Fishing on the Columbia River (Old Photos)

The Fort Dalles Museum in the Dalles, Oregon, has a number of old photographs documenting Indian fishing on the Columbia River prior to the completion of the Dalles Dam which inundated the traditional fishing areas.


For more than 15,000 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.”

On of the important fishing areas was located about 10 miles east of present-day The Dalles, Oregon. It was called Wyam by the local Indians and is known today as Celilo (seh-LIE-low) Falls. This was not only a major fishing site, it was also a trading site.

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.”

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.”

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.

The Dam

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.”

 photo P1080895_zps6cqwjcdr.jpg The Dalles Dam is shown above.

Old Photos

 photo P1030618_zps3hlm9tbl.jpg Shown above is Celilo Falls in 1955. A commercial, non-Indian fishwheel can be seen in the lower center of the photograph.  photo P1030620_zpsxct5rbi1.jpg Another view of Celilo Falls in 1947. The smoke is from a steam-power freight train.  photo P1030624_zps5ipv6lim.jpg Celilo Falls in 1944.  photo P1030628_zpsdgyp86nf.jpg Celilo Falls in 1940.  photo P1030608_zpsxbuihglh.jpg This photograph was taken in 1950.  photo P1030576_zps7gisw7r4.jpg  photo P1030578_zpsagevt22e.jpg This photograph was taken in October 1954 at the mouth of Downes Channel.  photo P1030580_zpssslqzucc.jpg This photograph, taken in 1956, shows fisherman at Celilo Falls riding one of Seufert’s Cableways from the Oregon shore to Chief Island.  photo P1030592_zpsr9iqby6g.jpg This photograph was taken in 1956.  photo P1030600_zps74xd8w1q.jpg This photograph was taken in 1940.  photo P1030582_zpsykxyfzx6.jpg This photograph was taken in 1949.  photo P1030584_zpsnp92zqun.jpg This photograph was taken in 1955.  photo P1030586_zpssbsttqnq.jpg This photograph was taken in 1955. It shows the Five Mile Rapids.  photo P1030588_zps5vqcss76.jpg This photograph was taken in 1956.  photo P1030590_zps6hmoinmp.jpg This photograph was taken in 1956.  photo P1030594_zpshcdnh9xz.jpg This photograph was taken in 1943.  photo P1030596_zpsqnyeyggk.jpg  photo P1030598_zpsqigx9clr.jpg  photo P1030602_zps2bmszhwk.jpg This photograph was taken in 1953.  photo P1030604_zpsswpvcnh7.jpg This photograph was taken in 1947.  photo P1030606_zpsxoban8tk.jpg This photograph was taken in 1956.  photo P1030610_zpssdtuhg8s.jpg This photograph was taken in 1956.  photo P1030612_zps2ynb78g8.jpg This photograph was taken in 1951.  photo P1030614_zps0cbtdkhi.jpg This photograph was taken in 1956.  photo P1030616_zpswszx72lh.jpg  photo P1030626_zpsvvpgp1ok.jpg The white buildings in this 1956 photograph are the government housing built for the Celilo Indians.  photo P1030632_zpselzwyuw0.jpg This photograph was taken in 1956.  photo P1030634_zpsfaglobxp.jpg This photograph was taken in 1950.

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