And the World Will Fall to Pieces

February 22, 2009

This essay won the 2005 non-fiction writing award in the graduate writing program at Portland State University.

A photograph haunts me. It stares down from atop my bookcase. I feel it on the back of my neck. I take it down and look at the image, again. In black, white, and every shade of gray, I see the end of the world.

Tumbling toward the camera are billowing plumes of water, a river losing to gravity. Watching are three Indians in broad-brim hats, ghostly shadows against a white wall of water. Two are standing, cloaked shoulder to ground in blankets. The third is sitting, chin resting on hand. In the distance, a jagged ridge and sloping plateau blot out the sky.

I grew up next to silent water, a placid lake ringed with orange groves and oaks, a place unlike anything in the photograph. With both hands I hold it close to my face, a voyeur seeking more. I try to imagine the roar the Indians must have heard, the mist they must have felt. But I get only memories of my lake in Florida: water warm as a bath, redwing blackbirds flicking in and out of cattails, calling to each other all at once, my two brothers holding their breath somewhere beneath me. In the photograph’s vast panorama of the West, I am a stranger. The Indians are home.

My gaze fixes on the furrowed plateau. Humps and creases look like fingers curled into barren ground,a clenched fist, threatening. Like me, the Indians couldn’t envision the future bearing down on them. Everything changed in our distinctly different lands all in the name of progress. Although the dictionary defines progress as steady improvement, it often means someone’s loss. Not that what I lost compares in severity or swiftness to what happened to the Indians: Celilo Falls, their salmon fishing grounds and ancient gathering place on the Columbia River, center of their world, would vanish in a single day.

* * * *

Imagine the canals of Venice drained, the snows of Everest melted, the islands of New York flooded. Not by the hand of nature but in the ever-tightening grip of white men upon the land. That’s what happened to the Indians on March 10, 1957, when steel gates closed for the first time at a new dam eleven miles downstream. Six hours later the rising water entombed what volcanic eruptions and Ice Age floods had shaped over thousands of years. As the Columbia changed from wild river to peaceful lake, it also inundated the Indian village at Celilo, a place inhabited for eight thousand years, longer than any place in North America. Indians had lived there centuries before bronze was first cast in Asia, before the first Egyptian pyramid was built, even before God created Earth if one believes Old Testament theologians. Until the dam was built, the falls and rapids had shouldered more than twice the water of Niagara Falls. In this torrent thrived the most productive fishing spot in North America and perhaps the world.

Celilo Falls disappeared on a cloudless, cold day. “Dropping of Dam Gates Set for 10 A.M. Sunday,” read the front-page headline in The Oregonian. In downtown Portland, the Meier & Frank department store advertised men’s Oxford cloth shirts for $1.88. Playing at the movies was Westward Ho the Wagons!, starring Fess Parker, who helps protect an Oregon-bound wagon train against marauding Indians, and World Without End, featuring four astronauts whose trip home from Mars mysteriously takes them five hundred years in the future to an Earth devastated by nuclear war.

At Celilo Falls, cars packed narrow roads on both sides of the river. People from across the region had turned out. How often does one see the end of what had existed before recorded history? Water pooling behind the dam moved in a dark eddy toward the falls. Even as the engorged river inched up into the torrents, the roar didn’t stop. Politicians and engineers in hard hats lined up for photographs. Indians from the village gathered. With arms crossed over their chests, they turned their backs on the river, refusing to watch. From among them came a cry, a death chant. The wailing grew louder as the falls were slowly muffled. Long after the dignitaries had left, the Indians kept wailing, well into the night. Campfires illuminated them as they stood rooted to the rocky ground. When they stopped, there was silence.

Celilo Falls, Wy-Am in the tribal tongue ”echo of water against rocks” would echo no more.

