Two Elders recall the loss of Celilo Falls


“Who can tell the truth about Celilo history?”

The dams took everything. The salmon, the village, the treasures, the sacred places. There was no compensation, just empty promises.

Bruce Jim remembers the day Bonneville Dam blocked the river in 1938, burying many fishing places. The tribes had been promised a new fishing place at Big Eddy, to replace what was lost. Government agents knew then, just as it is obvious now, that Big Eddy was the very place they would build The Dalles Dam two decades later.

They didn’t have to kill Celilo Falls. The Dalles Dam could have been built upstream from Celilo, sparing the fishing site, writes Katrine Barber, a Portland State University history professor, in her book Death of Celilo Falls. The Dalles Dam was once proposed to be a giant dam, on the order of Grand Coulee — and could have been erected at a point far upstream near Arlington, Ore., where steep canyon walls crowd each side of the river. For those who wished to destroy Indian fishing on the Columbia, particularly at Celilo, The Dalles site was the perfect location for the dam. And there were many who did.

Tommy Thompson, the great Wyam chief, would not look at the dam. He was born the year of the treaties, 1855, and died two years after Celilo died in 1959.

Chief Thompson was 90 when Bruce Jim was born in the village of Wyam, also known as Celilo. Jim grew up a fisherman, and now as an elder he is a member of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, representing the tribes of the Warm Spring Reservation of north central Oregon in the business of bringing back the salmon. Together their lives span the entire history since the 1855 treaties.

Chief Tommy Thompson’s life spanned the whole last century in the life of Celilo Falls. In 1941, he told an interviewer for the U.S. Department of the Interior that his uncle, Stocket-ly, represented his people, at the 1855 treaty council. Upon Stocket-ly’s death in about 1906, Tommy Thompson served as Chief at Celilo until his death in 1959, two years after the loss of Celilo.

He was 104. 

Through his and numerous other interviews, the department documented the last days of tribal fishing in the Northwest before the surge in dams over the next four decades inundated almost all the traditional sites.

The subjects were duly sworn, giving the department’s report an investigative tone. Each interview was then translated into the third person.

To the Indians, Celilo was known as Wyam, and the people who lived there the Wy-Am-Pum. The chief Tommy Thompson, then 79, a “full blooded member of the Wyam tribe,” born at Celilo where his ancestors “had always lived and fished.”

Chief Thompson first fished at Wyam at age 14, and elsewhere on the Columbia River, which in his language is known as Chee-wan-a, or Big Water in the white man’s language,” he said.

He fished at Skein, which means “cradle board,” located immediately below the railroad bridge west of the falls, where fish were caught with spears and dip or bag nets, and many other locations up and down Chee-wan-a.

When he and the other Indians from Wyam would visit the other Indian fishing camps along the river, they “were all friends and joined each other in participating in Indian ceremonial dances and games of skill and chance.”

The Natives lost more than salmon to the dams. They also lost their communities. Never were they compensated for these losses. They did receive $3,700 each for the loss of Celilo.

Most of the inhabitants of fishing villages along the river moved to the various reservations when Chief Thompson was about 20 years old, in accordance with the treaties. “The greatest number of them went to the Warm Springs Reservation, a few went to the Yakama Reservation, and probably less than 10 went to the Umatilla Reservation.”

But Chief Thompson did not want to leave his own home despite the fact that his relatives selected an allotment for him at Warm Springs.

Members of other Indian tribes would visit Wyam to trade roots, berries and venison for dried salmon.

“If the visiting Indians did not have anything to trade for fish, the local people would either give them some of their own supply or else they would lend them the necessary equipment and permit them to catch all the fish they needed from one of the established fishing stations belonging to the local people. In other words, all the Indians were friends and shared their food and the means for obtaining the same with those who were less fortunate.

