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Renewing traditions at Celilo

There’s an age-old intricacy to the happenings here that exudes authenticity and resilience

By Liz Stuart

The annual Salmon Festival, hosted by Columbia River tribes at Celilo Village just east of The Dalles in April, starts with basics — music, succulent food, and dancing. But its roots and meaning run deep: they’re built on 11,000 years of history at this place. And even though Celilo Falls, the cataract where the tribes traditionally gathered to catch and celebrate the return of salmon, was flooded by The Dalles Dam in 1957 and the festival draws on modern conveniences, there’s an age-old intricacy to the happenings here that exudes authenticity and resilience.

I drive past Celilo Village at least three times a year on my way upriver to visit my family near Spokane. In 2002, when I made the drive down the river on I-84 for the first time, the village hadn’t yet been redeveloped; now, fresh homes surround a sturdy longhouse that hosts ceremonies and gatherings throughout the year, including the Salmon Festival. It’s an unmistakable marker of the tribes’ steady resurgence —even as the interstate stands between the village and the river, and every day, thousands of people fly by, unaware that this location is central to the Columbia River’s indigenous culture.

I got a glimpse of just how deeply the river and its bounty are woven into the people and history of Celilo when I caught up with Bobby Begay, a Yakama tribal member who lives in Celilo Village, as we reviewed photos taken at the festival over the course of two years by Jan Sonnenmair. The photos appear in the spring issue of Edible Portland .

Begay pointed to a photo showing some older men cooking meat on the big grills outside the longhouse — though not traditional, it’s a practical way to feed the large crowd that attends the festival every year. One grill holds salmon, and one holds venison. Begay explained that the fish is cooked on the grills closest to the river, while the venison is cooked on the “inland” grills. The land food, venison, cannot stand between the water food, salmon, and the water it came from. The fish and venison are kept separate, so their spirits don’t fight with each other. Gas grills or not, this division has been observed for generations.

In River of Memory: The Everlasting Columbia , Elizabeth Woody wrote about Celilo following the inundation of the falls: “The spirit of the ‘Place of Echoing Water upon Rocks’ is not silent. We care for the river and the life of traditional unity, the humble dignity, and purity in intention— wholeness. Ultimately, we restore life with our attention and devotion.”

With each detail attended in ceremonies such as the Salmon Festival, the Columbia River people renew age-old skills and traditions and pass them to the next generation.

Liz Stuart is an Ecotrust Food & Farms Education and Outreach intern.

This year’s Celilo salmon festival will occur from April 13 to 15.