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Native Fishermen of a Not-So-Vanishing Race

December 7, 2013

By Sean Aaron Cruz

Portland, Oregon—

The 1919 storyboard about Celilo Falls states “Native fishermen of a vanishing race”, shocking now in its casual matter-of-factness, its frank unabashed recognition that a continental genocide was yet taking place across the face of America, well into the 20th century, long after the Indian Wars were supposedly over.

Someone has stitched together a series of short films that show Celilo Falls and Celilo Village in 1919, 1926, 1936, 1945 and as the falls were flooded in 1957, and put the film series up on Youtube, about 27 minutes total.

There is a storyboard in the 1919 film that describes these Celilo fishermen and villagers, whose tribes had fished here since time immemorial, as “vanishing,” and the hard truth is that the extermination of an entire race was still a goal of American public policy not so long ago.

the most valuable fish


The 1957 segment showing the inundation of Celilo Falls is shocking in its own right, but there is more to the story: as the flooding takes place the bulldozers are already at work at Celilo Village and there before you is the monstrosity of The Dalles – Celilo canal that had been blasted through in 1919 near the very heart of the falls, and with these acts the ethnic cleansing of the Columbia Gorge was very nearly complete.

Imagine being a person sitting in a movie theater, and a storyboard comes up that tells you that all of your people, your entire race, are going to “vanish,” right here in the United States of America.  And they mean it; that’s what they are teaching their children; that’s what they are teaching your own children in their boarding schools. It’s enough to make you toss your popcorn.

Where there were dozens of Native villages not so long ago, there was now only Celilo, and the bulldozers were knocking down the buildings, the USA hoping the People would go away from this place, leave us to our barging….

Celilo Falls was not flooded for hydropower, you see, but only to move barges past the historic fishery….

At the end of the series is a short 1950 film titled “Return to the River”, and you will marvel at the size of these salmon the Native fishermen are wrestling out of the Big River; they would pull these puppies out all day long, the supply without limit not so long ago, when the Indians were on the job, managing the fishery. There’s a lesson here….

Speaking of puppies, it is a fact that the Lewis and Clark expedition preferred to eat dogs over the salmon, chose to trade rather than fish….

An entry in their journal reads:

”Oct 22nd Tuesday 1805

At the lower part of those rapids

We arrived at 5 large lodges of Natives

Drying and preparing fish for market”

They had arrived at the “Wall Street of the West”….

Here’s the link to the film. There is no sound track. You’ll have to use your imagination. The video is as silent as the Falls are today.

Celilo Falls will be restored, and in the not-so-distant future. You will be part of this, as will your children’s children, seeing Celilo Falls restored and protected forever. It is a matter of prioritizing the fishery over barging, that’s the deal.

What remains is to organize, and that globally….

The Friends of Celilo Falls is forming.


Celilo Falls 1915-1957


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