The Industrialization of Celilo Falls, and its failures, pt 2

By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon—

The Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850 “legitimized” the claims of white pioneers on Native American lands and resources throughout the region, some two and a half million acres before the survivors of this ethnic cleansing signed any treaties.

The purpose of the 1850 Act was quite clear, as detailed by historian William G. Robbins in The Oregon Encyclopedia:

“To meet constitutional requirements, Territorial Delegate Samuel Thurston had told Congress that extinguishing Indian title was the ‘first prerequisite step” to settling Oregon’s land question. Before lawmakers voted for the Donation Land Law, therefore, they passed legislation authorizing commissioners to negotiate treaties to extinguish Indian title and to remove tribes ‘and leave the whole of the most desirable portion open to white settlers.’”

Among the lands that the white settlers craved, part of “the whole of the most desirable portion” was both banks of every major river and every resource in the rivers, including Celilo Falls, where they forced their way alongside the fishing platforms, built fish wheels on the rocks and towed fish wheel-equipped scows in the navigable reaches of the Columbia River.

The fish wheels were fitted with wire screens, like this:

These wheels were not designed for propulsion, but for scooping prodigious quantities of fish out of the river, with no thought to stewardship of the resource or of the sacred nature of Celilo Falls and


many other places within walking distance on both banks of the River.

The screens attached to these wheels would churn the fish out of the river and drop them into the boat. These were not romantic paddle-wheelers, but voracious bottom feeders, in terms of morality and greed.


The wastage of fish was incomprehensible, the seizure of the lands and the Falls, the destruction of Native peoples and cultures  unforgivable…the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and the Oregon Donation Land Act at work….

Yet the Native fishermen persevered in their traditional ways:


 The Friends of Celilo Falls is forming.

Coming: The Industrialization of Celilo Falls, and its failures, pt 3



About 1000nations

Sean Aaron Cruz is Executive Director of 1000 Nations and a co-founder of The Friends of Celilo Falls. He is the organizer of the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival. He is co-author of Winona LaDuke's new book, "The Militarization of Indian Country." He is the father of four children who disappeared into Utah in a Mormon abduction in 1996, and the author of Oregon's landmark anti-kidnapping statute "Aaron's Law" (Senate Bill 1041), named for his late son Aaron Cruz. He writes online as Blogolitical Sean.
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