Celilo’s success might be path forward for Columbia River tribal housing — but it wasn’t easy

Karen Jim Whitford’s mother watched from a hillside as an entire village — and their family home — got wiped out by water.

It was 1957. Whitford was 5 years old when the federal government closed the gates of The Dalles Dam, flooding 9,000 years of life at Celilo Village along the Columbia River.

Thousands of tribal members from the Northwest would come to trade at Celilo, drawn by the millions of salmon that traveled up the Columbia every year to spawn. Many members mourned the loss of the community.

When dams along the river decimated tribal fishing villages, the federal government pledged to compensate families with permanent housing. The Oregonian/OregonLive showed in March that instead of permanent homes, the tribes mostly are living in ramshackle and deplorable conditions.  

The conditions at Celilo were among the worst of the tribal fishing villages before 2000. Today, however, Celilo is different.

Instead of living in cramped tents and rusted trailers at more than two dozen fishing sites along the river, Native fishing families have 15 permanent homes at Celilo.

“They are well constructed, not the substandard stuff you usually give low-income people,” said Paul Lumley, director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, who advocates for new homes for Native Americans along the river.

Though it provides only a limited number of houses, the modern version of Celilo Village is a model for restitution, Lumley and tribal officials contend. But it didn’t happen without an arduous fight and a series of missteps.

After the flooding in 1957, the federal government built a cluster of poorly constructed homes, with asbestos-laced siding and woeful sewer and water service. The homes weren’t even new. They were rundown, military surplus homes already falling apart. The earliest residents had to draw running water from a nearby convenience store’s outdoor spigot. And no one took responsibility for addressing the shortcomings, which included constant sewage overflows.

It took decades of negotiations and unprecedented coordination among the tribes, the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress to finally get it right. 
Now, with members of Congress paying renewed attention to tribal housing, leaders of the four Native fishing tribes say the new Celilo offers a blueprint for future permanent villages along the Columbia.

Celilo residents still face challenges, but the village has regained some of its status as a hub for tribal ceremonies.

“The living condition was very unhealthy. We lived in that condition for about 50 years,” Whitford said. But now most are content. “Nobody’s got a million dollars, but we’re happy and free people.”

On a hot April day, Whitford escaped the longhouse kitchen to watch the 500 people who had descended on the village that morning for the First Foods feast. The ceremony marks the start of salmon fishing season. Wearing an apron over her traditional dress, she leaned back in a folding chair and recounted how hard her father, who was chief at the time, worked to move his people out of old Army surplus one-bedroom houses into the family-size homes with extra-large boat garages that are there now.

He spoke only his the native Yakama language, but he traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with officials in Oregon and Washington to get it done.
Whitford vividly recalls the old one-bedroom homes built after the flooding. She grew up battling the pipes, which were never repaired and kept spewing sewage into the kitchen. A few dirt and concrete roads were built, but not much else, leaving village residents to figure out how to educate their children and deal with fire, electricity and police services.

The new houses, built in 2007, were a relief. Her father had died years before Whitford moved into her new home, which was partly designed by tribal members and built by a tribal construction crew. The garage is big enough for a boat and equipment, the pipes are in good condition and she has a yard for her young relatives to play in.

There are still complaints among the people who live there, but, slowly, the sounds of powwows are replacing the silence and sobbing that Whitford remembers the day Celilo Falls was drowned.

“Wall Street of the West”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Celilo Falls in the Northwest tribes’ culture, and the magnitude of loss felt when it was gone.

Tribal members called it “the Wall Street of the West,” because it was a national hub of Native American trade. The evidence of its reach is apparent in the soil, where artifacts from the coast, Montana and even Navajo country have been unearthed. Before The Dalles Dam was built, federal documents estimate that 2,000 to 5,000 people lived at Celilo throughout the year, the crush of people increasing after Bonneville Dam was built and the lower Columbia fishing sites were flooded. Tribal fishing families erected their own structures on available land, putting pressure on the already scarce resources in Celilo.

Tourists descended on the town regularly, but especially during fishing season, to buy salmon, jewelry and baskets.

“Because Celilo is so big and so important and such a focus for treaty fishing on the Columbia, it’s really iconic in the Pacific Northwest,” said Warm Springs lawyer Howie Arnett.

Over decades, the federal government’s development along the Columbia and the cities that popped up throughout the gorge made life harder at Celilo. But the spiritual and social significance of the water rushing over Celilo Falls kept tribal members there. Until the moment the dam gates closed, more water rushed over the falls in the spring than Niagara Falls.