“The fishing platform locations on the banks of the river and on the rocks and islands in the river by the falls have been used by the local people from as long back as the Indians can remember. Those stations have been handed down from the older to the younger Indians of the same family from generation to generation. The chief of the local Indians was the one who would say who should use a place when there was no one in the family to whom it belonged capable of making use of it and that the decision by the chief was final and respected by all other Indians.”

The chief of the Wyam Indians had always been a member of Thompson’s family. His father’s oldest brother, Stocket-ly, represented the Wyams at the 1855 treaty council. He signed the treaty on their behalf.

When he was a boy, as he remembered it, only about 25 Indians actually went out to the rocks to catch fish. By 1942, there were 200 Indians fishing during the heaviest part of the summer run. “In the old days, there were not as many controversies concerning who should use a particular fishing rock as there were plenty of such places for the number of Indians who then fished,” Chief Thompson said.

“There are still not enough places for all those who wish to fish at Wyam. On account of this, it is necessary to divide the use of some places among those Indians who do not have fishing rocks which have been handed down in their family from generation to generation as long as the Indians remembered.

“The Indians nowadays and always have dried their fish in the open air in a shed which kept them from the rays of the sun, and they did not cure their fish by smoking them over fires.

“In the old days the Indians would dry some of the fish they caught at all times through the spring and the fall runs, whereas today most of the drying for their own personal future use is done during the season when the Columbia River is closed to commercial fishing. That is the reason why the Indians, in order to survive under modern conditions, must sell the largest portion of their catch which is not eaten in order to have money available for the purchase of medicines and commodities.

“Large families would dry and put away for their own future use, about 30 sacks of fish, depending of course on the size of the family.

“The annual fish runs are not as large as they used to be because the white commercial fishing takes most of the fish from the river before they have a chance to come up to the Indians’ fishing places. For that reason, the Indians as a whole do not obtain as much fish or revenue as they used to.

“The spring run of salmon in 1941 seemed to be quite small and not nearly as heavy as the spring runs of a few years ago. The fall run for that year was quite good and although he did not catch many fish because of personal sickness, my grandsons and other relatives were fairly successful in their fishing operations.”

Chief Thompson strongly opposed the construction of The Dalles Dam, which would destroy Celilo Falls and the fishery. In a 1946 letter to Jasper Elliott, Superintendent of the Warm Springs Reservation, written from his home in Celilo, he said:

“So much trouble at hand, but I got to fight for freedom of what belongs to me and all Indians in the nation throughout the world. We were robbed out of everything. But, I am going to cling to my fishing industry — I am not quitting on closed season, for I know I live here year-round. All I got is salmon to live on. I don't want this dam project either. There are lots of other rivers, streams for dams.”

In her 2006 book Death of Celilo Falls, Katrine Barber says Chief Thompson spent the day Celilo died in a Hood River rest home:

“The chief died on a Sunday evening in 1959, two years after the completion of The Dalles Dam. On Chief Thompson’s final journey to Celilo, a newspaper reporter described him as “taken in darkness past the gleaming, whirring massiveness of The Dalles Dam which he bitterly opposed and which in life he declined to look at.” 

Barber, a professor of history at Portland State University, writes that more than 1,000 people paid their respects “to a leader known for his humor and the ferocity with which he defended Native fishing rights and opposed The Dalles Dam.”

Before he died, he wrote down some memories:

I was there right in the village with my grandfather. I had to pack some stuff up the hill for some people, and I came back down and I just kind of sat in the house, I didn’t really watch.

You can see pictures of people watching, but it was something for them too hard to watch, too hard to see, something they could never imagine taken away. I was sad because I could see my grandmothers and them being sad and crying and shedding tears, and my grandfather sitting quiet, talking low and everything else. You have that feeling of something lost.

It wasn’t as much of an impact on us, the young people, as it was the older people that lived their whole life there.

There are only a few village elders that are alive today like my mother Dorothy Sintustus. There just aren't many people left, especially people from Warm Springs, that used to live down in Celilo.

