Celilo ... Wyam
The Epicenter of a Vast
My ancestors were fishermen and traders. They exchanged goods, cultural ideas and religious beliefs with people from many native traditions ... and they lived at the epicenter of what may have been the largest trade network in all of Native America.
My father's people lived on the north side of the Big River (now the Columbia) in the village of Wishxam (also called Wishram), and had a Yakama heritage. My mother's people lived on the south side in the village of Celilo (also called Wyam) and had both a Wasco and a Warm Springs heritage.
People on both sides of the river fished, intermingled, and traded freely at that site, and were all more or less one people. The idea of "tribes" as we think of them today never really existed until the settlers came, and until the reservations were formed ... and the government felt that they needed to label people according to their own understanding of who we were. But that's another story for another time.
The point I want to make is that Celilo was a Mecca for trade ... I've actually heard it called the "Wall Street of Indian Country" ... and everyone who lived there was more or less wealthy by the standards at that time.
And the inspiration for most of my art comes from Celilo and the areas surrounding it ... areas that my ancestors called home.
Celilo Village — A Center for Trade
Prior to the arrival of the settlers, the Native American village of Celilo was the center of a flourishing trade network that extended east and west from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast, and north to south from what is now Alaska to California.
The village was situated on the south bank of the Big River (now the Columbia), just east of the Cascade Mountains and modern day The Dalles, Oregon. It was strategically located in an area where Salmon were plentiful, and where both the down-river Chinookan-speaking people and the upriver Sahaptin-speaking people intermingled and sometimes intermarried.
Inter-tribal commerce had been going on at that spot for thousands of years in the same manner. Year after year, Native people from nations throughout the Northwest came to trade, socialize, and fish with the people who called this region home.
Lewis and Clark, who first arrived there on October 22, 1805, were stunned by what they observed. They called the place "The Great Mart of the West," and noted that people from many nations came there to trade.
Salmon were no doubt the main reason why the center
flourished as it did. Millions of Salmon passed through
the area each year on their way to spawn ... so thick
at times that you could almost walk across their backs to
get to the other side of the river.
Indians ate the Salmon fresh, of course, but for the purpose of trade and travel, they would first dry it in the arid and windy climate of the mid-Columbia, pound it into a fine powder, and then store it in specially-designed containers that helped to preserve it and at the same time, made it easier to transport.
Celilo Falls & Places Nearby
The center of what was possibly the largest trade network in all of Native America ...
Celilo Falls — Fishing Since Time Began
Celilo Falls was known as Wyam by the Native peoples ... meaning "echo of falling water."
Fishing with dipnets and spears continued in the same manner at Celilo Falls and at places upriver and downriver from it for at least 10,000 years. Historically, an estimated fifteen to twenty million salmon passed through the falls every year.
The people fished for Salmon and for other fish when the Salmon weren't running, but the fishing platforms that were everywhere at Celilo, were built primarily to catch Salmon as they jumped up the falls on their way to spawn.
Salmon were considered sacred, and every year after the first Salmon was caught, thanks would be offered to the Creator before the first bite could be eaten.
Celilo Falls Disappeared
And so it was for thousands of years. Then, on March 10, 1957, as part of the nation's effort to harness the river for electrical power, The Dalles Dam began operation. Hundreds of on-lookers watched as the water behind the dam rose, silencing the falls, submerging fishing platforms, and flooding the village of Celilo.
In less than six hours, the thundering river became nothing more than a quiet lake ... and the way of life that had thrived there for so many thousands of years, became forever altered.
Modern Day Celilo Village
While most of the village was inundated, a small group of Natives refused to leave. They and their descendents now occupy the small cluster of homes on the south side of I-84, just above where the original Village was located. While only about 100 people currently live there, the village remains culturally significant to the various Native peoples throughout the region.
Most of the people living at Celilo are enrolled as members of either the Yakama Nation or the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, some are enrolled Umatilla, and some Nez Perce.
The tradition of the First Salmon Feast continues in this small village to this day, when every year on the second weekend in April, Celilo Village holds its annual Salmon Feast. All are welcome to attend so long as the proper respect is shown.
For more information ...
- Northwest Council
- Pictures of Celilo Falls
- The Oregon History Project
- Center for Columbia River History
- Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission
- Salmon Nation