The first blow was the Celilo Canal, constructed in 1915, which allowed for better river navigation for steamboats and the timber industry but took out tribal homes that were built right on the shore of the river. In exchange, the federal government gave the residents about 7 acres of land set back from the river. Later the federal government expanded the land to about 34 acres.

Those expansions made the village more attractive to tribal members, but the village wasn’t equipped to deal with it. The rush of people caused human waste overflows and shortages of drinkable water. The Army Corps decided the chaos was out of hand.

Government housing causes more problems

The Army Corps began building the first iteration of “New Celilo” in 1948 to improve conditions at the village, but ended up introducing more safety and health hazards.

In the years leading up to the new village, the Army Corps documented 260 people living in Celilo Village. But not all were compensated for The Dalles Dam flooding. On the day The Dalles Dam was authorized by Congress, an Army Corps member went door to door, checking who on that list was home. It was done in a single day, on May 15, 1950.

The 36 families home that day were the only people eligible for compensation or relocation, according to Army Corps documentation. Even if tribal members’ names were on the list of current Celilo residents, but were out fishing or visiting a relative, they were excluded from any payout.

The Army Corps paid a total of $210,000 for 23 of those families to move to Gresham; Toppenish, Washington; or other places.

The rest could stay, but they were given houses that tribal members say were already ramshackle when they moved in. The Army Corps constructed the 13 prefabricated houses that were less than 1,000 square feet. Behind the houses, the government built a row of platform tents and a few sheds for drying fish. In pictures taken just a few years after construction, the tents and sheds were already gone, some villagers say because they weren’t sturdy enough to withstand the gorge’s harsh winters.

The homes came with asbestos in the siding and in the insulation of the kitchens and bathrooms, according to the Army Corps’ documents. The walls were covered in lead paint. Some had no water or electricity. The ones that did had old pipes that tainted the drinking water, broke and backed up frequently. Residents’ extended families moved in, adding trailers and hand-built sheds onto the houses.

Some used holes in the ground for restrooms in the absence of adequate facilities, said one Army Corps member when he visited years later. A sewage lagoon within feet of the homes overflowed.

Meanwhile, the salmon population crossing the Bonneville Dam was a fraction of what it used to be. Before the Bonneville Dam was built, federal reports estimated that the tribal fishing crews were catching about 2.6 million pounds of salmon each year, valued at as much as $12 million a year. After the dam, there weren’t enough salmon to even open a commercial fishing season some years. This plunged the villagers into poverty.

At one point, all of the roughly 50 people in the 13 homes lived at or below the federal poverty line, according to federal documents. 
Residents lobbied for decades to bring attention to the conditions at the village.

Eventually they found a champion.

A champion on the inside

George Miller came to Oregon from Ohio, unaware of the history of Celilo. But he became the advocate the tribes needed.

In 1988, the Portland district of the Army Corps had just received federal funding to build 31 sites for Columbia River tribal members to access the river. Most people at the federal agency were reluctant to take the project on. Miller volunteered.

“When I started on that project, I was young and idealistic. And when I inherited the project within the Corps framework, I simply wanted to make government work and do what I understood to be good public service,” said Miller, who is now retired.

Despite fighting Army Corps bureaucracy for the next 20 years, Miller says, he remained persistent because he believed it was the right thing to do. He spent countless hours with tribes to build relationships that had frayed over the years.

Then, he went to the office and spent just as much time lobbying his co-workers and superiors to get on board.

“I’m kind of one of those Type A, bull-in-a-china-shop guys,” Miller said. “So the agency empowered me and I got authorization and funding and, candidly, I had to rock the boat big time to get this thing done. I fought bureaucrats every step of the way. It’s hard. You go to work every day and it’s a dogfight.”

In 2000, the fishing sites were finished. The project came in under budget. The tribes asked him to use the remaining money on rehabilitating Celilo. It was a big ask for the tribal members, because it meant they had to allow the federal government to again tamper with a sacred place. Miller was happy to help, but he knew convincing the agency wouldn’t be easy.

Miller invited his boss, Gen. Carl Strock, to visit the sites. They saw Lone Pine, a fishing camp where about 40 tribal members live year-round in facilities made for about 20 seasonal residents. Then the Army Corps officials visited Celilo.