Who can tell the truth about Celilo history? 

Because of the dams going in, the Warm Springs tribes sent people down there to get people enrolled. Telling us if you don't enroll you aren't going to get no money that is given to the people. I say this because I was there in my grandfather’s house. If you don't enroll in the reservation you don't get compensated. I always thought it was a wrong way of approaching it.

There were so many paces that we went — Cascade locks, lone pine, Indian Head Rapids, John Day River. Even the Umatilla River, where the 3-mile dam is, we would go in and harvest what we could in there. 

Indian Head Rapids was one of the last fishing places two miles above John Day river. There were only four scaffolds there, two of them were from our family's. I used to see across to the other side the Yakama fishermen.

Losing that place and not getting compensated, not understanding why we didn't get compensated. It really kind of rested on my thoughts all the time. I got papers from my grandfathers and people who sued the Corps of Engineers for covering up our fishing places. 

They destroyed our fishing places, they destroyed our homes in the lower John Day River.
Tumwater Falls on the John Day River, the Corps of engineers blew it up.

I remember those old people there that lived there in fishing shacks in Tenino and Celilo. I can still picture the way the river ran by Tenino. The fishwheel was there. 

Even the dinosaur tracks in the rocks, dinosaur tacks were that deep, you could see how they walked. My uncle told me these tracks catch more fish than you.

I know the Nez Perce were there, the Yakama, the Umatilla, but there was also Colville, the Pacific tribes. People from Montana used to come there.

It was the only place Indian people could make money was fishing at that time. They came down and wanted to find places to fish. This was a sure way of getting quick money presented on a platter to them, because of the usual and accustomed places.

Our people basically come from that area, that was our home, Warm Springs peoples’ home, Wasco people's home.

When the treaty was made some stayed 12 months of the year, and in the 1940s they weren't on the rolls at that time.

They had to be signed on, a lot of the families had chiefs who signed the treaty, and yet they weren't enrolled, and they came down and said you guys aren't getting anything because you aren't enrolled Which I always think was wrong.

People can’t tell me that didn't happen because I was there, I lived there until 1983 when I finally moved out, and moved to Warm Springs

That was where me and my wife lived, we lived in Rufus and lived in Celilo.

The first 6 years of life, I lived in Celilo.

I remember my grandfather and grandmother were talking about this and what was going to happen.

As a young boy I had a dream. I heard a big rumbling and I heard a sound and I looked over there over this flat water and I see the falls coming back. He says that might happen in your time. I think it was just more or less a hope or a dream to see something like that disappear. I mean literally disappear. Something that you would think could not be destroyed was taken away from us.

There was nothing that we could do, and powerless to stop.

And I think that's what hurt them most of all was that to stand there and see this happening and what entity was responsible for agreeing to this.

And that's what they used to say, at lot they had no business to agreeing to this to sell our people off for money ($3,700) they were going to be given.

I know that's harsh words but that's the way our people looked at it down there in Celilo. When I grew up down there as a young boy I used to go over to Big Island where my grandfather used to fish right next to the falls there, I'd get to go over there mostly to carry the fish.

We had a lot of adventures there as young people.

I was spoiled in a sense by my grandfather because I could go anyplace I wanted to with him, even though my mother wouldn't let me. She said it was too dangerous to go over to the island.

When they talk about first fish, I had a little net my grandfather made me, a little hoop.

There’s a little falls right by the scaffolds, that blueback (sockeye salmon) used to jump up there.
I would stand there by the falls and offer my net and I'd get the blueback.

One day my uncle Davis Thompson was standing there, and a big Chinook hit the falls, the falls was only 3 or 4 feet high, and went right into the net. I couldn't hold it, it took the net right out of my hand, but my grandfather caught it below me and pulled it in. That was my first fish, my first salmon. I can always remember that day.”

I don’t want this dam project.

Paul Koberstein