For more than 10,000 years Indian people have lived adjacent to the Columbia River. The river provided them with countless salmon which they harvested with nets and spears. The annual salmon run provided Indians with a nutrient-rich food as well as a valued commodity for barter. It is estimated that the aboriginal salmon harvest along the Columbia River was about 18 million pounds. Among the Indians along the Columbia River, it is estimated that salmon provided at least 40 percent of their total calories.
In his book Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River, William Dietrich reports:
“It was roasted, boiled, smoked, or dried into a flaky power that could remain edible for several years. Big games, such as deer and elk, probably made up no more than 10 percent of the diet.”
At Celilo Falls, people constructed platforms out over the water so that the salmon could be more easily speared. Writing in 1859, Lieutenant Lawrence Kip, in the book Indian War in the Pacific Northwest: The Journal of Lieutenant Lawrence Kip, describes Indian fishing on the Columbia River:
“Little bridges are thrown out over the rocks, on which the Indians post themselves, with nets on hoops, to which long handles are attached. With these they scoop up the fish and throw them on the shore. They are then pounded fine between two stones, cured, and tightly packed in bales of grass matting lined with dried fish-skin, in which state they will be kept for years.”
According to the interpretive sign at Celilo Falls Park:
“For more than 10,000 years Sahaptin and Chinookan peoples lined the shore wand braved the currents to plunge dipnets into the massive runs of fish.”
With regard to preserving the harvested fish, the interpretive sign states:
“Consistent winds enabled the Indians to wind-dry their catch. They filleted fish and hung them in plank-covered drying sheds. The Indians pounded the dried fish, wrapped it in fish skins, packed it in baskets, and raised these into stacks covered with matting.”
Often the fishing sites, such as those at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, were owned by families who erected fishing platforms. Kinship structured the access to these sites. In an article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Andrew Fisher reports:
“The rights to a particular cliff, rock, island, or scaffold descended through inheritance, and the owners had to grant permission for others to use it.”
Ethnohistorian Robert Boyd notes that the concept of ownership is rather loosely defined. In his book People of the Dalles: the Indians of Wascopam Mission, He writes:
“The primary owner (elder family head) had first access to the site, but once he was done fishing, another more distant relative might take over, and so on down.”
Concerning the falls, the interpretive sign at the Park indicates:
“Here at Wyam Falls, known today as Celilo Falls, a vertical drop of more than 20 feet and sheer basalt bluffs on either shore forced the river into seething, boiling rapids.”
According to anthropologist Eugene Hunn, in his book Nch’i-Wána, “The Big River”: Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land:
“The owners felt bound to share their bounty with both relatives and strangers. Strangers were allowed to catch one fish; elders who came to watch the action were also due a fish as a common courtesy.”
In the hills above the river Indian people gathered roots, plants, and berries.
Shown above is a 1925 photograph of Indian fishing at Celilo Falls. Men would stand on platforms at the edge of the river and scoop up the fish in dip nets or spear them. Shown above is Celilo Falls, a traditional Indian fishing site until The Dalles dam flooded the area. This is on display in the Wasco County Historical Museum.
According to the Wasco County Historical Museum display:
“They put their lives in jeopardy. Fishing in the mighty Columbia was a hard and dangerous enterprise. The Indian men braved the wild water to erect their fishing platforms. Perched above the surging stream, they plunged their dipnets into the schools of migrating salmon. They struggled to wrestle a 20 to 120 pound fish, wriggling in the net, to the deck and to shore.”
Shown above is an artist’s conception of a Columbia River Indian village. This image is on a roadside information sign. Shown above is an artist’s conception of Celilo Village. This image is on a roadside information sign.
The fourteen-mile area along the river was densely populated with permanent villages on both the north and south sides of the river. Archaeologists James Keyser, Michael Taylor, George Poetschat, and David Kaiser, in their book Visions in the Mist: The Rock Art of Celilo Falls, report:
“During the Late Prehistoric period an observer traveling this stretch of river would never have been out of sight of permanent occupations. Several villages had more than 50 separate pithouse dwellings and each had associated ceremonial structures, cemeteries, rock art sites, sweat lodges, and racks and buildings for fish drying.”
For 10,000 years, the villages near Celilo Falls served as a traditional trading center for distant Indian nations.
In 1957, The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls and silenced this voice. The falls is now beneath the lake-like waters of a human-controlled Columbia River. Historian Roberta Ulrich, in her book Empty Nets: Indians, Dams, and the Columbia River, reports:
“Weeping Indians stood on the shore and watched the white man’s dam drowned their homes, their livelihood and the center of their culture.”
Archaeologists James Keyser, Michael Taylor, George Poetschat, and David Kaiser, in their book Visions in the Mist: The Rock Art of Celilo Falls, describe it this way:
“People gathered to watch as the inundation slowly filled the canyons and sites of ancient villages, radically changing the face of the Columbia Gorge forever. The roaring falls at Celilo, the focus of fishing and a vast trading network for thousands of years, as well as a center of social and mythological importance, gradually fell silent as it too sank beneath the rising tide of water and the needs of modern ways of life.”
Within six hours, Celilo Falls, an important resource and spiritual site, disappeared beneath the rising waters.
According to one roadside historical sign:
“Bereft of their ancestral fishery and gathering places, local Indians are awaiting enactment of Public Law 100-581 passed in 1988, that will provide 26 fishing access sites between Bonneville and McNary Dams. This helps guarantee the way of life for the Indian fisher.”