By Mary Rose
Stories helped shape our knowledge of the Columbia River system and they have offered intriguing images of the many lives that interfaced and evolved in relation to the river and its tributaries. There are many facets to explore and usually, one story folds into another as research, story gathering and images emerge.
The earliest “River People” or Native Americans who occupied the land thrived on a rich inheritance of salmon and water. They were nurtured with an abundance of food and the rich development of traditions and culture. Images of Celilo Falls reinforce the life-giving properties honored by native people along the shores of the Columbia River. Throughout their heritage, they praised and thanked the wild game and salmon, the berries and camas, and the water for providing the elements of life.
Traditionally, gathering and preparing native foods has always been a time for thankfulness and celebration. The rituals and customs of catching fish on designated sites within a regulated time frame helped preserve the natural flow of spawning fish from total annihilation. Other environmental measures such as controlled burns on plains and in forests helped guarantee that wild brush did not choke out valuable berries and the habitat for wild game.
Much of history is recounted by the visual images created in people’s minds whether through words, paintings or photos. The Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1805-1806 was a remarkable journey of exploration that not only recorded information unknown by the foreigners of America and Europe but it stimulated interests and visions of new peoples and cultures. The Lewis & Clark Expedition documented plants and animals, and forecast the vast resources of the land and rivers and the potential for future prosperity.
Many explorers and adventurers extolled the beauties of the Columbia and the Pacific Northwest from Cape Disappointment to the Rocky Mountains, but we often forget that the earliest foreign explorers came by sea and not overland.
Indigenous canoes followed water highways that allowed for inter-tribal exchange from Alaska to California and inland from the mouth of the Columbia to its headwaters in Canada. Chinookan people had a well-established counting and measuring system. They were experts at barter and held a keen understanding of a monetary base for equitable trade that could be adjusted to supply and demand. In other words, the trade value of dentalium shells, woven baskets, or eventually colorful beads, buttons or knives depended on the popularity or need of those items among the villagers and the frequency of foreign trading vessels to their shores. They traded their goods inland to other tribes and many Chinook villages enjoyed considerable wealth due to their coastal access.
A sophisticated and adaptable trade language was firmly in place long before European and American mariners began charting the Northwest Coast. Chinook Jargon was readily picked up by traders from foreign lands. America’s declaration of “discovery” of the Columbia River in 1792 by Captain Robert Gray was a “big deal” worldwide. Several foreign nations, including Great Britain, the United States and Spain immediately declared sovereignty to the region, without any equitable or legal consideration paid to the indigenous peoples who had occupied the territory for more than 10,000 years.
Internationally, the Columbia River was perceived as a border between nations from 1825 to 1846, but Native Americans recognized the river as a stream of convergence — a place to unite people with the common purpose of nourishment, subsistence, culture and trade. There, friends met and families were reunited. Historian Andrew Fisher wrote, “The Columbia River typically united rather than divided human populations.” [i] Following the rhythm of the seasons, the Columbia was the table at which to eat together and then to move on.
Traders and emigrants began building permanent structures in the early 1800’s such as Forts Okanogan and Astoria. In 1824-25 the new construction of Fort Vancouver established a permanent center that concentrated regional trade and supply distribution for the entire Pacific Northwest. Soon other Hudson Bay Company trading posts followed and “temporary” posts became permanent trade communities with people flowing in and out. Commerce with Native Americans flourished but the fur animal population was decimated. The Hudson Bay Company developed new agricultural pursuits at Forts Vancouver and Walla Walla [originally Fort Nez Perce]. Images of diverse communities spring to mind like the Village at Fort Vancouver where Columbia River People, Hawaiians, Iroquois, Metis and British workers shared log houses and garden plots.
The journals of maritime and overland explorers drew the immediate of attention of scientists. Physicians, botanists, ornithologists, geologists and ethnologists were captivated by the prospects of a new world to examine and record. The identity of a new plant, an animal or bird – sometimes at the personal risk of life – cemented fame if not fortune for the early few. David Douglas, John Kirk Townsend and Thomas Nuttall willingly followed the journals of Lewis and Clark to open the eyes of the world to the natural beauties and wonders of the Northwest.
David Douglas worked closely with native women to unmask the secrets and growing seasons of Northwest plants. Lewis and Clark documented flowers, fruits and vegetables, but Douglas studied myriad plants from seeds or bulbs, through propagation and harvest. Images – field drawings, specimens and refined botanical drawings recorded the plants permanently.
Fur trading posts, missionary settlements and American pioneers who crossed the Oregon Trail permanently transformed the Columbia River’s landscape in less than 30 years. Emigrant settlements brought major agricultural developments to the plains at Forts Vancouver and Walla Walla by clearing land, harvesting forests and planting orchards as early as the 1820’s.
Land ownership and cultural rivalries – whether British vs. Americans, inter-tribal raids or settlers vs. Native Americans — led to battles and heartaches. Access to traditional hunting and gathering grounds were limited by the Indian Treaties of 1855. Gold and the demand for water for irrigated lands forced Native Americans away from even treaty lands within a decade. Lumber and fishing industries spurred the growth of American settlement and furthered intolerance and disrespect for native peoples. Their accustomed lands were divided and redistributed time and time again. By the 1930’s – about 100 years after the first foreign communities settled in the Northwest – dams began to harness the Columbia River. Celilo and Kettle Falls were submerged in the name of growth and industry.
In the middle of desert and sand, Ainsworth, WA,[ii] suddenly became the site of one of the region’s most productive saw mills for railroad construction between 1879 and 1885. Chinese laborers performed much of the intense work and eventually, the community was relocated to Pasco. Railroad construction had a tremendous effect through the Columbia River Gorge as thousands of people and a growing commerce were attracted to the Pacific Northwest. Steamboat traffic continued to carry people and products to the mouth of the Columbia, so to facilitate passage around Celilo Falls, Pasco, WA initiated construction of the Celilo Canal. This opened steamboat traffic from the Inland Empire to Portland, OR and beyond.
Today, more than ever we depend on images and videos to tell our stories. Words may fall short of the honest expression of heart and passion. When we look to the past through images — paintings, drawings, early photography – we find the faces of individuals preserved within their moment and their lifestyle. Looking closely, there may be an expression of culture, community and/or tradition. There may also be expressions of anxiety, reluctance or even fear. Images hold surprises and they don’t exist as we expect to see them. Images help open the viewer to a deeper understanding – an inquisitiveness — into what was and what remains and what will be. “His or her” stories become our own when we realize that personal relationships to our surroundings may help us identify who we truly want to be. When we understand the past will we know the present?