By NEAL MOORE
Along the COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON and WASHINGTON
I knew that traversing this nation’s first waterways in a canoe would be a challenge, along with the hope of a tribute to the first people who for millennia have called America home.
The word tribute is a great word because it’s a river word. Rivers that flow into larger rivers are called tributaries. Where they meet is the confluence. And their source point is the headwaters.
And if you scratch the surface by taking a canoe out and onto the water, and take a good long look all about you, and listen, and most importantly, feel, you’ll find the undercurrent, the rhyme and reason of the journey.
There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge where people still speak about the village that once was, before it was washed away by the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957. The place was called Celilo Falls, where a cascade of high-current whitewater gave way to platform scaffolds and fishermen and the giant chinook salmon that swam up through the rapids and jumped over the falls.
If Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, is celebrated as the first U.S. settlement west of the Rockies (founded in 1811), it is important to note that Celilo Falls stretches back quite a spell further. For 15,000 years, Celilo was a gathering place for the Native American people, the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent, and a mecca for traders who came for the salmon from far and wide.
“I remember the sound of that river and of those falls,” Wilbur Slockish, Jr. told me. Slockish, who was raised on these waters, is the chief of the Klickitat people, a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest. “I used to make money by packing one or two fish – the fish were bigger in those days. And I packed them up for the fishermen so that they could fish and I would struggle up there. And that’s where I got my strength, for that was my exercise.”
And Slockish was not alone. During my time on this portion of the Gorge, I visited several of the 31 native fishing in-lieu sites. I toured and met with different tribes who make up the Columbia River Indians — the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce.
Down in Cascade Locks, I met with young Nez Perce natives who were busy getting ready with their boats and their nets for their ceremonial fishing. The first fish of the year, the spring salmon, are collected by the tribes for their ceremonial needs. Extra salmon are brought home to fill the freezers for the years ahead. Only once the quotas are met, will the tribes consider fishing commercially. Although this year’s spring salmon is late, these Columbia River fishermen were hopeful.
Bud Herrera, 54, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, fishes below the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. Bud, a Umatilla, tells me this could be one of the lowest seasons on record since 1939 for the spring chinook salmon. Bud fishes by scaffold and by line, and while this year’s catch is low, he likewise remains confident.
Bud’s cousin, Cort Herrera, 54, a Umatilla, spoke to me about how family and fishing go hand in hand. “It just goes together. You know, we catch the fish together and have good times here – make memories together on the riverbank. Just have fun, you know. That’s what it’s all about – to teach the younger generation, so they can do it when we’re not here. Just like we learned from our family relations.”
While I was documenting the Herrera family, Bud’s nephew helped his 9-year-old nephew land a spring chinook salmon. The kid’s face said it all. His gap-toothed smile was priceless.
The reason for the 31 in-lieu sites goes back to the Treaty of 1855, which Wilbur Slockish Jr.’s grandfather was a signatory of. When asked to remind us what the treaty promised the local native tribes, Slockish explained: “We were to retain our lands, certain lands, and to retain our fishing rights and our hunting rights. We were to retain all of our other food gathering activities. Places that we fished at. And we gave land to the federal government in exchange for that. We were promised adequate healthcare and they were supposed to build a hospital.”
Today, with the construction of the dams and the washing out of the villages, living conditions for the Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakama Native American tribes at the original in-lieu dedicated settlement sites along the Columbia River Gorge remain unsafe and unsanitary. As residents await the federal government’s decades-old promise of “adequate permanent housing” to replace their once-thriving communities washed away by the construction of the dams.
“A lot of people here,” said Slockish, “they seemed all to think that the government and the courts gave us hunting rights and fishing rights — not realizing who gave what to whom.”
There is a connection to this land and river that the native people understand. That they live and breathe and practice and teach. “That is what is important and I try to protect it,” said Slockish. “Because these are the gifts that our creator gave to us. We protect them and take care of them and in turn they will take care of us. Because we don’t own them — the future owns them … So that’s why we value them. Our bodies are made from this land and everything will return to the land – the law of the land – go back to it. So why would you harm it?
“You know when people from the east came this way, they saw all of this land up by the Tri-Cities and down the Gorge and thought it was idle – Idle land, look at this. We can irrigate it. Think of the profits we can realize from it — but they didn’t think, they didn’t realize that it was our supermarket. There was deer, elk, rabbits, grouse, other birds that we ate. Medicine, roots, all within that idle land and that’s why they thought of the dams. That was in the 1920s. People from the east are always doing that — comin’ out here and altering — they altered the landscape. And our foods aren’t the same anymore. Our roots are coming earlier, our salmon are coming later. We should have already had freezers full.”
Cy Jim, 51, who identifies as a Warm Springer, fishes on the Washington side of the river just below the John Day Dam, one of four U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dams of the Columbia River Gorge. For him, it’s more than just subsistence. It’s a way of life.
“Fishin’ just keeps us goin’,” Jim said. “This river keeps us goin’. It’s something we’ll never give up. As long as there’s fish here, we’ll never give it up. We’ll always do it.”
But Jim wasn’t always able to fish. His father, like Slockish’s father, turned away from fishing the Columbia following the washing away of Celilo in 1957. It was too painful, and besides that, there was frequent animosity towards native fishermen over competition for fishing rights that followed.
“I’ve been shot at, I’ve had rocks thrown at me,” Slockish said. “I’ve had boulders rolled down the hill at me, and I’ve been cursed, all over my own food.”
And then there was the “Salmon Scam” of the late 1980s. “We were blamed for 43,000 missing fish when it was aluminum plants that poured fluoride at John Day Dam. See that dam right there? There’s a big gravel bed there – there used to be 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 pound salmon spawning in that area – and with those gravel pits they built the dam and killed it and they poured fluorides in there and the salmon, they lost their sense so they just spawned in a different area, they adapted, but we got blamed for it and I went to prison for three years for it.”
Slockish laughs at the memory of his incarceration at El Reno, a medium-security United States Federal Correctional Institution for male inmates in Oklahoma. “I always called it my government sponsored vacation.
“But I’m still here. This is my homeland.”
This story was made possible by Syd Goldsmith.