When Jon Lee and his band Slimeline kicked into “Roll On Columbia” the tightly packed crowd at Astoria Brewing Company joined in. It was FisherPoets weekend at the mouth of the Columbia River, an annual gathering of grizzled fisher folk from Alaska to California who come to celebrate their craft with prose and poetry and song. Old and young here know Guthrie’s ditty by heart, and Lee, a descendant of over a century of Chinese cannery workers in Astoria, sang it with gusto.
But the Columbia no longer rolls – thanks in colossal part to the Grand Coulee Dam for which “Roll on Columbia” was penned – and this was Lee’s point: to encourage debate.
Lee had asked his friend Scott McAallister, a commercial fisherman from Juneau, Alaska, to interrupt him half way through. And so he did. The duo yelled back and forth for some time in pre-scripted fashion. McAllister arguing that Guthrie was a tool of the Corp of Engineers who never cared for the Columbia or the men and women who worked her. And Lee, that Guthrie, who could do no wrong, was being ironic.
“Ha, that would be the ultimate,” Robbie Law, Lee’s cousin and member of Slimeline, later told me. “To have the Bonneville Power Administration pay for you writing subversive lyrics.”
As big a boon as Alaska is for fishermen today, the Columbia River was once bigger. “It was just a wealth of big trees and salmon and water,” Lee said. “It should have sustained us. But we squandered it. It should have lasted forever.”
Lee’s friend, the writer Victoria Stooppiello, was born and raised in the Lower Columbia region. Her father, grandfather, and great-uncle were commercial fishermen their whole lives. In an essay titled “Denial is Not a River” she conjured the folly of over-logging and the damned dams and renewable energy through the lens of an economic enterprise zone.
Many of the professional fisher folk had a streak of activist in them. For they rhymed not only about the joys of the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, a region of Southwest Alaska, but the need for the EPA to reverse its recent verdict to allow the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process to consider mining it.
To once and for all disallow Pebble Mine, a porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit project that will replace the sanctity of the salmon and these waters for the bounty that lies underneath.
Closer to Astoria, the presenters here assembled were passionate about the Columbia River, reflecting on the over-fishing that led to smaller fish and lessened runs, along with other obstacles the salmon now face.
As one fisher poet concluded at the gathering’s farewell event on Astoria’s fabled Pier 39, referring to the dams and the engineers who built them, “Sometimes it seems instead of one apple, we’ll devour the whole damned tree … So, it’s time to step back and take a long sober look, and conclude, Mama Mia. Let’s go back to the software, and try to come up with what’s really a good idea.”
Hi, my name is Neal, and in these polarized times, I’m going to re-attempt to paddle from sea to shining sea, taking journalism slow and low down from the view of a canoe, to listen, curate, and re-discover the threads that bind Americans together.
The re-launch will take place this Sunday, February 9th, 2020 along the storied banks of the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. And the journey to New York – encompassing 22 rivers, 22 states, and 7,500 miles – will take two years.
Together, we’ll go behind the stereotypes and observe and absorb and question. To take up the fight for the sacred Columbia River salmon, step in stride with an ex-offender upon release from the big house, and crouch down low with a hobo on the tracks, train in sight, that whistle bell a’blowin’.
In 2018, I attempted a similar sojourn, making it from Astoria, Oregon on the Pacific to Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River, North Dakota – about 1,800 miles in total.
This time around, from early 2020 until New Year’s Day, 2022, I intend to go the distance in a continuous storytelling expedition from Astoria, Oregon, to New York City.
Part One: To the Great Divide: We’re heading for the Continental Divide (yet again) during a time when our nation is truly divided. It’s up the Columbia all the way to British Columbia, up the Pend Oreille, and the Clark Fork to MacDonald Pass in Montana – all upstream and uphill, 1,111 miles. It’s going to be a struggle, but I hope to do it 5 months.
Part Two: To the Big Easy: It’s likely to take at least a week to haul that canoe (plus 300 pounds of gear) over the Continental Divide for 55 miles, but it’ll be worth it to get to Helena, to get back in the water again. Once there, it’s 3,249 river miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, dodging acres of barges, 1,000 foot tankers, swirling eddies, and the Chain of Rocks to the French Quarter, New Orleans. I believe I can do this stretch in 8 months, partly because I can’t wait to get back to the Preservation Jazz Club in New Orleans.
Part Three: To Lady Liberty: It’s a long, tortuous route of 3,127 river and portage miles to Lady Liberty at the edge of the Atlantic, which I reckon will take 12 months. We’ve got to skirt the Gulf Coast in open, often treacherous water, paddle up the Mobile, Tombigbee, Tombigbee-Tennessee and Tennessee rivers, down the New River, the Cumberland, the Dix and the Kentucky rivers. Up the Ohio, up and down the Kanawha, and up the Allegheny rivers. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then from Buffalo, it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson to see and know what has always made America great[!]
