They sat in the long house at Celilo Village, an encampment that’s a shadow of its former self, and talked of the old days.
“We told about the salmon. How you salt it, how you dry it,” Adeline Miller said Thursday. “You don’t see much of that anymore.
“Eat salmon three times a day, never got tired of it.”
That was before March 10, 1957, the day the gates on the mammoth The Dalles Dam closed and literally drowned American Indians’ historic Columbia River salmon fishery.
On Thursday, about 300 people gathered to mark the 40th anniversary of the loss of the fishery and the falls, about 12 miles upstream from The Dalles.
Authorities believe Indians had fished at the falls for 9,000 or 10,000 years.
They speared and netted fish at the falls, which were about 20 feet high and spanned the Columbia, a thundering, cascading, boiling mass of water.
To Native Americans, the salmon were sustenance, barter and religion.
“Many of the fishermen who came here were wealthy because of it,” said Laura Berg, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a administrative body for Indian fishing rights.
“They had the salmon. They sold it, and could trade it for things,” she said.
Tribal elders have put on the annual Celilo anniversary event for seven years.
“The younger generation don’t know whether to believe you or not” when the elders describe the old fishing days, said Jay Minthorne, 61, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Those at Thursday’s observance ate the traditional meal.
It began with a glass of water, followed by salmon, then game such as deer meat, followed by some roots and berries. A slight deviation from tradition was cake, which the children liked. The finish was another glass of water.
The meal was preceded by prayers and followed by traditional songs.
Participants also included members of the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation.
Courts and treaties ensure that Indians’ retain rights to fish in their traditional places. But The Dalles Dam and others that harnessed the Columbia to bring cheap hydroelectricity to the region dramatically changed the nature of the fishing places.
“There is that song ‘Roll on Columbia’,” said Minthorne, who lives in Pendleton. “But you can’t sing that now, it’s just man-made lakes.”
Ed Edmo of Portland was a child at Celilo Village when the dam obliterated the falls.
“It was like a dream, it was traumatic,” said Edmo, a member of the Idaho-based Shoshone-Bannock tribe who also claims ancestors in the Yakama and Nez Perce tribal organizations.
He said the village residents managed to form an organization that successfully lobbied the federal government for compensation for the diminished fishing because of the dam.
Scheri Sotomish, a Nez Perce who lives at the small riverside town of Rufus, says her father fished at Celilo and up and down the river before the dam.
After that, he became a teacher. She still fishes at Rufus when she can.
Minthorne acknowledges there’s no reasonable hope the big hydropower dams will ever come out. But he hopes stream flows can be improved by such steps as removing several Idaho dams that don’t generate power.
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