Indigenous Peoples Day (Celilo Falls)

Celilo Falls painting by Cleo Hehn, displayed at McMenamins Edgefield

Celilo Falls painting by Cleo Hehn, displayed at McMenamins Edgefield

 

Today we honor Indigenous Peoples Day and the ancestral homelands across the Pacific Northwest where we now gather. As the McMenamins footprint touches a number of ancestral lands and communities, we are constantly working to learn about the history and rich traditions that came before us and the vibrant cultures of people past, present and future.

McMenamins Edgefield has a new painting by Cleo Hehn that pays tribute to Celilo Falls, Chief Tommy Thompson, and Native American artist and activist, Lana Jack. Cleo describes the inspiration for her painting:

In 1957, the Army Corps of Engineers completed construction of the Dalles Dam, bringing an end to Celilo Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. These beautiful and bountiful falls were not only the central hub of an extensive trade network among many Native American tribes, but they were also home to the Celilo Wy’am people, many of whom were then displaced.

This painting bears three portraits: Chief Tommy Thompson, artist and activist Lana Jack, and the falls themselves. Leader of Celilo Village, Chief Thompson argued against the building of the Bonneville and Dalles Dams, but his pleas were ultimately disregarded. Lana Jack lives in what little remains of Celilo Village today, and she continues to advocate for her people and their right to live on their own historic lands, including fighting for the Celilo Wy’am tribe to receive housing, reparations, and federal recognition as a tribe. The falls were once powerful and full of a thriving salmon population, and this painting serves as a memorial to what has been lost.

I also painted a wreath of native flowers and the salmon’s life cycle encircling Chief Tommy Thompson. His people once lived off these fish, whose numbers and size far exceeded what they do now. The life cycle represents both the circle of life–that all things must die–and act as a floral arrangement on the tomb of Celilo Falls. Wy’am means “echo of falling water,” and I hope that this painting can be an echo of these once great falls, these once thriving communities of people and animals. Yet, I included Lana Jack as a reminder that the Celilo Wy’am people are still here.

 

Painting of Celilo Falls, displayed at McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale, Oregon.

Painting of Celilo Falls, displayed at McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale, Oregon.

 

Celilo Falls were the center of thriving Native fishing villages for over 10,000 years. The Native Sahaptin word wyam means “echo of falling water” and the overwhelming roar of Celilo Falls could be heard for ten miles away, and rivaled Niagara Falls in its grandeur.

The village of Wyam was one of the oldest continuously settled communities in the region. Other Native tribes with villages surrounding the waterfalls included the Upper Chinookan Wasco, the Sk’in-a-ma, the Klickitat, and the Sahaptins, who lived in the village, Silailo (from where the name “celilio” is derived). When Lewis & Clark conducted their census in 1805-1806, they estimated that between 7,4000 to 10,400 Native people lived between Cascade Rapids and The Dalles.

Celilo Falls was the ancient gathering site for Native people far and wide. Tribes traveled from all directions, from British Columbia to California, even as far as the Great Lakes in the Midwest, to attend gatherings of more than 5,000 people. In Lewis and Clark’s expedition journal, they called this area of Celilo Falls, “The Great Mart of all this Country”. Diverse tribes of indigenous people coordinated a vast trade network and met to exchange such commodities as fish, buffalo robes, beads, cloth, knives, axes, even horses. Celilo Falls was a place of celebrations, games, and religious ceremonies for over 10,000 years.

In 1945, the US Government’s plan to build The Dalles Dam was proposed, and not without vocal opposition from Native tribal members and their advocates. Even some white fishermen, who were unconcerned with “Indian” affairs, were scared of losing their own fishing rights. Despite protest, construction went ahead and the Army Corps of Engineers built a hydroelectric dam that also controlled the flow of the Columbia River.

On March 10th, 1957, the gates of the Dalles Dam were closed, and within four hours Celilo Falls went silent, and Celilo Lake was formed. Ancient villages were displaced, salmon spawning was disrupted, and fishing resources had to be sought elsewhere. While the federal government gave some compensation to certain tribes, the loss of Wyam will never be forgotten.

Several paintings of Celilo Falls are displayed at McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale, Oregon, commemorating the natural landmark and ancient cultural heritage site.

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