PORTLAND, Ore. – Celilo Falls may be gone, but Celilo Village is still
hanging on. The long-neglected place on the Columbia River won’t be
forgotten any longer if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $12.5 million
redevelopment project comes off as anticipated.
Celilo Village, the site where thousands of people gathered on the Columbia
to fish and trade since time immemorial is still occupied. Inhabited by
anywhere from 50 to 100 people depending on the fishing season, Celilo has
On a 31-acre strip of land between Interstate 84 and the river’s basalt
cliffs, a mish-mash of campers, shanties, dilapidated houses and
broken-down boats form the village of today.
“The thing with the village is that it’s right along 1-84. You can see it
when you drive by,” said Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the
Umatilla Indian Reservation, Antone Minthom. “Well, the politicians and
senators and congressmen – they see these things too and ask questions.
‘What’s going on at Celilo?’ So we started working with the Yakamas and
Warm Springs and the village people to see what we could do.
“Even though we’re a little farther to the east, Celilo was always a
rendezvous area and trading center for us,” said Minthorn. “We see Celilo
as a legacy, an icon, a cultural, religious kind of place. We want to keep
that place present on the river. We want it to remain a part of us. The
Indian tribes. Celilo is kind of like a stamp that signifies that the falls
are still a part of us.”
The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial hasn’t hurt the effort. Tourists flooding
into the Pacific Northwest during the 2004 – 2006 commemoration will be
directed to prominent places on the expedition’s route. At least those that
remain after 200 years. So far, Celilo Village isn’t on the list.
“How Lewis and Clark got in there,” said Minthorn, “is we were aware of the
bicentennial coming up and said ‘why don’t we use that as a target date and
reason for fixing up the village.’ We were thinking that if we finished it
by ’05 or ’06, it could be highlighted as part of the commemoration.”
The Celilo Village Redevelopment project won’t quite meet the hoped for
time frame, but at least the Long House renovation – work that will focus
on bringing the kitchen up to code – will be finished in time for the First
Salmon Feast in April 2005. Whether residents of Celilo, though, decide to
write a grant for funds from the Lewis and Clark Circle of Tribal Advisors
(COTA) to highlight this either event or another aspect of the village life
remains to be seen.
Once the Long House project is finished, the bulk of the scheduled
improvements will proceed gradually, culminating in 2009. These include:
Drilling a new well, bringing sewer and electrical systems up to code,
paving roads, building communal storage facilities for fishing gear,
relocating families while original homes are torn down and 17 new
manufactured homes are brought in, and building new restroom and shower
facilities along with a camp pad in the village to meet the needs of people
coming in to fish and take part in ceremonial activities.
At this point, though, villagers are still skeptical. Still not certain
about whether or not the plans are just more promises that will be broken.
“Before we went over to the Yakamas and Warm Springs and got them on board,
the chief would ask, ‘Where are the others?'” Minthorn said. “Even after
that it was a long time before the people living at Celilo finally began to
realize that maybe something is going to happen. It’s been several years
since when we started. These things tend to drag on. It’s not a very simple
thing. Very tough. Very complex, and it requires commitment. Sometimes you
almost say ‘maybe we don’t’ need to pursue this.’ Then it comes around
again and you say, ‘well, let’s get on the road; let’s go see.'”
Anyone in the know driving past today would identify Celilo Village with
its jerry-built structures, low rider pow wow cars, spray-painted signs on
half sheets of plywood that advertise ‘smoke salmon for sale’ as an Indian
salmon camp. And it’s true, the way of life at Celilo Village harkens back
to a time when people dipnetted fish from the river above the roar of the
falls at WyAm – the Indians’ name for Celilo, a word that means the echo of
water on rocks.
But the problem is that the old days are gone. And Celilo Village isn’t a
thriving salmon camp any more. Instead poverty is pronounced. The usual
social problems are there: Alcohol, drugs, too much TV and cheap
starchy-sugary food that only temporarily eases the pain. Eases the pain of
a life fundamentally and profoundly disrupted. Longer-term solutions have
thus far evaded the people clinging to Celilo. But perhaps they won’t
continue to do so.
“This is actually pretty incredible that Congress authorized the funds for
us to go in and make up for past mistakes,” said spokesman for the Corps,
Luke Elliott. “The original housing was substandard – built with cheap
lumber. Now the federal government is trying to make things right.”
On the question of how Celilo residents will afford to maintain the village
once the project is finished and they move back home, Elliott noted that
“$1.7 million will be given to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency
will in turn invest the money so that the interest from the account can
provide for repair and maintenance. The goal is to provide decent, safe,
sanitary housing, not only in the short term, but the over the longer
Still, Minthorn thinks more needs to happen than just the village
redevelopment. “Well,” he said, “how are they going to make a living? How
can we establish an economic base so they can have employment
opportunities? Earn a living so they can help themselves. You go to the
village and see all the fishing paraphernalia. You see all the boats and
nets. But I don’t know if there’s enough fish in the river and if they can
market the fish or get money for gas to run the boats.
“Okay, so the Umatilla has come in and helped build the village up. Now,
you, the people living there need to keep it going. It’s not a free thing.
There are cultural strings attached to it. If people want to hold on to the
salmon culture and religion in that place, they have to make sure they can
Survive there. The obvious link to Columbia River tribal survival is the
salmon. The river. The fishing.
If Celilo can come back into its own, clearly the fish will have to be a
part of the equation. The 2005 First Salmon Ceremony in the remodeled Long
House will be a step in the right direction. And doubly so, if villagers
get a COTA grant and incorporate the feast in the Lewis and Clark
But how will Celilo residents keep it going? How will people so long in the
grip of poverty return home and come into their rightful inheritance?
Probably by following the spirit of the salmon. The spirit of the salmon
that could not be denied in spite of the invasion. The spirit of the salmon
that keeps coming back, year after year to the Columbia River. Year after
year, since time immemorial to Celilo, to Celilo Village.