Dorothea Nordstrand recalls the old Celilo Falls

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 4/10/2003
  • Essay 5442

This is Dorothea Nordstrand's reminiscence of Celilo Falls, near The Dalles on the Columbia River, before the dam built in 1957 changed everything.  It first appeared in Columbia magazine, Vol. 15, No. 3. In 2009 Dorothea Nordstrand was awarded AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Willard Jue Memorial Award for a Volunteer, for contributing these vivid reminiscences to various venues in our community, including's People's History library.

Old Celilo Falls

Just east of The Dalles, Oregon, in the towering grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge, stands a small, roadside sign carrying the single word, "Celilo," a sadly inadequate marker for the rugged beauty that once dominated this place.  Before the Dalles Dam was built in l957, Celilo Falls was a spectacular series of cataracts that disrupted the swift, strong flow of the mighty Columbia River.  The old Celilo Falls of the late l930s, became a scene of great drama every autumn during the annual "run" of home-coming salmon.  Sixty-five years later, my heart beats faster as memory brings back that exciting day.

Let me take you back.  It is 1936
Celilo Falls is a jumble of huge rock piles and sheer drops over which the untamed Columbia hurls itself in thundering abandon.  Below the falls, boiling whirlpools hiss and roar, whipping and splashing high into the air. Into this cauldron swim the home-coming salmon, in instinct-driven desperation to reach their historic spawning grounds many miles upstream.  Thousands of silver fish fling themselves against the tumbling cascades of rushing water, whose roar, and the violent motion of the salmon, fill one's senses.


 Since ancient times, Celilo Falls has been an important fishing ground for the native tribes who dwell along the big river; the Umatilla, Yakima, Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Wasco-Wishram, and many others.  In the autumn of the year, when the salmon come home to spawn, the People of the River gather here to perform the act that is, for them, both spiritual and practical; to accept what they believe to be their annual gift from the river, and to ensure themselves of food for the long, winter months ahead.  Several tribes are presently encamped nearby for the yearly ritual.
Rickety platforms hang in midair above the turbulent water, flimsy structures of wood attached to the rocks in seemingly makeshift fashion.  On these frail-looking perches, men of the tribes take turns at the fishing.  Each uses a net with a twenty-foot handle, thrusting it upstream as far as he can reach and allowing the current to carry it downstream with its open end facing the fish that are swimming up. Salmon are in such plenty that there’s not a break in the action, but a constant rhythm of thrust, drift, and capture  the silver monsters.
Each netted fish is herded toward the riverbank, where another fisherman removes it, clubs it, and tosses it into a large basket, then turns to wrestle with the next one.  On other platforms, too far out over the water to allow for help from shore, the fisherman pulls his laden net up, hand-over-hand on the long handle, to secure his catch.  These are mature salmon, four or five years old and weighing 20 to 50-or-more pounds apiece, a real test of strength for their captors.  Near the shore, in the shallow rapids where fish are clearly visible, tribesmen spear or harpoon the huge creatures and haul them ashore, while the mighty river thunders by within a few feet.
Nor are the women of the tribes idle.  Several wooden smokehouses stand on the bank with long poles propped lengthwise for drying racks.  Sheltering shake roofs force the rising smoke from a series of smoldering fires back down through the rows of split fish hanging from the racks.  Women move from rack to rack, changing the position of the salmon to best take advantage of the acrid smoke which stings our eyes and twitches our noses while we watch in fascination.  The quality of their work will make the difference between starvation and plenty in the months ahead. It is a scene charged with great purpose and excitement.
Many fish are taken, but many more win their way to the base of the Falls, from where they fling themselves free of the water to fly in great silver arcs; some to land above the falls, and some to fall back, and, resting, try again.  Some, with mighty effort, swim up the vertical curtains of water to join the ranks of home going salmon above.  Here the river is almost as alive with fish as are the pools below. For their heroic effort, thousands will complete their journey to fulfill their destiny.
Today, in  2003, this stretch of the Columbia is part of the placid lake formed by The Dalles Dam, one of the chain of hydroelectric power plants that tame the once unfettered and free-flowing river.  It is still a lovely place, with its smooth-running expanse of water flowing silently along between the towering basalt cliffs of the Gorge, but I cannot view it without mourning the loss of the wild turbulence of the old Columbia River's Celilo Falls.  I sympathize strongly with the River People, who lost an irreplaceable part of their heritage, and I grieve for the rest of us who will never again see and feel the spellbinding drama of the Celilo Falls that used to be.

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