More than ever, we need to highlight, understand, and celebrate America’s incredible diversity, to tap into her collective experience.
So, let’s get to it – roll up our sleeves, get our feet wet, and in the spirit of Mark Twain, Light out for the territory.
When the Down the Mississippi author and adventurer Neal Moore set out for the second great expedition of his lifetime in February of 2020, he had no idea that his two-year, 7,500-mile documentarian trek by canoe would wind up navigating a nation mid-pandemic.
The original plan was to exercise slow journalism while covering the distance of twenty-two rivers and twenty-two states—from Astoria, Oregon to New York City—all in order to “come face to face with America’s soul.” “The idea was to go, from coast to coast, within two years—leading into the national elections and the aftermath thereof,” said Moore. “What I’m trying to do is to look for positive stories of what unites us as a country.”
And while the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated some logistical matters of Moore’s trip—and in many ways made it more solitary—he admits to the value of being in a position to document this particular America, this particular moment in history. “If anything, this has enhanced the storytelling,” he said. “It’s during hard times when people and families and communities really step up, and I’ve been able to witness a lot of that.”
After completing the first of three “Acts” mapping his path—a 1,111 mile upstream and uphill journey up the Columbia, Snake, and Fork rivers to MacDonald Pass in Montana, completed in ninety-seven days—Moore headed 3,249 miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, pointing straight towards our own Big Easy. And in mid-December, so close to the end, he made a stop in the Red Stick. Over the course of five days, he made the obligatory stops: beers in a Spanish Town backyard, three meals at Poor Boy Lloyds, breakfast at Louie’s. And from his Hilton room downtown, he spent most evenings looking out at the river, which he’s come to know quite well. And as an outsider, he observed that Baton Rougeans know her too: “The residents of Baton Rouge have relationships, with this river and with nature, and with each other—neighbors in Spanish Town who are friends and actually know each other—you just don’t see that in lots of larger cities.”
Just before our press date, Moore told me this on his cell phone, windblown on an island in Old Man River and shooting for New Orleans, where he would complete Act II and spend the holidays, mostly alone. “But I’m very excited about it, this solitary experience of New Orleans,” he said. “I’ve learned that traveling solo, you’re open. You’re more open to observations, to potential new friendships, to stepping out of your comfort zone, seeing things from a unique perspective.”
ELLISTON, MT — I entered the half-empty bar and ordered a Bud in a bottle. There were a number of Bigfoot posters inside and when I gestured at them with my thumb the barkeep said something about an annual Bigfoot hunt and how it attracted folklorists from several counties.
A full color banner of the illusive Sasquatch was staring me down with the caption, Reigning Hide and Seek World Champion. It was all a bit weird, and the day was just too pretty, so I stepped back outside to take in the vista.
Across from U.S. 12 was a set of railroad tracks and a series of undulating green mountains that stretched right up to the Continental Divide, each dotted with larkspur and Douglas firs and lodgepole pines. There were huge rolling clouds and a bright blue sky and a succession-play of light and shadows as the clouds scuttled by along the road.
I was in Big Sky country.
Here in the parking lot was a lineup of Harley Davidsons, American flags, 4×4 ATVs and just up from where I stood, a glistening “Lawdog’s Saloon” commercial sign with a bulldog and placard lettering that spelled out Gopher Hunt.
I was wondering what that could be about when, as if on cue, a slew of laughing kids arrived. Their pickups skidded to a halt and swaggering through the dust kicked up from the road they emerged with gopher tails in hand, hauling them in through the front swinging saloon doors by the armful, in great heaps up and onto the bar.
I came back inside and in time asked one of the lads about his haul.
“Hunting is who I am,”18-year-old Cameron Johnson told me. The kid was big on smiles but you could tell that he meant it, that he meant more than the pursuit of gopher.
Cameron was soon joined by friends Bridger and Tristan. An inseparable trio — you can tell when boys complete each other’s sentences — I would soon learn had taken second place.
I asked if we could step outside for an interview, if they could tell me what the hell a gopher hunt was?
“We come to the bar to sign up,” started Cameron. “And shoot gophers all day long until five and then…”
“…Make sure you cut the tails off…” added Bridger.
“…And then, yeah, you gotta cut the tails off – that’s how they get the count,” completed Tristan.
But the boys readily admitted they’d been late on the draw.
Cameron shrugged when they brought this up. “Well, we got here at twelve and it started at eight.”
