The Industrialization of Celilo Falls, and its failures, pt 5

 By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon—

The pressure on Native fishers and fish stocks throughout the Columbia River system was relentless and took many forms, both on and near the river and in distant courtrooms:

“During the 1880s and 1890s, fish wheel owners had aggressively displaced Indians from many of the “usual and accustomed places” reserved in their 1855 treaties with the U.S. government. Although the case of U.S. v. Winans (1905) upheld the right of Native Americans to access the fisheries, Seufert Brothers did not hesitate to challenge Indian fishing when it conflicted with company interests. In addition to blasting tribal sites to make way for fish wheels, the company tried to drive away Native competitors such as Sam Williams, an enrolled Yakama who operated a scow from a moorage on company land. In the resulting lawsuit, U.S. ex. rel. Sam Williams v. Seufert Brothers (1919), company attorneys tried to establish that the Yakama Nation had no fishing rights south of the Columbia River. Seufert Brothers lost the case but ultimately succeeded in forcing Williams to work for them.” –The Oregon Encyclopedia

“By the turn of the (20th) century at least seventy-six fish wheels were in operation on the Columbia, most concentrated at the Cascades and in The Dalles-Celilo area.” –Oregon Historical Society

The Seufert Brothers were one of many white-owned companies and white individuals that laid claims of ownership to both banks of the Columbia River and all of the islands within its flow, despite the ages-old presence of many tribes and the established tribal fishery at Celilo.

In 1926, Oregonians voted to outlaw fish wheels on the Columbia River, and the state of Washington banned their use in 1934. Salmon runs were already in decline, just a few decades after attaining statehood.

Ironically, Congress authorized the construction of the Dalles – Celilo Canal and later the dam at The Dalles in part out of concern for the monopoly that the railroads then held in transporting goods and commodities through the Columbia Gorge. Some felt that the competition from river transport would induce the railroads to reduce freight rates, and the funds were committed.

The flooding of Celilo Falls and the opening of the navigation locks at The Dalles in 1957, however, would result some fifty years later in an effective monopoly of the navigation lock itself by a single barge company, Tidewater.

The middle section of the Columbia River has proven to be ill-suited for use as a shipping channel, to the detriment of other potential uses of the river, and today there is only an average of three barge tows a day on the entire river. For this, we sacrifice Celilo Falls?

The Army Corps of Engineers had a vision of transforming the Columbia River into a series of lakes, linked by navigation locks. It was the 1950’s; there was the Korean war, the Cold War well underway, and the aluminum smelters that were lining the River craved prodigious amounts of electricity.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the dam that flooded Celilo Falls, and will have a role in bringing the Falls back, has in fact already made a significant contribution in conducting the sonar survey that verified that the rock structure of Celilo Falls remains intact at the bottom of the lake.

In 2008, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), produced and broadcast “Celilo Revealed” for its Oregon Field Guide series. The production includes film of the 1957 flooding of the Falls, statements by several tribal members, and the sonar images.

Celilo Revealed opens with this narrative: “A flat, watery plateau now entombs the single most important site for fishing, trade and culture for tribes across three states,” and later notes that the tribes retain their treaty rights to take fish “at all usual and accustomed places.”

The flooding of Celilo Falls is a clear violation of the treaties.

The tribes claim a right to the usual and accustomed places, which at Celilo lies currently under about 60 feet of water, and they want to see the Falls revived and protected.

Some day, Celilo Falls will return. It is only a question of when and how. Many assume that this could be many generations, even hundreds of years in the future.

Even the Army Corps of Engineers officer who ordered the sonar scan states in Celilo Revealed, “There is no question in my mind, these dams are coming out.”

Although he qualifies his remark in reference to the life expectancy of dams, the officer notes the relationship of the tribes to this sacred place, that the tribes will exist here “from time immemorial to time immemorial.”

And the narrator states (erroneously), “No one believes that Celilo will return in our lifetime…perhaps the grandchildren of one’s grandchildren’s grandchildren might wake up one day to a river restored.”

The fact is that the dam at The Dalles does not need to come down in order to restore Celilo Falls. There is no need to wait for the life expectancy of the dam at The Dalles to run its course. It is much a matter of trading Celilo Falls and all that comes with it for maintaining a slack water pond behind the dam for the use of the occasional barge.

See Celilo Revealed and related video here:

Oregon Field Guide, “Celilo revealed”, Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2008:

Additional video:


The Friends of Celilo Falls is forming….

Sean Cruz writes and posts at


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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