The Corps of Engineers and Celilo Falls: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future

By Fredlund, Diana | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Corps of Engineers and Celilo Falls: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future


Fredlund, Diana, Oregon Historical Quarterly


ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 10, 1957, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District commander Col. Jackson Graham changed the character of the Columbia River. By closing the gates of the newly completed Dalles Dam, Graham started filling the reservoir that would form behind the 130400t tall structure, inundating Celilo Falls about ten miles to the east. On hand to witness the event were local, state, and federal officials who hailed the dam as an important component of hydropower production in the Pacific Northwest. Another group was also keenly aware of the event, but they watched the rising water with tears, not pride or satisfaction. Native Americans who lived near the falls at Celilo Village and fished the Columbia River knew their lives would never be the same.

Celilo Village was one remnant of a place that had historically been the economic, cultural, and spiritual center for mid-Columbia River tribes. Prior to construction of the dam, the nearby falls supported the fishing activities of some five thousand Indians. (1)

By the morning of March ii, Celilo Falls had slipped beneath the rising river, silencing a roar that had been heard in the region for thousands of years. Along with the falls, what remained of the original Celilo Village was inundated. During the final months of dam construction, the Corps had relocated residents to nearby communities or to a new village on the south side of the railroad tracks about a mile away.

MID-COLUMBIA RIVER INDIANS--groups of which became the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation--negotiated treaties with the United States in 1855 in which they retained their right to take fish at all their "usual and accustomed places," many of which were located near Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. (2) By the 1930s, hydropower had become a popular source of electricity, and the Corps saw rivers in the Pacific Northwest as excellent candidates for hydroelectric dams. Bonneville Dam was the first of a series of federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers that was authorized by the United States Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt presided over Bonneville's dedication in 1937. A devastating flood in 1948 destroyed the town of Vanport, Oregon, and residents of the region saw flood protection as another potential benefit of dams. The Dalles Dam was the next project completed by the Corps.

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Both Bonneville and The Dalles dams had major impacts on the lives of Indians living along the river. When the pool behind Bonneville Dam filled in 1938, Native people lost about forty of their "usual and accustomed" fishing sites. The Dalles Dam destroyed many more fishing sites and forced Celilo Village's relocation.

In 1948, during construction of The Dalles Dam, the federal government acquired land about a quarter-mile east of the original village and built replacement homes using World War II surplus housing. Because the Corps was constructing the dam, the U.S. government charged it with relocating communities that would be inundated when the reservoir filled, including Celilo Village. The poor quality of construction materials and inadequate maintenance at the relocated villages caused structures to badly deteriorate, leaving residents without water or sewer access and with sanitary conditions that violated federal and state statutes and also endangered public health and safety.

IN 1988, OVER THIRTY YEARS after The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo, President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100-581, authorizing and requiring specific actions by the federal government to uphold earlier promises made to the four tribes. Those actions included improving boat docks, boat ramps, and camping sites as well as constructing fish cleaning, curing, and ancillary facilities at what are termed "in-lieu sites"--five sites authorized and constructed in lieu of lost fishing sites during Bonneville Dam construction--and at "treaty sites"--twenty-six new sites authorized to meet acreage objectives that had been established in earlier agreements between the government and the tribes but never met. …

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