“In the morning,” said Tristan.
“Yeah, eight in the morning,” continued Cameron. “So, we were a little bit behind, but we still got second.”
I had already overheard them. The boys had won $50 plus the promotional Coors and SKYY shirts they were now wearing. But I asked them anyway. “How many did you shoot? Did I hear fifty?”
“Yeah,” confirmed Cameron. “We shot fifty.”
“And then you bring the tails back, onto the bar?”
“Yeah, you bring them back,” continued Cameron. “And Mike, the owner, counts them. And he tells you what kind of place you get.”
“So, fifty gophers – 2nd place. Do you think if you’d have been here on time, you could have got 1st?”
All three nodded.
“Yeah, we would’ve,” settled Cameron. “’Cause he dropped his gun on a rock, too.”
Cameron and Tristan motioned to Bridger.
As if to explain, Bridger said, “Yeah, that’s what happens.”
“He knocked his scope off,” reported Tristan. “So, we had to – it was pretty much two shooters there.”
By this time, I was desensitized to the wholesale slaughter of the local gopher population, weighing it out in my mind that here in Montana, this must be a rite of Spring. And I found myself feeling bad for the kid with the wispy beard and the aw-shucks grin. So I tried to shift the blame to the weather.
“I overheard somebody talk about the tall grass. That we’d had a lot of rain here. Tall grass,” I motioned with my hands to Bridger, demonstrating growing grass. “That interfered with the gopher hunting, right?”
“Oh yeah, definitely.”
“You couldn’t really see them too much,” said Cameron. “They ain’t much taller than the grass, so.”
“Yeah, you’re out in the field tryin’ to kill gopher, and they’re layin’ in the grass after you kill them, and you can’t see them.”
“What do you shoot gophers with?”
“Me and Tristan here, we’re shootin’ .17s and Bridger’s shootin’ a .22.”
I nodded as if I concurred, as if I knew exactly what they were talking about.
“Okay – lessons learned for next year? What would you do differently?”
The three boys hung their heads.
“Ah, show up on time,” said Cameron.
“Yeah, we’d show up on time for sure,” said Tristan.
Bridger brought his head up. “Don’t drop your gun.”
“And make sure you have plenty of ammo,” said Tristan.
“About hunting in general,” I shifted. “It’s sort of like, from what I’ve been told, a spiritual experience. What would you say about hunting in general?”
“Hunting,” offered Cameron. “Well, it’s a great time. It’s who we are,” the boy said, bringing his me to a we. “You do it for a pastime. Well, I almost failed school because of hunting. Like, it’s what I love to do.”
And Tristan was nodding. “It’s something you hear about, and you think, yeah, that’s cool. But then you go out and do it and it’s a totally different experience.”
“Yeah,” said Cameron. “No one really knows until they’re out there. With a bow and elk.”
Bridger was looking left out of the conversation, so I prompted him back in.
“Okay, Bridger, what would you say?”
“Well, I don’t hunt much. I rifle hunt. I’ve never been bow huntin’. Bow huntin’s a lot different. I don’t know, I don’t hunt a lot.”
“Okay, but today you did?”
“Yeah, I shot some gophers.”
I brought my final question back out to the group. “How would you explain how you feel when you’re out there?”
“It feels a lot different,” Cameron said, referring to his beloved elk. “They’re a lot bigger than you. There’s way more out there than just yourself. There’s just so much more to experience. And you see the views of stuff, you know, on the internet. You see pictures of animals. But you go out there, and it’s just so much more surreal.”
“You see people in the city talkin’ about it,” said Tristan. “And they’re, you know, surrounded by concrete and steel, and once they come out here, they just can’t describe how beautiful it is.”
For Cameron, for all three of these boys, hunting and the great outdoors was their freedom, their release, their adrenaline rush.
“Until they’ve got an elk sniffin’ on their back they just don’t know what it’s like,” Cameron told me. “When you’re bow huntin’ and they’re all around you at twenty yards. It’s a little crazy. It’s intense. It gets your blood pumpin’ for sure.”
ASTORIA, ORE. – It is home to the first permanent U.S., non-native settlement west of the Rockies. Astoria, Oregon, you see, is big on diversity.
In the early 1800s, this Pacific coast town at the mouth of the Columbia River was a mecca for fur trappers and loggers. And thanks to an abundance of salmon, this is where Bumble Bee Seafoods established a foothold in 1899.
The Finns and Norwegians would arrive in their greatest numbers in the early 20th century. But back in the 1880s, had you taken a stroll down one of these storied riverside streets, one in three people you would have encountered would have been Chinese.