* * * *

The photograph, taken in 1899, was among dozens I flipped through at a store four years ago, soon after moving to Portland. I was shopping for relatives in Florida, home for most of my life. Each photo depicted Oregon’s rugged scenery, dramatic images of terrain starkly different than what I had known. I’d never heard of Celilo Falls, its rich history, or its destruction. Still, the photograph roused something in me. Was it foreboding from the austere vista? Or was it yearning?

For twenty-five dollars I bought the photograph, not fully understanding its allure. The attraction grew when I learned the three Indians were standing on the brink of tragedy they couldn’tt see coming and their people were powerless to stop. Now a photograph that I might have overlooked is a small window: through it I peer at their distant world, a world on the verge of ending. Why does it feel like I’m looking at my own past?

* * * *

When missionaries moved into the Pacific Northwest starting in the 1830s, they found along the Columbia a native people eager to embrace the word of the Christian God. Yet the Indians weren’t godless; they believed in the Old One, who made the earth from a ball of clay, broke off tiny pieces, and rolled them into people. They revered Coyote, sent by the Old One to help them in a hostile land. To the river Coyote brought salmon, sustainer of life. For centuries their religion had imposed order on a dangerous world. But as the white man encroached and epidemics from his germs swept the land, the world no longer made sense to the Indians. Nothing explained what was happening, nothing protected them.

The missionaries believed the Indians were drawn to Christ’s promise of heavenly salvation. But the Indians wanted something else in the magic book called the Bible: secrets to the white man’s power. With this power they could combat the unexplained dark forces sweeping the land. When the Indians realized that the Bible couldn’t stop the loss of territory and scourge of disease, many discarded its teaching. Eighty percent had died from smallpox and other illnesses. The historical record is silent on whether the missionaries told the story of Job to help the Indians cope.

Perhaps by 1855, when the tribes and the federal government signed a peace treaty, the Indians believed their suffering was finally over. They agreed to surrender 64 million acres in Oregon and Washington, clearing the way for railroads and more settlers. In exchange, the tribes received $1.2 million and retained land for reservations. Celilo Falls was theirs to keep, along with perpetual access to what the treaty called “all usual and accustomed fishing places.” Nothing was more essential to their survival or more sacred to their culture than the salmon. They would always have Celilo and the fish, millions of pounds each year.

Not even white people with all their powers could stop the salmon or Nch’i-Wana, Big River, from cascading over Wy-Am. Or so the tribes, and later the Indians in the photograph, must have believed. Surely, no more travails could befall a conquered people.

* * * *

Now, more than a century since the photograph was taken, I set out to find Celilo Falls, or where it’s buried underwater. As I drive east from Portland, I wonder whether the river will reveal why the photograph tugs at me. I imagine myself, solemn, dipping my hands in the river and feeling the answer in water trickling through my fingers, like an Indian shaman divining unseen truth. Then I chide myself: its only a photograph, artfully composed and evocative yes, but nothing more. This argument never prevails.

As I travel on Interstate 84, the sprawl of buildings gives way to trees, and the Columbia unfurls in front of me, shimmering in morning sun. The terrain rises up. As I enter the Columbia River Gorge, passing through the Cascade Mountains, cliffs hundreds of feet high tower overhead. An hour from Portland the lush greenery thins. The river meanders. East of the mountains the trees fade away—I’m nearing the high desert of the Columbia Plateau.

Since my last trip across Oregon in September, the plateau has been transformed. The arid grays and browns, like those in the photograph, are verdant greens dappled with yellows and purples. It’s April, and the paltry fourteen inches of annual rain, most falling in winter, have awakened the hills. Buttercup, lupine, and bitterroot are blooming in a showy display destined to wither by June. The smell of sage will persist until fall. The spring run of salmon will begin soon but not in the abundance portrayed year-round on a decorative fence that lines both sides of an interstate bridge. Metal replicas of the silvery fish gleam as they leap in great numbers from blue metal river rapids. The Columbia has no rapids left for salmon to jump.

