After thousands of years of use for food, transportation, and trade, the Columbia River’s dynamics have changed, resulting in unforeseen consequences and deeply mixed emotions.


Once there were Five Sisters. Because they loved to eat salmon, the sisters kept a dam at the mouth of Big River to prevent the fish from swimming upstream. Every night they feasted on a wonderful, fat salmon. This didn’t suit Coyote, who thought that the salmon need the people and the people need the salmon. Or maybe he was jealous and wanted some of that fat salmon for himself. So Coyote tricked the sisters to get into their camp. He disguised himself as a baby and played to the Sisters’ maternal feelings. He saw they had a key that opened the dam. He stole the key, opened the dam, and freed the salmon to run upriver.

Or maybe it was Raven who brought the salmon into the Columbia River watershed. Raven heard a little girl crying. She lived in the eastern desert and he just knew she wanted fish. But she lived too far upriver and in those days the salmon stayed downstream. So he went and grabbed one! He flew all the way to the mouth of the river, snagged a fat salmon in his claws, and flew back to the little girl, who smiled. Even so, all the other salmon chased hard after that Raven, and took for a new home a massive watershed that stretched to the Rockies.


Deep in that watershed, Dennis DeHart and his son were visiting the Selway River. “My son was about three,” the Washington State University photography professor recalls, “and he scooped up a handful of gelatinous stuff.” It took him a moment to register, and then, “I realized, ‘Oh! Those are eggs!’ And I looked down, and there was a salmon, dying, battered. That salmon came all the way back up through all the dams, all the locks, through a number of rivers, up to the Selway in Idaho, one of the wildest rivers. And that left a profound impression.”

DeHart’s story is the origin of an ongoing project called “Confluences.” Having grown up on the Columbia River, he is fascinated by the layers of history that flow through the Columbia watershed, and how we see those histories. His grandfather was a logger; DeHart counts himself an environmentalist. The development of the Columbia River watershed, he says, is full of unintended consequences. That’s something you hear a lot when you start talking to people about the river.

There is a kind of pain or sadness or confusion, even among the most rationalistic economists. To live in the Pacific Northwest with even one eye open is to live with that conflict: between fish and dams, between fishers and farmers, between the wild and the tamed.

Of all the work done by the Columbia River, and all the work people do on the river—fishing, canning, recreation, transportation, power, irrigation, flood control—the work that perhaps needs doing most is emotional.

William Dietrich, the author of Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River, uses tough, direct language to describe our situation: “The Columbia is that cruelest of all stories: a thing changed into exactly what Americans wanted, and, once changed, proving to be a disappointment of an entirely different sort.”

It’s all Coyote’s fault. The trickster is a bricolage of feelings and shape-shifting beings, says scholar and writer Jay Miller: “He was greedy, selfish, stupid, and very, very wise, sometimes.” No wonder we feel ambivalent about dams, salmon, irrigation—all the wonders we have wrought have cost us something intrinsic, that cannot be valued by economists because it is priceless.

It’s Coyote’s fault, too, that we have to do all this work, says another story the First Peoples sometimes tell. It used to be that rivers flowed both ways: downstream on one side, upstream on the other. It was easy to get around back then. But Coyote saw that and said, Nuts, make the young men work, make them push back upstream!


Pushing Upriver

The mouth of the big river, which the Chinook people call Wimahl, is often impossible to enter. It’s a cold, stormy mess where the epic outflow of the Columbia wrestles with the ever-flexing muscle of the tides. The weather is wretched with wind and rain, and 200 days of the year the river’s mouth is swathed in fog. Waves higher than the old tall sailing ships crack and fume, tearing apart and running aground even modern steel ships.

In 1791, Robert Gray, aboard the Columbia Rediviva and sailing north along the Washington coast, tried to investigate the source of a strong outflow. For nine days he tried to gain entry into the soon-to-be-renamed Columbia. He gave up, “not from the current,” George Vancouver later recounted, “but from the breakers which extend across it.” Gray sailed north to a calm bay, now known as Grays Harbor.

Anyone trying to cross the Columbia Bar, the ever-shifting underwater islands of silt the river gifts the sea, must contend with the breakers, the infolding bombs of water that make kindling out of stout oak beams. Gray eventually gained entry and named the river after his ship.

The mouth of the Columbia, the Graveyard of the Pacific, is the resting place of thousands of ships and nearly as many sailors. Thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard, with their porpoise-like cutters that can power through waves and across the tops of huge swells, many lives have been saved.

The Coast Guard’s sister service ran the Quarantine Station a few miles upriver from Columbia Bar. Until 1912, that uniformed branch was called the Marine Hospital Service and since then, the Public Health Service.

Ports needed quarantine stations to fumigate ships that spent weeks and months travelling long distances. Sailing around the Cape from London to Astoria is 18,000 miles. It was a trip of months, sometimes many months. You, too, might welcome a bath in carbolic soap, and having your clothes disinfected with high-pressure steam in a delousing retort. Bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, and typhus were all dangers exacerbated by close quarters and stowaway rodents.

