Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Way of Life

I was wondering the other day about whether a short story I submitted last fall to a local history contest at Skagit Valley College ever got included in their quarterly, the name of which escapes me. Nevertheless, the story--about my encounter with a Skagit Indian at the upper falls of a tributary of the Skagit River that flows out of the rugged North Cascades National Park--mentioned in passing my youth on the Columbia River, where, at a very early age I went with my father to watch Yakama Indians dipnet salmon from lashed together platforms hanging out over the untamed turbulence.

I'm not certain, but it's possible that the falls I vaguely remember was Celilo, the spectacular series of cataracts below the basalt cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge separating Washington and Oregon that served as one of the most famous rendezvous for Native American fishing, trade, and cultural exchange on the continent, until 1957, when the falls were inundated by the Dalles Dam, one of the chain of hydroelectric power plants I witnessed under construction as a young boy.

Seventeen years after that family picnic with our aboriginal neighbors, I found myself in the midst of this contest between civilizations, when the Salish fishermen I worked with in the San Juan Islands of northern Puget Sound were assaulted and vilified as a result of the February 12, 1974 treaty fishing rights ruling by Federal Judge George Boldt. Twenty-one years after that tumultuous summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Nisqually tribal elder Billy Frank, who between 1964 and 1974 had conducted the "fish-ins" campaign on the Puyallup River in defiance of the State of Washington, which in turn led to the federal decision that affirmed the tribes' "right to manage what had always belonged to them."

The occasion for our introduction in March 1996 was a conference--hosted by the Center for World Indigenous Studies--at the Daybreak Star Center, held to discuss the The Politics of Land and Bigotry, brought on in part by the vengeful, Anti-Indian acts of then US Senator Slade Gorton, the former Washington State Attorney General who'd lost the case to deprive Indian tribes of their treaty fishing rights.

But what prompted this flood of memories recently of my associations with Indian peoples of the Pacific Northwest was a small article I noticed on HistoryLink about the gathering at Kettle Falls on June 13, 1940, where

an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Native Americans gathered for a three-day "Ceremony of Tears" to mark the end of a way of life that had developed over thousands of years.

Located near the Canadian border, Kettle Falls ( Shonitkwu in Salish language) was second only to Celilo Falls as a fishing and gathering place along the Columbia. In June 1940, these ancestral fishing grounds were about to be flooded by what was at the time described as "The Eighth Wonder of the World"--the Grand Coulee Dam. The U.S. Department of Interior had ordered the closure of the Kettle Falls fishery; the Spokane and Colville Confederated Tribes had weeks earlier been forced to leave their homes.

What grabbed my attention, though, was the description of life there by historian William Layman, who wrote of the fishermen catching 3,000 fish in a day. Layman says, "When fish were running, Kettle Falls was a place of excitement and festivity, drawing more than a thousand people annually. The camps bustled with activity--a rich assortment of families sharing the work of fishing by day and the pleasure of singing, dancing, and gambling at night." As Patti Stone, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes put it in 2002, "This is where people met, got married, had babies, settled disputes."


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