On the Rocks
Dip-netting salmon at Celilo Falls was a tribal tradition for millennia, until the area was submerged when The Dalles Dam was built, leaving only indelible memories behind.
Millions of years ago, after the ice melted and the waters carved a gorge, a river was formed. Today people call the river the Columbia. I suppose it has had many names since the first human inhabitants arrived and the salmon started swimming unhindered to their spawning grounds.
Fishermen learned to dip-net the salmon from the churning water at what once was Celilo Falls, the name meaning “the sound of falling water upon the rocks.” The fishermen used a long pole, at the end of which was attached a circular rod with a small net of hemp twine — a larger version of the type of net you might use to get a goldfish out of a fishbowl. The net would then be dipped downstream into the rushing river, engulfing any fish in its path. The impetus of the fish hitting the net would trigger a clever release, entrapping the salmon.
I learned to fish for salmon — the sacred and treasured staff of life, as far as Northwest Native Americans are concerned — with my stepfather, cousins, and shirttail relatives, as custom dictates. The last time I fished was in 1952, due to a couple of life-changing events. I was drafted into the Army in 1950, as there was a minor conflict in a place called Korea. This was somewhat peculiar for me and my friends on the rez who also got drafted (two never came back), because at that time we couldn’t even go into a bar and have a beer (damn drunken Indians, you know). After the Army I returned home and, much to the relief of my parents, got a job. Then The Dalles Dam was built in 1957, flooding the falls and land. My Celilo fishing days were over.
Before the dam, Celilo was a village of three to four hundred shacks constructed between old U.S. Highway 30 and the railroad, about a half mile from the falls. The structures were somewhat bedraggled but sufficient for transient fishermen, built right on the rocks and scattered patches of dirt. You’ve heard the phrase, “You could throw a cat through the cracks in the walls”; in Celilo it was no joke. Fortunately, the weather was always pleasant during the spring and fall fishing seasons. The permanent residents had nicer domiciles and even had glass in their windows. I do not doubt for a minute that if Celilo Falls still existed, so would every one of those shacks.
During the fall fishing season, the most major aggregation of Indians would occur starting around the first of September. At that time, Celilo would become like no other place in North America. Nine to ten thousand men, women, and children would descend upon the village not only for the run of the salmon, but for intertribal family reunions, to renew acquaintances of old, for evening card games, and to trade.
During the day, all the net fishing was done on intricate wooden scaffolds that were built every season on the same family site, which had often been passed down from one generation to the next over the passage of hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of years. As tradition dictated, the owners of the scaffolds, usually the senior male of the family, permitted others who did not have a regular fishing place, or relatives with a site to fish, on their scaffolds at night, at their own risk. The guest fishermen could even borrow equipment if they repaired any damage to the nets or poles they used, a traditional obligation that the night fishermen adhered to almost religiously.
After my third year of fishing, I heard from other cohorts my age about young men going out on the rocks at night to fish. To get there, you had to cross a channel to the main island. To cross the channel, you had to climb into a stable but somewhat antiquated hand-powered cable cart. The cable cart, really a 3-foot-by-4-foot half-box, hung by rope from a steel cable that crossed over about 300 feet of water, just below one of the largest falls. If you fell in at night, it was clear sailing to the Bonneville Dam about 50 miles downriver. The federal authorities would lock the cable cart at 10 p.m. I guess this was done for safety reasons, but I don’t know if they even knew anyone was over on the island fishing at night, let alone were concerned about Indians drowning.
One night I told my stepfather I wanted to go fish on the island. He said to go but be careful, not realizing I intended to stay the night. I teamed up with a couple of cronies and we headed for the river, but when we got to the cable cart there were already several guys in line, so we had to wait. You were only supposed to fit two people in the cart at a time, and they had already packed it with four. By this time it was after 10 and getting dark. After we finally made it across, the cart made one more trip back to the mainland before it was locked for the night.
We now had no option other than to find a place to fish. We could go anywhere we wanted, but most of the guys had already taken the best spots. I headed to my friend Steelhead’s scaffold where I usually fished during the day — not as great as some of the other spots, but I had all night. Around midnight I started to get hungry and realized that I hadn’t brought any food to eat. I saw a campfire about 100 yards away and moseyed over to see what was going on. Lo and behold, they were having a barbecue, and the main fare was “eel a la carte,” very well done.
I asked where they caught the eels, and they pointed to some nearby waterfalls. I made my way carefully through the dark to the falls (no need to slip here, no one would ever hear you over the constant roar of the river), where the eels were so thick it was like being in a See’s Candies store with nobody home. I caught my dinner and headed toward the fire, where there was a knife and a small board to prepare it. I used to eat eels at my grandma’s home, but I never paid much attention to how she cooked them. Out on the rocks, I learned it was quite simple: You cut off the head and tail, threw them to the fish, cut the eel into hot dog-size portions, held them over the fire, and voilà — dinner was served. An Omaha steak never tasted better.
To drink? We had a whole river.
After dinner, one of the guys named Wesley decided it was about time he had to leave. He had a date with a waitress that worked at “Ptomaine Plaza” — a one-stop gas station, restaurant, curio shop, tourist trap, and the only public restroom in Celilo, making it a popular place. Being a novice, I was curious to see how he planned to get back to the other side of the channel. If he was going to swim, this I had to see. Instead, he headed back to the end of the cable cart line, climbed up to the main steel cable that the cart traveled back and forth on, grabbed hold of the cable, and pulled himself hand-over-hand across the 300 feet to the other side. That waitress must have really been something.
Celilo Falls was one helluva place — I was sorry to see it go. But probably not nearly as sorry as the Indian people who fished there all their lives and those that lived there year-round (honyowhat, bless them). There’s a sad and a glad story for every salmon that jumped and successfully made it over the 50-foot raging falls, and the millions that swam around them. And there’s a sad and a glad story for every Indian who fished those waters. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Except, maybe, for that waitress.