Remembering Celilo Falls

This blog post first appeared at UM & Global on March 21, 2022

Celilo Falls. Photograph by Benjamin Gifford (1900)

On March 10, 1957, over a span of just over four hours, the waters of the mighty Columbia River flooded and silenced the Celilo Falls.  The Dalles Dam would now provide electricity to the growing population of the Pacific Northwest, but the cost was dear. 

Celilo Village, the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America (for which there is archeological evidence, anyway) remains today, but it has been moved further away from the dam-swollen river.  For 15,000 years Native Americans fished, traded, and made cross-cultural connections with one another at this place.  It was perhaps the continent’s best fishing spot with millions of salmon swimming through the narrow channels around and through the Falls.  It was also a place where, for thousands of years, thousands of Native Americans gathered, their languages and customs mixing from many cultures throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond.    

Last week, on the 65th anniversary of Celilo Falls’ silencing, I joined about three hundred Native Americans to mark the occasion at a park near Portland, Oregon.  Yakama, Nez Perce, Cowlitz, Umatilla, Cayuse, and other tribal groups were well-represented.  Some traveled hundreds of miles to be there.  So far as I could tell, I was among just a handful of people who were not Native American. 

I observed a sacred ceremony and heard testimony from elders who recalled their own parents weeping when Celilo Falls was flooded.  At several points in the service, a flock of several hundred Canadian geese flew overhead, their calls almost drowning out the sounds of speakers, drums, and singing. In my own imagination, I couldn’t decide if the geese reminded me of the wailing of elders so many years ago, or if their call was reminiscent of a more confident reminder, “We are still here, and we shall not forget!” 

I spent the day mostly being quiet, watching, and listening to what was happening around me.  The mood was celebratory sometimes.  After two years of Covid-canceled gatherings, people were once again able to meet across diverse tribal cultures.  I learned about gill net fishing from a Yakama fisherman who still fishes near the once-Falls.  I learned about the good work of the Confluence Project that is seeking to educate Oregon and Washington citizens about the people of the Columbia and Snake rivers.  The dominant narrative too often remains that of Lewis and Clark’s voyage on this river in the early 19th century rather than the story of peoples who traveled, fished, and loved the river for the 15,000 years before and two hundred years after Lewis and Clark passed by. 

I attended this event for several reasons.  Honoring a place like Celilo Falls that has brought different people, beliefs, and customs together for 15,000 years seemed important as I prayed for a divided United Methodism during this Lenten season.   

I wrote an academic article a couple years ago about Methodist missionaries who lived a few miles downstream from the Celilo Falls (but still in the midst of smaller falls and rapids).  It was the Methodists’ most successful mission outpost in the Pacific Northwest, and the missionaries there, Dan and Maria Lee and Elvira and Henry Perkins, were some of the best missionaries of their age.  They had their blind spots and ethnocentric arrogance, of course. But Henry and Elvira both became proficient in Sahaptin, an important language of the river.  Henry’s detailed descriptions of the sacred salmon ceremony in the late 1830s (and still practiced at multiple sites along the river each April) is one of the earliest written accounts of the ceremony.  His journals even suggest that Native practices and beliefs challenged his own interpretation of the Bible he was translating into Sahaptin.  This willingness to have his ideas challenged is one of the things I admire about Henry, and I seek to follow in his footsteps on that.

I was also present at this 65th commemoration of the silencing of the Celilo Falls because I am still trying to live out the desire for reconciliation and repentance that my Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference expressed at a service of worship in 2015.  It described repentance “as a journey and not a destination.”  That is true, of course.  But Blue Lake Regional Park outside of Portland, Oregon was one destination on March 10, 2022 where I needed to show up to remember, repent, and also bear witness to my desire for right relationships and reconciliation in the present and future.  I am trying to do that where I live and work at Seattle Pacific University in the Puget Sound.  It is far away from the Columbia River in some ways, but as I learned last Thursday, the silencing of the Falls affects us all.  It can also still bring people together. 

About Ben Hartley

Since 2021, I have served as the Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Seattle Pacific University. I have served in similar roles at George Fox University (2016-2020) and at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University (2005-2016). I am an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Remembering Celilo Falls

  1. Connie Quan says:

    Thankyou for this info .  An eye opener-thankyou for caring about others

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