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Celilo Park

For generations, Celilo Falls was the center of culture and commerce in the Northwest, the oldest continuously inhabited place in the region. It was also one of the most productive fisheries in North America.  The roar of the falls could be heard for miles. On March 10, 1957 that roar fell silent when gates of The Dalles Dam closed. Celilo Falls was flooded in a matter of hours, the roar silenced. The Confluence Project proposed for Celilo Park is designed to educate people about Celilo Falls and honor the people who have lived and fished on this river for generations and will continue to for generations to come.

Karen Whitford is an elder in Celilo Village. This is her statement about the Celilo Park project:

Dear Confluence Project and tribes,
On behalf of Celilo Village and the Columbia River Indians, this project is important in remembrance that the Falls is sleeping and that walkway is like an honor to me, to honor the elders and the people of the river. Knowing that the other tribal opinions are important but this is important to the people here, right now. So much has happened to the people of W’yam, historically. This would be the highest honor to the Falls and to the elders and to the river. The W’yam Indians always say that the Falls is sleeping but the roar of the Falls echoes in our hearts. And to me that walkway would give me the greatest feelings to walk to see where the Falls is sleeping because the Falls still echoes in our heart and our people. And I feel Celilo Falls should be honored in this manner with the Confluence Project.
Karen Whitford
May 1, 2015

Project Description

Established in 2002, Confluence is a community-supported nonprofit with the mission to connect people to place through art and education. In collaboration with Northwest communities, tribes, and celebrated artist Maya Lin, Confluence creates reflective moments that can shape the future of the Columbia River system. Today, Confluence spans 438 miles and 20 counties in Oregon and Washington. More than 1.7 million visitors along more than 400 miles of the Columbia River system annually visit our five completed sites with designs by Maya Lin that connect the communities at Cape Disappointment State Park (Ilwaco, WA), Vancouver Land Bridge (Vancouver, WA), Sandy River Delta (Troutdale, OR), Sacajawea State Park (Pasco, WA), and Chief Timothy Park ( Clarkston, WA). Our sixth and final art site, Celilo Park ( 11 miles east of The Dalles, OR) will provide rare access to the river and its stories.

Maya Lin’s design for the Celilo Arc is a 500-foot elevated walkway inspired by the indigenous fishing platforms that still populate the shores of the Columbia River system. In one year, enough water pushes through the Columbia River Gorge to bury an area the size of California under 18 inches of pure snowmelt. At Celilo Falls, the river once went into free fall, all froth and fury. The roar of the falls could once be heard for miles around at one of the busiest fishing sites in North America. At Celilo, millions of Pacific salmon made the transition from long-haul distance swimmers to high jumpers, leaping up the side pools of the falls, a fight with gravity and a down-pounding current. Here, the Columbia River tribes used nets, gaff hooks, spears and baskets to bring home the tastiest species of salmon, the oil-rich Chinook. Celilo Falls hosted a trade market as well, an open air exchange where for tens of thousands of years inland tribes arrived with bison skulls, elk hides and teeth to exchange for the coastal dwellers' jewelry made from surf-polished seashells. When the Corps of Discovery passed through this place, Lewis and Clark called it "an agitated gut swelling, boiling and whirling in every direction."

The Celilo Falls were submerged in 1957 with the construction of The Dalles Dam, disregarding federal legislation granting the Yakama, Nez Perce, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs fishing rights to their "usual and accustomed places" and destroying access to this life-sustaining center. The flooding of Celilo Falls was an enormous and historic tragedy for the Columbia River Treaty Tribes whose members lived and fished at Celilo, and for the fishery resource and environment of the Columbia River. "We see Celilo as a legacy, an icon, a cultural, religious kind of place. We want to keep that place present on the river. We want it to remain a part of us. The Indian tribes. Celilo is kind of like a stamp that signifies that the falls are still a part of us," says Antone Minthorn, who has served as Chairman of the Board of Confluence since its inception. For this reason and others, the long-recognized primacy of Celilo's historic (and contemporary) trade network along the Columbia River system has been stewarded by collective efforts by community leaders, tribes from the Pacific Northwest, and organizations such as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The issues and problems being addressed by Confluence are national, regional, and local in scope and significance. Minthorn states that this project can help the different cultures better understand each other — and perhaps create a better future together. “We have survived the tidal wave of immigration to our country. The American public needs to hear these stories of survival. This place, the United States of America, is our home,” he says, “but we all have a voice in shaping a legacy for our children.”

Throughout our 15-year history, we have observed a growing desire among people in the Northwest to connect with a more inclusive history of our region, and to forge a more meaningful sense of place along the Columbia River system. For centuries, our region's origin story has been essentially "Lewis and Clark discovered this place and the pioneers settled it." We hope to replace this tragically oversimplified story with a broader, more holistic view of history that includes the long-neglected voices of indigenous cultures that still call this place home.

Our mission compels us to connect people to place through art and education. Only through the courageous storytelling of the indigenous people of the river can we attempt to understand and open a dialogue with the broader community about how Native people view their homelands as part of an ongoing continuum. Community and cultural heritage provides a sense of identity, continuity and is a driving force of cultural diversity. Yet it is very fragile and must be passed on future generations before it is forever lost. Opportunities for open conversations and engaging creative experiences are increasingly rare; the Celilo Park project will create a gathering place where people can remember, discuss, and come to better understandings of how our varied legacies (and futures) interconnect. In the words of Umatilla tribal member Bobbie Conner, "The wounds have to see the light of day and people have to learn and understand that history. It's more than symbolic - it's the beginning of a conversation or dialogue that this country has yet to have." Restoring Celilo Park and installing the 'Celilo Arc' will, we believe, create a stronger and more socially just society by helping to amplify the voices of Native American communities along the Columbia River and its tributaries, publicly acknowledging and integrating their story into the living history of Nch'i-WÃ na, the Big River.


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