©2007 Cascadia Times

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Two Elders recall life, fishing and the loss of Celilo Falls (Part 1)

Bruce Jim: “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.

After Bonneville Dam blocked the river in 1938, burying many fishing places, the tribes were 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.

These are his 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 grandfathers 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 cold 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 the amount of 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.”

Next Article: Remembering Celilo: Chief Tommy Thompson