Then I see it looming ahead, stretched across the river, imperious and stolid, The Dalles Dam,” giver of light, tamer of wild river, destroyer of ancient ways. Following the river’s path, the highway bends sharply through the city of The Dalles, and then begins a long climb, taking me high above the dam. Even from here the ‘s stature is undiminished: one and a half miles of concrete and steel hold back the West’s biggest river. Inside, hidden from view, the Columbia is enslaved, channeled into a potent but well-behaved force that turns hydroelectric turbines. When its job is done, water streams back into view, giving the illusion that the river is free.

Eleven miles east of the dam, I exit at the Celilo sign and pull into a small park. A dozen gulls stand idly in the parking lot as if waiting for something. They pay no heed to a gull flattened on the pavement, feathers ruffling as a car swerves around the carcass. Down a grassy slope is the Columbia, more lake than river. On this windless day the water is a mirror. I look across the river toward Washington, searching for the panorama so haunting in the photograph. Low-slung buildings, indistinct from this distance, line the riverbank. In the plateau I make out the fist, no longer menacing in the colors of spring. I see it reflected on the water, grainy but bright. Soon the image is washed away by a tugboat pushing a barge east against the gentle current, like a plow chewing through dirt. I wave at the pilot but he ignores me. The tug’s wake ripples to shore in a hiss of waves. After a while, the only sounds are cars whizzing past on the interstate and the far-off cry of a train whistle.

I wonder if it is silent fifty feet below the surface as the Columbia slips over the rocks where the three Indians stood, watching.

* * * *

Three boys—my brothers and I—were always running headlong down a bank, crashing into the water. We grew up next to Lake Sybelia, narrow and not much longer than the Columbia is wide at Celilo. It was near Orlando, then a drowsy place that tourists mostly passed by, an era as lost as the falls since Disney World arrived. We moved to the lake, in the town of Maitland, from snowy New Hampshire. It was 1959, the year Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, pushed a button and ceremonially activated one of The Dalles Dam’s turbines.

We lived in three different houses on Sybelia, moving clockwise as if marking time passing, though our lives seemed timeless. Each house had its own beach, centers of a childhood immersed in clear waters. If not in the lake, we were in the orange groves that surrounded it in precisely aligned rows so long they reminded me of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Long before orange groves were planted, an army fort was built near the lake in 1838. Fort Maitland was precursor for the town, as Fort Dalles was for The Dalles. The army established forts every ten miles south through Central Florida, close enough to travel between during the day when Seminole Indians were less likely to attack.

My brothers and I knew nothing of the town’s history. But we acted out many soldier vs. Indian battles on land and water, not with guns and arrows but with oranges more abundant than salmon. While it only took hours to destroy Celilo Falls, our home changed slowly. People moved in at an orderly rate, lured by cheap land, low taxes, and lakes everywhere. But Disney World’s opening in 1971 triggered runaway development: in twenty years the population tripled as our town and others nearby melded into a sprawling suburbia of 1.2 million residents. Since then it’s grown another fifty percent. Not counted are the forty-four million tourists who visit each year, the same number as locusts in a small swarm.

* * * *

Near where I’m standing at Celilo, Lewis and Clark arrived two hundred years ago. The river raced downhill through a 150-foot opening in the basalt rock. Below the falls the river surged over miles of rapids, dropping eighty feet by the time it reached where the dam is today. The explorers were astounded by what William Clark called the “great marts of trade” at Indian villages, where stacks of woven baskets were packed with dried, pulverized salmon. They learned that Indians throughout the Northwest gathered at Celilo to trade salmon, other foods, clothes, weapons, and even slaves. It was also for socializing, a place where friends and relatives met every year.

