Bobbie Conner: Water was so Low, You Could Walk on the Backs of Fish

Roberta Conner describes winter villages and tributaries, communal knowledge, and the time of low water.


So where every tributary meets the Columbia River at the confluences with the Columbia, there were typically winter villages. Our people on the Columbia River plateau wintered in canyons and sheltered protected areas. And frequently the villages along the Columbia river would be exposed to a lot of the wind. But in the pre-dam–now–but in the pre-dam Columbia river those villages were in canyons where the tributary met the Columbia, it was a canyon typically. Juniper Canyon, where it comes into the Columbia, Umatilla, Willow Creek, all the way down the river, waterways, the Deschutes, the John Day come through canyons to the Columbia and those canyons were where we lived. Where we were out of the wind and were it was a little bit warmer in the winter; where there was fresh water for horses and people, and where we could survive on our foods that we gathered from Spring ‘till Fall. So that seasonal lifestyle put us in contact with all of our relatives and our neighboring tribes. At different times of the year at different locations. So our knowledge of the Columbia river plateau was a collective communal knowledge from everyone’s travels.
When they went East, West, North and South. When we went East, West, North and South. When we gathered by the hoards at the Celilo falls region. People gathered there historically, before contact with white people, by the thousands when the fish ran. And the pre dam Columbia river estimates for most scientists for salmon were annually a million to two and a half million, at the most five million. But Oregon State university scientists who’ve used the Lewis and Clark journals to extrapolate and re-apply that date suggest that the pre dam Columbia river fishery was 15 to 20 million fish.

So when our oral histories say that you could cross the river on the backs of fish and when my mother describes the times of low water in the river when you could cross the river on horseback or on foot through the islands and through the rocks and in low water. Or swimming horses across. So you take that low river water level and elevation and combine that with that many millions of fish coming back up the river, swimming all the way to Canada, to the origin of the river, you can easily see that the oral histories were true; that they did cross the river on the backs of salmon in spawning season. In October. The same time of year Lewis and Clark arrived. And didn’t understand a anadromous fish and thought they might be dying or might be poisoned or something.

So these confluences were homesites. These places on the river were occupied for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. And they were along the river that had the richest salmon fishery in the west. So Celilo was the Wall Street of the west. Anything that could be in trade in the west, Spanish helmets (18:48), might be obtained if it was in the network at Celilo.

It’s the Columbia river’s history before dams is a much richer, fuller reflection of our people’s food sources and life-ways and songs and medical and medicinal and spiritual practices. All of that was very much alive on the Columbia river.

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