Philip but saw his father immediately. He was the one on stage wearing all the eagle feathers. He sat with the other tribal leaders next to an American flag and the four flags of the sovereign nations affected by the loss of the falls—Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, and Warm Springs. Several white dignitaries sat with them, including a gray-haired man in military dress with lots of ribbons and medals. The brass from the Corps, no doubt. A man in a blue suit and red power tie stood at the podium, reading what I quickly realized was a proclamation from the Governor of Oregon. To my surprise, the words were refreshingly honest and forthright, and I found myself wanting to believe the promise that government had learned a lesson, that something like this could never happen today. I wondered.
After a brief closing ceremony, the crowd emptied out and began queuing up for lunch.
“Cal. Good to see you, buddy,” Philip said as he emerged from the throng and met me with a fist bump. “How long you been here?”
“Oh, quite a while. Nice ceremony. Your dad was looking good up there.”
Philip flashed a brilliant smile. He had turn-your-head looks but none of the vanity that could have generated. Black hair pulled back in a ponytail, a chin like a block of granite, and obligatory high cheekbones were all Paiute warrior. But his green eyes and narrow, almost delicate, nose came from his white mother. “Bullshit,” he said. “I saw you sneak in a few minutes ago.” He was still smiling. “Let me guess—car trouble?”
I shrugged. “Give me a break. I did catch some of the Gov’s proclamation.”
“Impressive speech, huh? Makes me confident that if you ever take our land again, you’ll do it with much more sensitivity.”
“Well, don’t take our word for it. Make sure you get a signed treaty.”
Philip threw his head back and laughed. “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”
We piled our plates high with salmon, venison, corn on the cob, and salad and sat down at a table, joining another party of three. The man I sat down next to extended his hand and said, “Hello, I’m Jason Townsend,” and then introduced us to the other two. Townsend was tall and blond and strikingly handsome. His yellow V-neck sweater with a button-down underneath, chinos, and spotless jogging shoes signaled a failed attempt at dressing down, Oregon style. He looked vaguely familiar to me. I scanned my memory banks but came up empty. “So, what brings you two to the commemoration?” he asked as we tucked into our food.
Philip looked at me to answer Townsend’s question. “Well, Philip’s a member of the Confederated Tribes at Warm Springs. I’m just here to pay my respects for the loss of the falls.”
Townsend looked directly at Philip. “I’m truly sorry for your loss. Based on what we know today, we probably wouldn’t have built The Dalles Dam.”
Philip lowered his fork and looked back, not quite knowing what to make of the man. “Yeah, well, it screwed up the best fishing hole in North America.” Townsend laughed at this, albeit a bit cautiously, and waited for Philip to continue.
After a pause, I filled the vacuum. I was used to doing this for my laconic friend. “I wish I could have seen Celilo Falls with my own eyes. Imagine all the migrating salmon in the Columbia squeezed into one spot.”
Townsend leaned in. “I wish I could have seen it, too. The pictures don’t do it justice. They say the roar of the falls shook the earth.” He looked at Philip again, but he didn’t respond. He’d spoken his piece. “Now we know the dams are killing off the salmon,” Townsend went on. “I think they need to go.”
That rang a bell with me. Is this the guy who’s thinking about a run for the U.S. Senate, the guy who’s advocating dam removal? Wasn’t his name Townsend? I took another look at him. Could be. The other two are probably aides, I decided. The thin, well-dressed man across from Townsend, introduced earlier as David Hanson, said, “People in the Northwest don’t want to give up their cheap power, and they shouldn’t have to. We have so many new options now—solar, wind power, geothermal, wave. The dams can be phased out over time.”
“That’s right, David,” Townsend added, coming in as if on cue. “I think we can find less ecologically damaging sources of power in the Northwest. But it’s going to take new leadership.” I glanced at the other aide, Sam DeSilva, and caught him rolling his eyes at the comment. Sam was short and stoutly built with a closely shaved head that glistened in the sunlight. He obviously wasn’t a true believer.
I looked back at Townsend. “Philip and I are fly-fishermen. We daydream about free-flowing rivers. Does this dam-removal idea stand a chance?”
Townsend squared his shoulders and looked me in the eye. “I think it does. It won’t happen overnight, and we can’t remove all the dams, but big changes always start with a dream.”
We continued the conversation in this quixotic vein while we ate our lunches. I had to admit it felt good to think about the possibility of the Columbia River flowing freely again, but I still didn’t give the idea a snowball’s chance in hell. By this time, I was sure who Townsend was. I said, “You’re thinking about a run for the Senate, aren’t you? I read about you a while back.” Philip shot me a surprised look that turned pained. He put white politicians right up there with people who fish with dynamite. Before Townsend could answer, a reporter butted in and asked him for an interview. Philip took the opportunity to jump up and grab me by the arm. As we turned to go, Townsend slipped me a business card and said hastily, “Sorry for this, Cal. Great meeting you. I am running for the Senate. And I’m serious about the dams. Call me if you want to help.”