Neither the Indians, who helped the explorers portage the falls, or those in the expeditionary force realized that the encounter marked the start of a struggle for economic power, a fight the Indians were destined to lose. Now signs of an industrialized economy are inescapable: railroads parallel both sides of the river, cargo-laden boats pass often, and vehicles crowd the interstate. The highway and railroad tracks separate the park from the new Celilo Village, detritus of a once-thriving enterprise. Its residents fished the falls or heard their parents tell of that time now past. For years the government has been promising to rebuild the village, a collection of ramshackle houses and mobile homes. How many motorists streaming past see the village as I do, a memorial to how much has been lost? How many know what nature provided here, the bountiful salmon or waterfalls now interred beneath a placid lake?

At the park, official historical markers commemorate what was once here. Inset in a rock, a plaque shows an Indian spearing a fish. Photos on two signs show Indians leaning from rickety platforms perched over the falls and capturing salmon in long-handled nets. The history is incomplete or gussied up for the tourists passing through. The text on one sign reads:

When The Dalles Dam was completed in 1957, the storage basin behind it filled in above the falls and inundated the fishing grounds. Treaty reserved fishing rights, however, continue to be exercised by people in the Middle Columbia River Area. The loss of Wyam Falls did not mean the loss of the Indian way of life.

Indeed, Indians still fish here. A fenced-off area reserved for them at the park includes a jetty on the river. But salmon are hard to find. No longer do they funnel in throngs up rapids and scale waterfalls in dramatic leaps. The Columbia’s wild salmon population has declined ninety-five percent, although it’s supplemented with hatchery fish that environmentalists warn are weakening the gene pool.

Someone has vandalized the sign, not with graffiti but the blacked-out deletion of a single word: The loss of Wyam Falls did not mean the loss of the Indian way of life.

* * * *

There are no signs, no monuments to our life on the lake. It’s as if we had occupied a lush canvas of clean lakes, orange groves, and Spanish moss-draped trees until the artist, overcome with despair, painted over everything with endless traffic jams, runaway crime, and polluted waters. Nothing will restore the world that was, a world that exists only in memories. And no memory recreates the feeling of living there, not even the smell of orange blossoms in spring, a cloud of perfume so sweet that every breath we took seemed like worship.

Now tourists who equate Florida with citrus wonder what happened to the orange groves. What developers in Orlando didn’t claim, freezes did. The trees were bulldozed into piles and doused with kerosene. As flame devoured the wood, orange-scented smoke filled the air, the incense of last rites. Only ashes remained, until they too drifted away on the wind. Perhaps one day Disney will build an orange grove so lifelike it would fool me. And three boys could disappear into it, if only for an hour or two.

We never saw it coming, the gravity or permanence of the change, not even while it was happening. And until it happened, I never understood our own complicity: we were in the first wave of development that ultimately would blot out the place we loved. The map still bears the names Lake Sybelia and Maitland, but the place I remember no longer exists. My brothers, still living in Florida, resent the newcomers who continue streaming in, as some lifelong Oregonians frown upon newcomers like me.

* * * *

History is dramatically displayed at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center and Wasco County Historical Museum, which share a building a mile downstream from The Dalles. A thirty-foot glass wall in the lobby offers a commanding view of the river and plateau. A black marble replica of the river inlaid in the tile floor shimmers like water. Touring the center, operated by the federal government, is like browsing a history book that’s missing key pages. Exhibits tell of volcanic flows and epic floods that indelibly marked the terrain, the Indian way of life practiced for centuries, Lewis and Clark’s explorations, the perils settlers faced, and dam projects that generated abundant electricity and made the river a thriving shipping lane. Photographs of native people include a few that show them fishing at Celilo Falls. Nowhere, however, is the flooding of the falls mentioned.

While I ponder this oversight a tour group of school children shuffles past. A guide explains the construction of Indian lodges. For a moment I consider playing the heroic defender of truth, grave bearer of bad tidings about our collective past. I’ll shout out the unexpurgated truth or furtively scrawl a note on the bathroom mirror: The government is hiding something. For the untold story, call. . . Then I find emblazoned on an exhibit wall the words of an unidentified Indian prophet that tell visitors all they need to know: “Soon there will come from the rising sun a different kind of man from any you have seen, who will bring with them a book and will teach you everything. And after that the world will fall to pieces.”