In 1891, the old Eureka and Epicure Cannery at Knappton Cove had been closed for a few years, a victim of the crash of the commercial fishing industry. The massive, two-storey complex where once skilled Chinese workers sliced and diced salmon all day, before bunking above the packing line for the night, got converted to a quarantine station. Complete with a lazaretto (a pest house), ocean-going steamers anchored in the wide river to be fumigated by sulfur burning in the holds, suffocating rats and killing other disease-bearing critters.

The repurposed cannery, current owner Nancy Bell Anderson says, became a quarantine station for Astoria and Portland in order to compete with the station for Seattle, located at Port Townsend. An October 1921 article in The Oregonian dubbed the station “the Ellis Island of the Columbia River.” Any passenger who looked “a little green around the gills,” says Anderson, was confined to the lazaretto, with deportation waiting in the wings.

Many Scandinavians flowed through the station, WSU history professor Laurie Mercier says, along with people from many other parts of the world. Astoria, just across the river, is still home to a large Finnish community. Excluded by an 1882 anti-immigration law were Asians, and especially Chinese. The derogatorily named “Iron Chink,” an automated fish chopper, replaced the Chinese cannery workers. While not nearly as precise as the humans it replaced, the machine reduced labor costs in an industry rapidly contracting due to overfishing.

By 1950, though, the station was no longer needed, and the Bell family bought the place on the federal surplus market. They turned it into a recreational fisher’s resort, with camping and docks for canoes and boats. Young Nancy sold bait, tackle, and candy bars from the old pumphouse.

Now, the place is its own museum, the Knappton Cove Heritage Center. Layers of history are presented in the tight quarters of the converted lazaretto: trade beads from the earliest days of contact between Native Americans and Euro-Americans, Chinese porcelain used by cannery workers, glass medicine bottles, canoe paddles. Nancy’s older brother, Tom Bell, admits to being an inveterate beachcomber and artifact collector. When the tide is out, he says, all manner of
stuff pops up.

Out front, you can still see the massive dolphins in the tidelands just across Highway 401. These heavy beams anchored the big complex where once tall ships docked at the quarantine station.


Celilo Falls

Sunday, March 10, 1957: As the massive floodgates on the new dam at The Dalles are closed, bumper-to-bumper traffic lines Highway 30 as the gathered spectators watch the waters rise behind the dam. Within hours, Celilo Falls is gone, replaced by a slackwater lake.

As many celebrated the new ease of navigation and the forthcoming surge of cheap power, others wept and prayed. In her book Death of Celilo Falls, Katrine Barber ’94 MA, ’99 PhD writes that “the region’s Indians mourned the loss of fishing sites and a core way of life.” One child later recalled that “as the little islands disappeared, I could see my grandmother trembling, like something was hitting her… she just put out her hand and started to cry.”

Two and a half years later, as hydropower generation is started, U.S. Senator Richard Neuberger from Oregon tells the gathered crowd that “our Indian friends deserve from us a profound and heartfelt salute of appreciation… They contributed to its erection a great donation—surrender of the only way of life which some of them knew.”

Wyam, another name for Celilo Falls, is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in North America. For the dam builders, the economics were obvious: any value that the fisheries had was negligible compared to that of hydropower and irrigation. But as WSU archaeological anthropologist Shannon Tushingham points out, Native Americans “depended on the river not just for food but for spiritual sustenance as well.”

Celilo Falls, pockmarked with eddies, chutes, and rapids, wasn’t just a great place to fish; it was a gathering place for peoples from many hundreds of miles around. Mercier says that “Celilo Falls was a huge trade mart where people from all over came.” Her fellow WSU historian Rob McCoy elaborates, adding that “Yakama, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Warm Springs, Palouse people, Nez Perce” all came to Celilo Falls to fish, to trade, to party and socialize.

McCoy is a local, and remembers his father talking about the once free-flowing river, and stopping to buy salmon at the falls. “For the dominant culture, the rivers are seen as economic resources. They move goods, the dams provide power and irrigation. Not that people didn’t see beauty in them, but that was secondary to the economic potential. There’s been a lot of economic development, but at great cost.” When the dams were being built, “we didn’t listen to native people. We’re doing a little better now.”

McCoy adds, “I think there are more and more people in this part of the country who say, ‘Yeah, we didn’t consider the consequences of these things. Or we just weren’t able to comprehend what was going to occur.’”

But as Barber describes in her new book, In Defense of Wyam, some people could foresee the consequences. As the dam at The Dalles was being built, a white woman and a native woman banded together, not to stop construction, but to prepare for the consequences of the loss of a way of life. Flora Thompson, a member of the Warm Springs Tribe and wife of the Wyam chief, found an ally in Martha McKeown, a member of an affluent farming family. The two became friends and worked together to meet the needs of the people of Celilo Village. But, Barber says, McKeown didn’t want to define their work as charity. “She’s resistant to charity, she says that [the people there] deserve this.”

