A Way of Life Submerged Under a Dam

Associated Press Writer

Ronald Jim can look from this dilapidated village to the Columbia River where Celilo Falls, a spiritual and commercial center to Indians for thousands of years, once thundered down the gorge.

But on May 9, 1957, the gates of the new dam at The Dalles were closed. Within a few hours the falls were submerged and a way of life disappeared beneath the water.

Ronald Jim is the son of a chief and a lifelong Celilo Village resident. The falls had been a way of life to his ancestors for generations.

“But that’s all gone now,” said Jim, 54, who was a small boy “when the falls went under.”


Indians had caught salmon at the falls for thousands of years. Hundreds of fishing platforms arched over the turbulence and provided fishermen at the falls with everything they needed, and more.

With the flooding of the falls, some of the river Indians who lived there went elsewhere.

But a few stayed, and the government authorized construction of “temporary” housing for them as an “in lieu” settlement in exchange for the loss of the falls.

The buildings in this community of 35 to 50 people -- most of them members of Yakama tribe -- are in sorry shape.


Celilo Village was built largely of World War II surplus materials of dubious quality.

Some homes have no working plumbing; residents rely on outhouses and use the three sweat lodges in the village instead of showers.

Insulation, if there is any, is partial and sometimes contains asbestos, Ronald Jim said. Some siding is peeling and a few windows are boarded over. There are no fire hydrants.

“The water pressure is low, the sewage backs up into it,” said Delilah Heemsah, Ronald Jim’s niece.

She said that until recently, there was salmonella in the water and dead animals in the wells but that the Bureau of Indian Affairs now checks the water and chlorinates it.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has acknowledged that the Indians got a raw deal and is moving toward rebuilding the 30-acre site.

“There is a definite need,” said Jeremy Weber, a planner and project manager for the Corps of Engineers.

“The buildings are falling apart. The tribes are very interested in it and we see it as a redress of past wrongs.”


While some village residents say it’s high time, others say they have heard this talk before.

“Every three or four years, they tell us we’re going to get new houses, and nothing happens,” Jim said.

“They told us the houses would be temporary. It’s been 50 years now and they’re still temporary,” Heemsah said.

A 1988 law on treaty fishing access lists sites eligible for refurbishing. But Celilo Village was omitted from the list, for reasons that are unclear.

Weber said all that is needed is an amendment to the law adding “and Celilo Village.”

He said Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith have asked the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to correct the omission, but the committee hasn’t acted.

Funding for the estimated $10-million cost already exists -- money left over from similar projects that came in under budget.

Refurbishment would mean starting from scratch, replacing the current structures with modular or manufactured homes and redoing the water and sewage systems.


The falls were once a center of Indian commerce and social activity in the West. The trade network centered here reached to the Great Plains, Alaska and California and anthropologists say the population around the falls may have reached 10,000.

There is evidence that the area has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 to 12,000 years, making it one of the oldest permanent settlements in North America.

Beginning with treaties signed in 1855, the Columbia River tribes received perpetual fishing and other rights, but less generous than the rights they had held for centuries.

The quality of the fishing plunged when the falls were flooded.

“The Dalles Dam was a traumatic experience. It took the last vestiges of what they could see as their existence as a people,” said Linda Walker, tribal liaison to the Corps of Engineers.

Today, the village is separated from the river that sustained it for millennia by a freeway and railroad tracks.

Village residents have stayed with some of their traditional ways.

“We mostly get by on salmon, and on deer and elk, with roots and berries,” Jim said. “That’s how we survive.”

A celebration and feast each April marks the return of the upriver salmon migration.

Ronald Jim’s father, Howard, 84, assumed his role as chief as a teenager. He never went to school. He speaks his native Sahptan and very little English and doesn’t talk much to outsiders.

But he has said that when the falls were flooded he couldn’t bear the sight, so he went away and didn’t return for two years.

The dam was far from the first intrusion on the tribe’s heritage.

Lewis and Clark College history professor Stephen Dow Beckham, a specialist on Northwest Indians, says a portage wagon road and three railroads were pushed through the area in the 19th century.

Then, just before World War I, came the Celilo Canal and Locks.

Pioneer diaries describe driving wagons through Indian burial grounds as the wheels crunched up bones.

Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition reported vast amounts of salmon drying along the riverbanks.

Some hope to have the village spruced up in time for the height of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, which began in January and runs for three years. But William Pitt, government affairs and planning director for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, says that is not a priority.

“We don’t give a hoot about Lewis and Clark,” he said. “They were just a couple of lost white guys. For us, this is a treaty celebration. We’re still here. It’s our way of life as a tribal people, and we would like to tell our own story.

“We’re part of the dream too,” Pitt said. “People forget that.”