At the county historical museum, a video starts automatically when I enter a darkened room. Up until now, Celilo Falls and its people had been locked in place in still photographs. Here everything is alive in what resembles old newsreel footage: Indians netting salmon in the frenzied waters of Celilo Falls, Indians hauling away fish in the mist, Indians traversing the falls in carts suspended by wires. Yet the images don’t mesmerize me as much as the sound: a ceaseless deep rumble. Reading the exhibit’s text that explains how the dam destroyed the falls, I hear the sound differently: it’s lamenting what’s no longer there.

Many people in The Dalles area mourn the loss of Celilo Falls, explains the museum librarian. I nod in agreement thinking that, like me, they mourn from the all-electric comfort of their high-and-dry homes. The dam and thirteen others built on the Columbia brought power to the vast Northwest and opened a shipping waterway from the ocean to Idaho, spurring economic growth along its route. Presented with a tradeoff today, which would we choose: the Columbia raging wild and free, spilling its banks occasionally, with Indians restored their treaty-guaranteed fishery at Celilo Falls, or jobs and the benefits of progress? The tribes would argue no tradeoff was legitimate: Celilo belonged to them, and they planned to retain forever the old ways of fishing and gathering there as they had for millennia.

Tucked away in the museum’s files is a yellowed newspaper clipping that explains how the Indians see it. In 1945, upon learning what the federal government might do to the falls, the Indian chief at Celilo said: “The Great Fear came to me when I heard the white man was takin’ a step to build a dam below my fishin’ place. My heart seem to beat and tell me that the white man is trying to destroy our food.”

Nearly a half-century since Celilo Falls vanished, I stand before the video and listen to the falls rumble from wall-mounted, surround-sound speakers. I try to picture myself at the edge, like the three Indians in the photograph. How can I? Celilo is not imprinted in me. All I hear is the quiet of Sybelia interrupted by our boyish taunts.

* * * *

“If you are an Indian person and you think, you can still see all the characteristics of that waterfall,” said Ted Strong, former director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, the agency that helps tribes hold onto what fishing rights they have left. “If you listen, you can still hear the roar. If you inhale, the fragrances of mist and fish and water come back again.”

Strong’s ancestors didn’t impress Meriwether Lewis who, despite their help at Celilo Falls, described them as “poor, dirty, proud, haughty, inhospitable, parsimonious, and faithless in every respect.” The comment documents the white attitude of superiority that persisted for decades and to a lesser degree still does. In a pattern people seem destined to repeat, one group classifies another as inferior to rationalize subjugating or destroying it. Recently I encountered a lifelong Portland resident, a woman in her sixties, who recalled catching a cold as a child and her grandmother telling her: “The wind must be blowing in from the east, spreading all those Indian germs in the mist of Celilo Falls.”

When Congress approved construction of the dam in 1950, the year I was born, such attitudes prevailed. Yet people around the country joined the Indians in opposing the project. Celilo Falls had become one of Oregon’s most popular tourist stops, and thousands visited during spring and fall salmon runs to watch the Indians fish. Many complained in letters to Eisenhower and other politicians. Pastors preached against the dam from their pulpits. The Oregon chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution implored Congress to “make prompt and substantial amends for this act of rank and unjust discrimination against the Indians whose homes are in the Columbia Gorge.”

In 1952, the year construction began, an Indian wrote a guest editorial for The Oregonian. In language reminiscent of the Bible, Charles Setan Castner told of broken promises and greed:

“Our legislators have forgotten the honor of their position and their duty to the people in the sordid race for money. There is a need for someone who will drive the money changers from the temple of our government. . . We hope some of our legislators have the honesty and sense of duty that distinguished the founders of our government and who will listen to our plea, who will have the courage to say to the power interests, ‘Thou shalt not destroy Celilo Falls; thou shalt not take from the Red Man what is rightfully his.’ Ha Meado. (I have spoken).”

