From Coyote to the Corps of Engineers: Recalling the History of the Dalles-Celilo Reach
Barber, Katrine, Fisher, Andrew H., Oregon Historical Quarterly
AN EAGLE FEATHER IN HIS outstretched hand, Chief Olsen Meanus, Jr., waited for the canoes to land as their oarsmen and women coursed through the quiet waters of Lake Celilo on the Columbia River. The water barely rippled under a light breeze that belied the usual gorge winds, water and winds that originally brought people here thousands of years ago to harvest and dry fish. The March morning was cooled by an overcast sky as thousands gathered along the river to remember Celilo Falls fifty years after its inundation. Meanus was dressed ceremonially, as befitted the occasion, and was joined by other Indian men and women in traditional regalia, as well as by guests dressed more casually in jeans, t-shirts, and fleece. The small flotilla of hand-carved vessels carried visiting Wanapums from upriver and Chinooks from downriver as well as Puyallups and Squaxins from distant Puget Sound. Their landing, with permission by Chief Meanus on behalf of the sixty or so residents of Celilo Village, honored the importance of the mid-Columbia River to Native people for millennia. On shore, the canoes' occupants mingled with visitors who had traveled from throughout the Pacific Northwest to witness their arrival. In the afternoon, people gathered in the village longhouse to hear speeches from Native and non-Native dignitaries and to share a meal of salmon and other traditional foods. On the walls around them hung pictures of the falls that once roared louder than the passing traffic on today's nearby interstate highway.
Many people in the Northwest have seen pictures of Celilo Falls--in postcards and prints for sale in gift shops, in museums and art galleries, in murals in hotels and bars--making it one of the region's most iconic landscapes. Those images document a river as it once was, reminding us of how much the Columbia has changed. On March 10, 1957, with the closure of The Dalles Dam, thousands of people throughout the region celebrated a remade river. The concrete edifice that effaced the falls and rapids upstream culminated decades of work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, politicians in Oregon and Washington, and local Wasco County boosters. After years of planning, lobbying, and testing, a dam dreamed up on paper became manifest, and human industry tamed the mid-Columbia's wild current. Fifty years ago, the closing of the spillway gates signaled success--in the engineering capabilities of the Corps of Engineers, in a burgeoning postwar economy, and in a growing ability to avert Cold War threats using the nation's natural wealth.
But The Dalles Dam also signaled the end of an era. Its rising reservoir drowned the ancient fisheries between Celilo Falls and the foot of Three-mile Rapids, displacing some of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America and swallowing archaeological sites that scholars had only just begun to explore. Newspaper coverage of the event, though primarily celebratory, took note of the loss. "Islands disappeared," the Oregonian reported on March ii, "and then The Dalles-Celilo canal slipped under the surface, and the famed Celilo falls Indian fishing rocks were buried. By nightfall, only a minor riffle remained where the cataracts had roared for thousands of years." (1) That loss is still felt today by mid-Columbia Indians and many non-Indian residents of the region. Expressions of regret and remorse counter the triumphal story of river development, and the tension between those narratives permeates our understanding of Celilo Falls and the mid-Columbia River.
Constructed nine miles downstream from the place where Chief Meanus stood in March 2007, The Dalles Dam dramatically altered the river's course and speed, furthering its transformation into what historian Richard White has called an "organic machine," The Columbia still flows, but it is no longer the natural stream that salmon and Indians knew for millennia. …