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Two Elders recall life, fishing and the loss of Celilo Falls (Part 2)

Chief Tommy Thompson: “I don’t want this dam project

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.”

Next Article: Editorial: Celilo 50 Years Later