The Oregonian had endorsed the federal government’s position that the project would ensure adequate power for industry for the Cold War and improve river navigation. Over the years, much had been written about the dam and what it would do. Perhaps all that could be said had appeared in the newspaper. When Celilo Falls finally was buried, it rated half a sentence. No Indians were interviewed.

* * * *

Like many kids who grew up watching Westerns on black and white television, I crossed some invisible threshold and began rooting for the Indians to whip the cowboys. With puberty just over the next hill, a wildness takes hold, rebellion sets in, and the underdog suddenly looks more appealing. Even without this prepubescent transformation, I would have still ended up at the YMCA’s Camp Wewa for two weeks every summer for six consecutive years. Each cabin had Indian names like Mohawk, Iroquois, and Navaho. Under flaming torches in the humid Florida night, we trekked to pow-wows. I carried a lance adorned with feathers. Frogs and alligators croaked and grunted from the lakes that surrounded us in the woods. In a ceremony I danced to beating drums, a bonfire illuminating my painted face. I felt feral yet noble, except for the worry that my loincloth might flap open. Never did I wonder whether Indian boys play at being white men.

As a kid, the Seminole Indians fascinated me, especially crafty Chief Osceola. I’d read how it took the army two wars to drive them from their swamps. Those who survived were marched to dry and barren land in Oklahoma, a place as different from the Everglades as Mars. Osceola wouldn’t surrender. Waving a white flag of truce, the army tricked the chief and captured him. Upon his death from malaria, a doctor secretly decapitated him. A New York museum displayed the chief’s head until the patrons protested. As the story goes, the doctor took the jar home, where he tied it to his children’s bedposts whenever they misbehaved.

Now, someone dressed like and nicknamed Chief Osceola rides a paint horse and carries a flaming spear at the start of home football games at Florida State University. When he thrusts the spear into the field and races off, fist held high, the Seminoles football team—devoid of Indians—and its fans roar in approval. Many times my voice and those of my brothers have been among them. Some Indian activists complain that besides stereotyping, the depiction of Chief Osceola is insulting in its inaccuracy. The American Indian Movement of Florida calls it “a Hollywood version of an Apache who got lost in a Lakota dressing room riding a Nez Perce horse . . .”

Even today it’s hard not to be seduced by the stereotypical images of Indians fierce and gallant astride wild horses. I consider that my attraction to Celilo Falls might spring in part from boyhood games and summer camps filled with make believe. Or is it a white man’s guilt and anger for what his people have done not just to the Indians but to his pastoral home on a lake? Yes the tribes lost far more, but it doesn’t feel that way to the child in me.

* * * *

Four years after buying the photograph, I must learn its origin. It proves easy to trace: Benjamin Gifford, who had a studio at The Dalles, took it and many other photographs of Indians and Oregon scenery starting in the late 1800s. At the encouragement of a railroad official who wanted to spur economic development, Gifford sold thousands of prints in the East. During the 1905 centennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition, newspaper photographers from around the country tried to take pictures of Indians dressed in ceremonial regalia. The Indians protested, with one saying: “Gifford, he take our picture. Nobody else.” They must have liked his work, not to mention the money he sometimes paid them for posing.

Part of Gifford’s collection is preserved at the Oregon Historical Society. In a folder I find several copies of what’s simply titled “Three Indians at Celilo Falls.” What about the original, I ask? The large glass negative is hidden away from the public, but I can buy prints of any photos in the folder. I order another Gifford shot of Celilo, this one a close-up of a lone Indian standing on a rock barely above rapids that swirl in a maelstrom around him. Why not have more Indians staring down at me?