Liisa Penner of the Clatsop County Historical Society explains that the Scandinavians could qualify for 160-acre homesteads in exchange for clearing and taming the land, the labor available to Chinese migrant laborers and immigrants was demanding in a different way. “The Chinese were brought here usually by labor contractors to staff the canneries, and unfortunately, once they were here, the work was extremely difficult.”
While the Scandinavians thrived, the population of Chinese laborers would dwindle due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which curtailed immigration, and the advent of the mechanized “iron chink”, which economized fish processing production. And yet, while Penner explains the population of Chinese in Astoria steadily declined from 2,317 in 1880 to 139 in 1940, there are still remnants of these early settlers, who have stayed on, and are thriving today.
Flora Law, age 91, who was born in this town, represents the third generation of American-born Chinese in her family. Her grandmother, born in 1870, hailed from Alemeda, California. And her father, Edward Yim Lee, born in 1899, and his two elder brothers, Mike and Fred, came to Astoria from neighboring Portland in the early 20th century.
The Law family, by and large, have stayed on, in Astoria and across Oregon, and as Flora told me, “have assimilated into the community with no problems”. Her son, Robbie, 64, practices medicine and younger brother Ronnie, 60, is an engineer. Out of Flora’s six children and seventeen grandchildren, all but one are in an interracial marriage or relationship, and all have gone to college, many with advanced degrees.
“Appropriately, salmon run in schools,” explained Robbie, who attended Stanford University and came back to open a medical practice in Astoria. “It’s a story of the immigrant process, the immigrant experience, that we’re a part of the fabric of the community here.”
Another long-time Chinese-American family with deep roots in the community is the Lums, who run the local Toyota, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, and Ram auto dealership.
“Where else can Chinese people sell Japanese cars to a Scandinavian community?” Julie Lum quotes her father, David, who established Toyota of Astoria back in 1969 at the site of the family’s long running green-grocery. “And you can in the United States.” The family’s forbearer, Lum Sue, first came to the town in 1891.
Today, Julie and her sisters Pam and Lori run the auto dealership. As I set up for my interview with these sisters, a host of locals, both young and old, came in to chuckle and to say hello, to tell tales of various business successes and to take a picture with the trio. There is a real sense of community here – a word that would come up again and again as I interviewed various ethnicities around and about the town, all of which went by the title “Astorians.”
Jorgen Madsen, 83, a long-time Astoria resident and immigrant from Denmark, explained, “Everybody is worth something, big or little one, we all are part of the community.”
Where the town was once divided between the Swedes in Downtown, the Finns in Uniontown, the Chinese in Downtown and Uniontown, and the Norwegians in Uppertown, Sari Vedenoia-Hartman, 48, who runs a hair salon and who immigrated here in the early 1970s from Kalajoki, Finland, summed up today’s atmosphere nicely.
“The plumber lives next to the school teacher that lives next to the retired naval officer that lives next to the homemaker,” said Vedenoia-Hartman. “So, I remember being a little girl here – and we spoke Finnish in the home, and then English in school. They didn’t have ESL programs, so the community came together to teach us English – the neighbor kids.”
When asked how the face of the American experiment was playing out here on the Pacific Coast, Liisa Penner pointed to “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, which was written in 1883 to adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty. A poem that epitomizes the American dream, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And that the punchline of opportunity in a town like Astoria is alive and well today.
The town is a prime example of e pluribus unum, out of the many, one. There is a strength here where the word “immigration” is an affirmation.
“We have a heart for that,” explained Berit Madsen, 75, who immigrated to the U.S. from Drammen, Norway in 1963. “Because I see the positive.”
Interviewed on camera for this story (in order of appearance):
The Law family (left to right): Roger, 61, Flora, 91; Ron, 60, and Robbie, 64. Flora’s three sons are fourth generation Chinese Americans. Flora’s father came to Astoria in the early 20th century.
Jorgen Madsen, 83, immigrated from Denmark in 1958 and his wife, Berit Madsen, 75, immigrated from Finland in 1963.
The Lum sisters (left to right): Julie, 52, Pam, 52, and Lori, 49, are third generation Chinese Americans. Their family’s forebarer, Lum Sue, first came to Astoria in 1891.
Sari Vedenoja-Hartman, 48, immigrated to the U.S. from Kalajoki, Finland. Her family settled in Astoria, Oregon in the early 1970s.
The Hood River Valley has a history of ‘others’. The Finns of the late 19th century, the Japanese of the early to mid 20th century, and now those who identify as Hispanic and Latino. I recently spoke with a number of town leaders and bright light activists. Mainly women, both young and old, who are standing up in a unified voice of defiance. Here is a sampling of what they had to say.