McKeown was aware of the poverty that would result from the dam and the loss of the falls. “I think there are a lot of people who thought that way,” Barber says. The defenders of Wyam worked to establish new fishing sites, to compensate people for their losses, and to find “other avenues to subsistence.”

Barber, a professor at Portland State University, recently taught a course on Oregon history and, in finishing the unit on the Columbia River, her students arrived at a place of “ambivalence: what were people supposed to do at this time? We all benefit. It’s a series of statements connected by ‘and.’ This was really awful for people at Celilo. And I have electricity and I’m really enjoying my air conditioning right now. And I’m concerned about the ongoing management of the Columbia River. And I’m really glad it is a transportation corridor through the Pacific Northwest. So it’s all these linking, contradictory statements, with no easy resolution.”


Layers Upon Layers

If you think about it, McCoy says, the Save Our Dams movement is a kind of flip side to what happened to native peoples. “It’s people’s livelihoods and ways of life” that are threatened when environmentalists argue that the dams on the Columbia and its tributaries should be removed.

“That’s the thing,” McCoy says, “there are successive narratives.” And, as Barber remembers from her days as a doctoral student at WSU in the late 1990s, “there were some real serious discussions about removing the four lower Snake River dams.

“What’s fascinating,” Barber continues, “and this is just a matter of living long enough to see the ebbs and flows of some of these discussions, is that [removal] is no longer on the table. Now [there’s talk of] privatizing parts of the Bonneville Power Association. And if parts of the BPA are privatized, that raises the question, what is the relationship with those tribal nations? Because their protections are those federal treaties. So it complicates things. Yet again.”

McCoy says he doesn’t like to think of himself as a historian of Native Americans, “although I write a lot about that. I think more about narratives.” As a young man, McCoy read Yellow Wolf’s autobiography (as told to Lucullus Virgil McWhorter) and was inspired to think about which stories we remember, and which we forget.

Yellow Wolf, a Nez Perce warrior who fought in the war of 1877, was one of the few Nez Perce to speak to an outsider about the war and its “after hardships.” He concludes his telling by saying, “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that was not true. Only his best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told.”

The story of the Columbia River watershed, McCoy argues, “doesn’t need to be a story of triumph. It is a story about engineering and everything else. We can tell the whole story. It makes us better people, more compassionate.” All our stories, like the sedimentary layers of history piling up along the Columbia, are intertwined. When the nation decided it needed plutonium to win a war, McCoy reminds us, “it wasn’t just Native people who got kicked out of Hanford.”

For WSU landscape architecture professor and poet Jolie Kaytes, the situation is “muddy.” She finds her rational responses to the complexity of the watershed colored with emotion—and her emotions colored with rational considerations. Like Columbia Bar, these shift with the exigencies of time, tide, and the news cycle.

Kaytes leads her students on a semester-long quest to understand and speak to the situations of particular communities in the watershed. From imagining a vibrant cultural scene along a dam-free Lewiston, Idaho, waterfront to wondering what can possibly be done for the residents of Northport, poisoned by the outflow of mining toxins from north of the border, she and her students make what she calls “offerings.”

“That’s what I do, too,” she says of her poetry, essays, and teaching. “I am unsure what the solution is! I strive to avoid alienating people because I am certainly enmeshed in and benefit from the system.”

Reflecting on that fact, Kaytes continues, “We’re all part of these stories, whether unwittingly or complicitly.” The practice of landscape architecture is one of drawing scenarios, literally envisioning the possible, even if impracticable. By opening doors on new perspectives, reframing ideas and, most of all, getting people to think and talk, consilience, healing, and sustainable development can happen.

DeHart comes to a similar conclusion, saying, “Every time I put up ‘Confluences,’ people see it and maybe a few say, ‘Oh, I never thought about it that way.’ It generates a conversation. And in a very different way than facts and statistics can. I’m not trivializing, because those are important. But they don’t have the emotional impact. Art does.

McCoy says that “very slowly the dominant culture begins to listen” to a range of voices that were once overruled for valuing the intrinsic and the immeasurable. “These shifts in narrative allow us to begin the process of reconciliation, that allows us to begin to move forward with trying to bring the salmon back, trying to perhaps do
things that serve multiple purposes. But the only way you can do that is by understanding history, and by listening to those voices, and talking with them.”

McCoy gestures at a map of the watershed, “The region is tied up with rivers.” We are all bound up together, the people and their equals, the animals, the plants, the soils, the washings away and the depositions of the new. To paraphrase one of the Pacific Northwest’s daughters, Ursula K. Le Guin, “the word for world is river.”


Re-photographed Postcards by Dennis DeHart, 2014

Re-photographed Postcards, 2014 (Archival pigment print by Dennis DeHart from Confluences: Circumnavigating the Territory, 2015)