* * * *

I remember a moment alone, underwater in Sybelia. Gliding thorough a silent world, I felt free of the earth. Sunlight bent through the water, illuminating my way between clumps of eelgrass and elodea. Forcing air from my lungs, I sank and bumped to a stop, boy submarine scrunching against fine sand. I was home.

So many years later I still feel the sheltering blanket of water, hear its silence. Cocooned there, I believed it would always be home. But eventually I had to push skyward to breathe, and it was over.

I dream often of Sybelia. Sometimes it resembles a two-dimensional facade, a stage backdrop that I can’t enter. Or tall narrow buildings, collections of unevenly stacked cubes, arch over the waterâ’s edge, their abstract forms bending toward ocean waves. The other side is always strangely distant, too far to swim even for our two dogs, long since dead.

We moved from the lake thirty-five years ago when I was away at college. During every trip to Florida, I end up at Sybelia despite promising myself to stay away.

Just like the last time, everything’s different. Next to our last home, a palatial house takes up most of our makeshift football field. The orange groves aren’t there, of course. No more ammunition easily plucked for grand battles fought with metal trashcan lids for shields. Our beach has shrunk, victim of encroaching weeds that we’d kept at bay. The thicket of cattails, home to the redwing blackbirds, still stands. A long dock has replaced the neighbor’s boathouse. We used to climb to the boathouse roof, hauling our Labrador retrievers with us. They followed us everywhere, even as we ran the length of the roof and jumped. Sometimes I’d watch from underwater as the dogs splashed down bellies first. Now the water looks murky even on a sunny day.

Our front yard is still there. It’s where we crammed rock-like green oranges atop fireworks packed in a metal pipe stuck in the ground. With each explosion that echoed across the lake, the oranges arced like mortars, falling in the shallows of the opposite shore.

On my last visit, I parked next to our overgrown beach. I closed my eyes, held my breath, and imagined sinking beneath the waves.

* * * *

Unlike the Indians at Celilo, we spent so much time in the water that our hands and feet were perpetually wrinkled. Never once did we fear the lake, even its deepest parts. So turbulent was Celilo Falls that falling in meant death. Most Indians tethered themselves with ropes in case they slipped under the weight of a struggling salmon.

For centuries, if someone drowned, the Indians stopped fishing for the day out of respect for the dead. In 1952, everyone assumed Danny Sampson was dead. The eight-year-old Yakama boy had fallen from the rocks and was swept underwater. Nearby a fisherman felt something in his net. A Life magazine photograph showed the fisherman pulling up Sampsonshaken but safe.

Sampson would be sixty years old now. I wonder if he takes his children or grandchildren to secret spots on the undammed Klickitat River in Washington and teaches them the old ways, as other Indian men are doing. Perhaps they’re preparing for the return of Celilo Falls, and not the temporary one as proposed for the Washington state centennial in 1989. The Army Corps of Engineers rejected the idea of briefly draining Lake Celilo so the falls could roar again, if only for a short time.

If history is an arrow flying straight into the future, Celilo Falls won’t roar back to life. But if history is circular, the echo of water against rocks will return. Legend has it that in millennia long past, some tribal members dreamed of a dam that suddenly appeared. Their benefactor, Coyote, outwitted evil forces and dug away at the dam until Nch’i-Wana surged through, returning salmon to the starving people. Whether they were dreaming of the past or the future wasn’t clear.

* * * *

I’vee framed another photograph. It shares the bookcase with “Three Indians at Celilo Falls.” Three little boys squint at the camera from a backyard swing set. They look perplexed at the interruption, as if to say, “Just let us play.” Skinny and bare-chested, they’re wearing shorts and moccasins; two sport Indian headbands, each adorned with a single feather. I imagine them, again, together in a world their own. Legs kick the air, a contest to see who can swing the highest. Wind ruffles the feathers. As the boys rise higher, they smell the orange grove. I blink and they’re gone.


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