In Search of Celilo


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I found these photos of Celilo Falls while doing research for an earlier story. They haunted me. Though I’d grown up near the Columbia River, I had never heard of Celilo Falls. In grade school I went on numerous field trips to dams, including the one that inundated Celilo Falls. My grandfather worked his whole life at pumping stations bringing irrigation water to farmers on the dry plains of the Columbia Basin. My dad still delivers parts to dams every week. Every summer of my childhood I swam in reservoirs and canals. As a teenager I escaped the sadness of my broken family by driving out to a small diversion spillway, where my mom and dad as teenagers had bravely or stupidly—but hand in hand—taken a dare to jump off the ledge into the raging water. I left Washington after I graduated high school and swore never to return.

Three years ago my husband and I made a quick trip north to Washington for a Pearl Jam concert by the Columbia. I didn’t tell my dad I was coming home. It had been too many years since we’d talked. My husband and I spent a day driving along the lower Columbia searching for the place where Celilo Falls used to roar and where salmon used to leap. In a guidebook I read there was a marker commemorating the now silent falls. After all, Celilo had been the prime Indian fishing site on the lower Columbia for ten thousand years. It deserved at least a plaque. Frustratingly, we never found the marker. We saw a few Indians fishing from piers in tiny fenced-off areas called “In-Lieu Fishing Sites.” The water they dipped their nets into was deep and mute. We saw the enormous concrete dam that blocked the Indians’ view (both backward and forward), to say nothing of the salmon trying to journey home to the streams of their birth. Loss is what these pictures represent—unfathomable loss for Native Americans. For me: guilt and loss and longing. All the stuff of life illuminated and, to a certain extent, redeemed in fiction.

—Heather Brittain Bergstrom

Photos courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane, Washington. The top left photograph is negative no. L95-66.10, and the photographer is Clarence Colby. The bottom right photograph is negative no. L94-14.50, and the photographer is unknown.