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Columbia Chronicles A Way Of Life Submerged Kettle Falls Drew People, Salmon By The Thousands

Wed., June 7, 1995

Tree-topped bluffs pinch the Columbia River a hundred yards upstream from the Kettle Falls Bridge. The surface is calm, showing the green-black of deep waters.

But 90 feet underwater, the current dodges rocks and two submerged islands, dancing in the ancient whirlpools and eddies that decorated the river before Grand Coulee Dam turned it into a lake in 1941.

Here, the river bed drops 35 feet in a half-mile.

Before the dam, that drop created Kettle Falls, the center of life for thousands of Native Americans. Each spring, the water pounded against chinook salmon vaulting up the falls.

“It’s so quiet now. The old people used to talk loud to be heard,” said Pierre Louie, who remembers when his Lakes Indian Tribe and 10 or more other tribes camped at the falls to fish, to barter and to settle differences.

“Our camp was on the other side of the river,” Louie said from the eastern shore. “Over here were the Spokanes and Kalispels, people from Montana. Up the river were the people from Canada.

“I seen the people and I seen the fish, but I was too young to participate.”

This submerged landmark 30 miles south of the Canadian border is easy to overlook. There are no signs or markers noting what lies beneath.

Before the dam silenced the falls, native fishermen stood with spears on wooden platforms where mist moistened their bronze faces. Some hung willow baskets from the cliff to catch salmon tossed back by the falls. Others set traps in the current to snag fish by their gills.

On a good day, during peak season, a man could spear 1,000 pounds of fish that had navigated 700 miles from the Pacific Ocean to spawn, to die and - the native people believed - to feed the tribes.

“The Kettle was unique because the salmon that came up here were so big. They called them hogs,” said Gig LeBret, whose 93-year-old grandmother is the oldest living Spokane Indian. “They were over 100 pounds, some of them.”

The fish were dried over fires, and kept for winter. Some were boiled at the falls, in man-sized rock depressions that gave the torrent its English name. The Indians used red hot rocks to heat the water.

Louie and LeBret tell stories of the falls to anyone who wants to hear.

Louie talks mainly to the young, in classrooms and at sobriety camps he helps organize for troubled teens. He speaks in hushed tones that belie his concern that the younger generation doesn’t understand what was lost.

“A lot of the kids, the small ones, I think they try to understand,” he said. “The teenagers understand for a little while.”

LeBret is the only Native American ranger for Coulee Dam National Recreation Area, managed by the National Parks Service. When he speaks to tourists and schoolchildren, his talk is laced with the resentment of someone born after the dam but who does understand the loss.

If they ask, visitors at the Kettle Falls Ranger Station can see a black and white picture of two men, LeBret’s French grandfather and his great uncle, hoisting four salmon, two of which weighed more than 50 pounds apiece.

LeBret still has the weathered spear his grandfather holds in the 1927 photograph. He once saw it used by tribal elders — on carp, a scrap fish imported from Asia.

“They wanted to spear something, to remember what it was like,” said LeBret. “You could see it in their eyes, the sadness.”

LeBret said his job gives Native Americans a greater voice on decisions affecting the river. But he said he could not work for the Bureau of Reclamation, which built the dam, or the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the electricity it produces.

“The National Park Service was brought in afterwards, to protect the resource that was left,” he said.

Rowena McIntosh, a retired hardware store owner, also tells stories of the falls. McIntosh, who is white, is volunteer curator of the People of the Falls Interpretive Center. Grade school children at the center amaze her with their questions.

“One boy asked, ‘Are there any Indians still alive?”’ McIntosh said, “They were from Colville and there are lots of Indian kids in Colville, but I looked at the group, and they were the blondest, bluest-eyed kids I’ve ever seen.”

Kettle Falls was not the only gathering place lost to Grand Coulee. The Spokane River was an important fishery, as was the Sanpoil River, where the annual arrival of the fish turned into a carnival after the invention of automobiles.

The tribes also lost pictographs, villages and other historical sites to the flood. Federal archeologists moved bodies from burial grounds before the water rose, but they missed more than they found. People have lived and died along the river for at least 10,000 years.

“You go to any flat spot along this river and you’ve got grave sites,” said LeBret. Once or twice a year he said, pieces of human skeletons wash ashore.

Other cultural sites were lost as the government built more dams downstream.

Celilo Falls, which rivaled Kettle Falls as a fishery, disappeared when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the gates on The Dalles Dam in 1957 near The Dalles, Ore.

