A Brief History of Mid-Columbia Fishing Sites, 1935-2015

For indigenous peoples, submergence of the Falls and destruction of the mid-Columbia fishery are part of an ongoing, two hundred year military occupation of indigenous cultures, lands, and waterways.

Traditional, treaty-reserved mid-Columbia fishing sites have been occupied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since 1934, when the Corps began building Bonneville Dam at river mile 146. Bonneville Dam was completed in 1937, submerging a section of the mid-Columbia known as The Cascades, which contained numerous traditional fishing sites. The Corps’ occupation of the river expanded in the 1940s, with construction of McNary Dam at river mile 292. It intensified dramatically in 1952, when construction of The Dalles Dam began at river mile 192. Six years later, the Corps began work on John Day Dam at river mile 216. With the completion of John Day in 1971, military occupation of traditional mid-Columbia fishing sites was complete: 179 miles of the Columbia River, between Bonneville Dam and the mouth of the Snake, had been impounded. All traditional fishing sites along this vast stretch of river were now engulfed beneath 40-60 feet of water.[ii]

Federal actions leading to construction of these dams were not the result of negotiations between co-equal sovereigns. Co-equality was implied in the treaties that reserved to indigenous fishers their rights to harvest fish at “usual and accustomed stations in common with citizens of the United States.”[iii] The Dalles Dam was built over strenuous objections from tribal representatives. Instead of negotiating in good faith, the Corps and its allies acted unilaterally, leaving the tribes no choice but to walk away with nothing or accept small payments for loss of their fishing sites.[iv] Either way, the Corps was determined to build The Dalles Dam and submerge the Falls. Families who cherished Celilo and made their living at fishing sites passed down through generations, were financially “compensated” in sums that barely amounted to the value of an average year’s salmon harvest. Needless to say, these are not the actions of an honorable government mindful of its obligations.[v]

Indigenous people tend to view the submergence of Celilo Falls and destruction of the mid-Columbia fishery not as a story of reasonable but misguided management of natural resources, but as one of conquest and theft. Treated as second class citizens, their treaty rights ignored, they have always been suspicious of efforts to interpret the Corps’ “development” of the river as anything other than an act of attempted genocide. The Dalles Dam could have been sited above the Falls. It could have been scaled down to create a smaller reservoir, leaving the Falls intact. To indigenous fishers, the fact that neither of these options was seriously considered suggests that the dam was never a thoughtful effort, or even a misguided effort, to achieve a greater good, but was simply a tactic to force them off the river.

In the six to eight decades since the Cascades, the Falls, and other mid-Columbia fishing sites were drowned, the people who traditionally occupied them have never left the river. Their cultures and ways of life have survived, and, in some ways, grown stronger. They continue to exercise their rights to harvest fish, even though most of the fish, and all of their traditional fishing sites, are gone. Instead of dip nets, they use gill nets, the only effective commercial fishing method in the deep, slack water of an engineered river. Some of them insist that the Falls are only sleeping, and that the One who created them will eventually restore them.[vi] In the meantime, they maintain their bonds with the river and the fish. They maintain their way of life as best as any people can, given the circumstances. Many of them are mistrustful of efforts toward restoring the Falls. In light of the history of Euro-American interference with the river, their mistrust is understandable.

In indigenous cultures, rivers, water falls, forests, mountains, and all of Earth’s other attributes are not thought of as “wilderness,” in the sense commonly meant by environmentalists when they use this word. Neither are they “resources,” in the sense meant by Western “resource managers” when they talk about natural resources. From an indigenous perspective, nature and her attributes are medicines, sources of sustenance and health to be used and appreciated by non-humans as well as humans.[vii]

The indigenous view of nature-as-medicine reflects a metaphysical view of nature, and of the epistemological and ethical relationships between humans and nature, that are profoundly different from Western views. Nature-as-medicine embraces the notion that Earth and her attributes and powers are congenial, not hostile, to the attributes and powers of humans. Celilo Falls and the salmon that ascended them were not wild things to be conquered, as though they could not have fully benefited humans until they had been tamed, engineered, and domesticated. Nor were they resources to be exploited. They were essential life-giving forces, whose disappearance has impoverished human life and culture.

In the twenty-first century, in an age when geologists, climate scientists, and ecologists recognize that every aspect of life on Earth has been fundamentally altered by human activities, the indigenous view of nature and culture as two aspects of an ontic whole seems truer, more accurate than the ontological dualism of the Western view. From an indigenous perspective, the mid-Columbia is a single organism with non-human and human attributes. Due to its physical character as a place where the river coursed among basalt outcroppings and islands, constricting and quickening, where salmon could be caught abundantly in dipnets, Celilo Falls was an especially vivid manifestation of the unity of culture and nature. From the standpoint of the people who know and directly appreciate this unity, submerging the Falls was morally wrong because it was a violation of their culture as well as a violation of natural law. From an indigenous point of view, the Falls should be restored (if at all) as part of an effort to give back what was taken from them, not just as an effort to rewild the river.

[i]  I have been deeply involved in Native American ceremonial traditions for twenty-four years. My spiritual life is personal and private. I share it only with family and close friends. My experiences with Native American ceremonies have not given me any special qualifications to speak about indigenous cultures. There is no substitute for being raised in an indigenous culture. I was raised by middle class, non-spiritual, secular humanist Euro-American parents in a suburban Northern California neighborhood.

[ii]  Blaine Harden, A River Lost,

[iii]  Vincent Mulier, “Recognizing the Full Scope of the Right to Take Fish Under the Stevens Treaties: The History of Fishing Rights Litigation in the Pacific Northwest,” American Indian Law Review

[iv]  Katrine Barber, Death of Celilo Falls, Unversity of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 64-95.

[v]  Katrine Barber, Death of Celilo Falls, Unversity of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 155-182.

[vi]  In a private conversation, Karen Jim, resident of Celilo Village and daughter of longtime Celilo Chief Howard Jim, told me that “The Falls are sleeping, and only God has the right to restore them.” Ms. Jim repeated this assertion over the public address system at the annual First Salmon Ceremony in Celilo Village on April 13, 2014.

[vii]  My description of the indigenous view of nature as medicine is derived from a talk given by Ted Strong, Chief Judge of the Yakama Nation and former Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. During a panel discussion on restoring Celilo Falls at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon, in March, 2013, Judge Strong used the phrase earth as medicine to describe his people’s relationship with nature’s goods. See also Oren Lyons and Vine Deloria.

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