After a six-hour meeting in the longhouse, Miller said, Strock asked him if he thought the Army Corps was at fault for the decrepit village. “I said, ‘Do you want the legal answer or the responsible answer?’ He looked at me and said, ‘What do you think?’

“And I said, ‘We need to do something here.’ ”

Tribal leaders name that moment as a turning point for Celilo.

“Many people have stood on this ground. Many people have told us promises were going to be fulfilled. It took Gen. Strock to come into the longhouse to see,” said Randy Settler, a Yakama Nation official.

Miller had buy-in. But he faced more obstacles.

Tribal leaders step up

“He was a godsend for Indian country,” Louie Pitt, director of government affairs for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, told federal officials recently. With Miller working the Army Corps’ bureaucracy, Pitt and other tribal leaders focused on building support among the tribes.

The Celilo Wyam Board was appointed with leaders from Celilo, the four tribes and surrounding communities. Board members made hard decisions that sometimes angered residents or tribal members outside Celilo. Ron Suppah, a member of the Warm Springs Tribal Council who was appointed to the Celilo board, said they held long, emotionally grueling meetings to sort out who would get a house at the new village and who wouldn’t. Throughout construction, residents lived in temporary housing provided by the Army Corps and were briefed on the progress each month. The tribal council fielded input on every design element or addition to the plan.

Suppah didn’t grow up on the river, so he consulted his elders when he was in a tough spot.

“There were times when we came to no decision because we couldn’t get consensus because of all the static we were receiving from the sidelines,” Suppah said.

But his most important job was gathering support for the project from people above Miller’s pay grade. “I think it’s got to start at the top in Washington, D.C.,” Suppah said, so he spent days walking the Hill and testifying for federal money.

Antone Minthorn, the head of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation at the time, was one of the biggest influences on the project. He knew it was going to take a lot of work to get it done.

He seized on the upcoming Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2003 to start building support. Celilo Village, where Lewis and Clark stopped to trade with Native Americans and record the sight of the “Great Falls” in their journals, was right in the path of the celebration.

“In the year 2003, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world visiting Celilo during the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Observance will now find at the village site a beautiful, improved and maintained Corps park in sharp contrast to the deteriorated and impoverished relocated Celilo Village across the freeway, left behind by the Corps dam projects,” Minthorn wrote in a 2001 letter.

Congressional delegations from Oregon and Washington came on board, and with the addition of three words to an Army Corps authorization bill, they finally got working.

The village forms

A longhouse, the A-frame communal building where religious ceremonies and important meetings take place, was built first, and set the precedent for how the rest of the rehabilitation would go. Celilo residents had built their own longhouse years before, but it was plagued with problems. It had no restrooms, smoke alarms or sprinkler system. It also had electrical issues, and the frame wasn’t structurally sound.

Miller thought he could salvage some of the cross-beams from the old building, but quickly realized they were unsafe and he would need new ones. But when he filed his change order to buy new beams, the Army Corps resisted.

So he called Minthorn, who talked to Suppah, and within hours the Warm Springs tribe donated $80,000 worth of timber from their forestlands. It arrived within the week.

The price was worth it, Suppah said. “I’m always impressed with how nice the village looks now, and the people are respectful and thankful for what they got.The village is vibrant and it’s alive.”

The project was finished in 2009 with a little extra funding from President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus package not unlike the New Deal that provided the original funding for the Columbia River dams.

Copying Celilo’s success

On March 30, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer sat in the new longhouse to discuss how they can replicate Celilo’s success at the 30 other fishing sites up and down the Columbia River.

“You’re looking at a dream come true,” Pitt told them.

Merkley had asked to see Celilo and the tribal fishing sites after reading about the conditions in The Oregonian/OregonLive. Since then, he and Blumenauer have introduced bills into both houses of Congress that would authorize construction of nearly 50 houses at Bonneville Dam, plan a village at The Dalles Dam and study how many houses should be provided around the John Day Dam.

Miller is skeptical. Neither the federal government nor tribes have an accurate count of how many people lived along the Columbia River before the dams were built. It is probably much more than the 85 the Army Corps said in 2013 were never given the houses they were owed. He worries that sorting out who is owed a home will be a herculean task.

Still, Suppah is hopeful that Celilo’s rehabilitation can be replicated along the river.

“For over 50 years, the tribes have been attempting to hold the federal government to the promises they had made when they started construction on those dams. Not only those villages and homesites along the riverbanks but also the scaffolds and fishing places,” Suppah said.

“It’s important to the river tribes because we always have that dream of one day going back home.”