Interviewed for this piece (in order of appearance):
Adriana, 23 – Adriana is “a Mexican that happens to be undocumented in the place that is really hard to be undocumented.” A student and activist, Adriana works nights as a waitress/bartender. “We’re on the verge of a revolution here,” Adriana told me. “Either jump on or get off.”
Paul Blackburn, 52 – Paul is the Mayor of Hood River, one of the few (if not only) Spanish-speaking mayors in the State of Oregon. Paul has formed the Latino Advisory Council and would like to see more Latinos on the city council and as mayor one day. He told me that “as the federal tenor and tone go the wrong way, it’s really motivated us to rally around our neighbors and friends and to work together for inclusivity in our city.”
Maria Elena Casmo, 44 – Maria Elena is a health policy analyst who immigrated with her husband Carlos, a civil engineer, from Chile. After five years in America, her status was changed from ‘non-immigrant’ to ‘immigrant’. She gained permanent residence in 2002. Regarding the current anti-immigration atmosphere in America, Maria Elena told me that people of color like herself, “Woke up. [That] they are not going to tolerate this type of speech.”
Montserrat Garrido, 16 – Montserrat, daughter of Maria Elena, is a Junior at Hood River High School who would like to become a journalist. She recently found her voice as a student activist at Hood River’s “MLK Day” rally. Montserrat has travelled back to DC for the Women’s March and for the Anti-Gun March with the students from Parkland, Florida.
Vicky Stifter – Pastor of Riverside Community Church – United Church of Christ. Vicky’s background is in the law. She has spent years on the Texas border working with immigration issues. A member of the community of Hood River for many years, Vicky tells me that if need be, her church has voted unanimously to shelter those in need as a sanctuary church.
Gladys Rivera, 28 – Gladys was born in Hood River in 1989. At the age of four, her mother (at the time six-months pregnant) was deported back to Mexico. She tells me that her mother took her by the hand and hopped back over the fence into America the very same day. While growing up, Gladys told me that she felt confused about her identity, that she “was never Mexican enough and never white enough.” Today, Gladys is an outspoken community member with Latinos en Acción (Latinos in Action) and the Latino Advisory Committee, amongst other groups. She is a mother of three.
Graciela Gomez, 47 – Gracelia arrived in America from Mexico at the age of 14. She wanted to attend school as a child, but her father told her that they were here to work. Graciela has cleaned houses, worked in fruit packing houses, and has picked cherries, pears, and apples. For the past 33 years, she has petitioned the government for a green card, which she received this past year. But she says it doesn’t mean anything when others in the community have yet to receive theirs. “If we don’t say something we are going to keep living in the dark,” Graciela told me. “And it’s time to bring a little light.”
Matt English – Matt is the Hood River County Sheriff. He tells me, “In our area, at least a third of the community is Latino, and so many of those people have some cultural differences that we need to work together to understand. And there has been a real push within this organization to build trust so that the Latino community is trusting of us.”
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.
Back in Astoria, Oregon, I befriended Columbia River Gillnetter, Cook Inlet Drifter, FisherPoet and Folklorist TOM HILTON, who shared with me this poem:
All that’s left is legend,
Names etched in a
Black and white photos
Folk Lores For sale
In the maritime museum
Boats of wood
Hands of Steel
Hearts of gold
A man was valued
By his word
White aproned Super-
Grinning from ear to ear
Days measured by
Faded Yellow Brown
Memories of the glory
When gillnetting was
Broken tops beneath
our tidal view
Lonely Net racks
Empty Bluestone tanks
Moldy musty dusty
Stripped clean of all
No more Mug up,
Just Empty Chairs
waiting for stories
Court is no longer in
See thru faded
Deadliest catch drama
If those pilings could
What tales would they
weave? Would they be
fortuitous of sport
Work is our Joy
Four bits a pound
Where did they all go?
A menagerie of people
A colorful past
By people like me
Fishing is more than
It’s a Religious
Surge of change
Pulling our nets
Taking us under
These words bury my
Black and white photos
Names etched on a
Let’s not forget them
The true legends of fall!
This mighty river
What It was back then
Full of Salmon Sturgeon
The Story is over…
All the Legends have
Our Eyes welled with
Last of my tears shed
So if pilings could talk
Ask one how it was
It will probably tell you
Those days are gone
With the stroke of a pen…
Copyright Tom Hilton and FisherPoets Anthology. Illusions of Separateness. “Uniontown Supreme Court: If The Pilings Could Talk” was written to pay respect for the men who fished and the women who worked the Columbia River. Audio recording and video of the old cannery at Clifton, Oregon by Neal Moore.