Whale Island, just upstream from Priest Rapids Dam in central Washington, contained more than 125 rock carvings and paintings of hunters, wildlife, sunbursts and other symbols. Federal workers removed and preserved some of the carvings and took pictures of others before water covered the island.

At Kettle Falls, the tip of Hayes Island sometimes is exposed when the water is low. In 1989, the water was low enough that some Indians set up teepees on the island, camping where their ancestors camped, though without the music of the falls.

The falls last thundered in 1974, when the river was drawn down for dam expansion. About 3,000 people watched as local daredevil Terry Brauner rode the rapids on a tractor inner tube.

But there were no salmon vaulting against the water that carried Brauner down.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Map of Kettle Falls area

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: Staff writer Dan Hansen and photographer Steve Thompson are exploring the Columbia River aboard a 13-foot inflatable boat. They started June 1 at the Canadian border and will finish in a month at Pasco.

Where to go If you visit Kettle Falls, here are some places to see. i St. Paul’s Mission - Europeans didn’t come to the Columbia just for fish. Some came looking for souls. In 1845, Father Anthony Ravalli visited Fort Colvile (the name later became Colville) near Kettle Falls to evangelize among the Indians. During his month stay, Ravalli convinced the natives to build a small chapel of brush and rough logs. By 1847, it was replaced by a chapel made of sturdy hand-hewn logs joined with dovetailed cuts and wooden pegs. The church, on a bench above the falls, was used for worship and other events until 1875. The badly deteriorated building was replaced with a replica in 1939. St. Paul’s Mission was turned over to the National Park Service in 1974 and is open to visitors daily. Its entrance, three miles west of Kettle Falls on U.S. Highway 395, is well marked. People of the Falls - To learn more about the Native Americans who fished at Kettle Falls, visit People of the Falls Interpretive Center. It is located near the entrance to St. Paul’s Mission. The center is open Wednesday through Sunday during summer months.

Don’t miss out If you missed an installment of The SpokesmanReview’s Columbia Chronicles, back issues are available. They can be purchased at the newspaper’s Spokane office, 999 W. Riverside, or ordered through the mail. Cost is 50 cents daily and $1.50 Sunday for copies from the newspaper’s circulation counter. Copies by mail are $2.25 each for the daily paper and $3.90 each for Sunday. Send your mail order to The Spokesman-Review, Mail Circulation Dept., P.O. Box 1906, Spokane WA 99210-1906. Please designate the date of the paper you’d like. These are the Columbia Chronicles that have been published so far: Sunday, June 4 - An overview of the Columbia River and its impact on our region. Wednesday, June 7 - Now 90 feet under water, Kettle Falls once raged - and provided fish to the native people.

These sidebars appeared with the story: Staff writer Dan Hansen and photographer Steve Thompson are exploring the Columbia River aboard a 13-foot inflatable boat. They started June 1 at the Canadian border and will finish in a month at Pasco.

Where to go If you visit Kettle Falls, here are some places to see. i St. Paul’s Mission - Europeans didn’t come to the Columbia just for fish. Some came looking for souls. In 1845, Father Anthony Ravalli visited Fort Colvile (the name later became Colville) near Kettle Falls to evangelize among the Indians. During his month stay, Ravalli convinced the natives to build a small chapel of brush and rough logs. By 1847, it was replaced by a chapel made of sturdy hand-hewn logs joined with dovetailed cuts and wooden pegs. The church, on a bench above the falls, was used for worship and other events until 1875. The badly deteriorated building was replaced with a replica in 1939. St. Paul’s Mission was turned over to the National Park Service in 1974 and is open to visitors daily. Its entrance, three miles west of Kettle Falls on U.S. Highway 395, is well marked. People of the Falls - To learn more about the Native Americans who fished at Kettle Falls, visit People of the Falls Interpretive Center. It is located near the entrance to St. Paul’s Mission. The center is open Wednesday through Sunday during summer months.

Don’t miss out If you missed an installment of The SpokesmanReview’s Columbia Chronicles, back issues are available. They can be purchased at the newspaper’s Spokane office, 999 W. Riverside, or ordered through the mail. Cost is 50 cents daily and $1.50 Sunday for copies from the newspaper’s circulation counter. Copies by mail are $2.25 each for the daily paper and $3.90 each for Sunday. Send your mail order to The Spokesman-Review, Mail Circulation Dept., P.O. Box 1906, Spokane WA 99210-1906. Please designate the date of the paper you’d like. These are the Columbia Chronicles that have been published so far: Sunday, June 4 - An overview of the Columbia River and its impact on our region. Wednesday, June 7 - Now 90 feet under water, Kettle Falls once raged - and provided fish to the native people.


 
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