The Corps of Engineers and Celilo Falls Facing the Past, Looking to the Future

ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 10, 1957, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District commander Col. Jackson Graham changed the character of the Columbia River. By closing the gates of the newly completed Dalles Dam, Graham started filling the reservoir that would form behind the 130-foot tall structure, inundating Celilo Falls about ten miles to the east. On hand to witness the event were local, state, and federal officials who hailed the dam as an important component of hydropower production in the Pacific Northwest. Another group was also keenly aware of the event, but they watched the rising water with tears, not pride or satisfaction. Native Americans who lived near the falls at Celilo Village and fished the Columbia River knew their lives would never be the same.

Celilo Village was one remnant of a place that had historically been the economic, cultural, and spiritual center for mid-Columbia River tribes. Prior to construction of the dam, the nearby falls supported the fishing activities of some five thousand Indians.[1]

By the morning of March 11, Celilo Falls had slipped beneath the rising river, silencing a roar that had been heard in the region for thousands of years. Along with the falls, what remained of the original Celilo Village was inundated. During the final months of dam construction, the Corps had relocated residents to nearby communities or to a new village on the south side of the railroad tracks about a mile away.

MID-COLUMBIA RIVER INDIANS— groups of which became the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation — negotiated treaties with the United States in 1855 in which they retained their right to take fish at all their “usual and accustomed places,” many of which were located near Celilo Falls on the Columbia River.[2] By the 1930s, hydropower had become a popular source of electricity, and the Corps saw rivers in the Pacific Northwest as excellent candidates for hydroelectric dams. Bonneville Dam was the first of a series of federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers that was authorized by the United States Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt presided over Bonneville’s dedication in 1937. A devastating flood in 1948 destroyed the town of Vanport, Oregon, and residents of the region saw flood protection as another potential benefit of dams. The Dalles Dam was the next project completed by the Corps.

Both Bonneville and The Dalles dams had major impacts on the lives of Indians living along the river. When the pool behind Bonneville Dam filled in 1938, Native people lost about forty of their “usual and accustomed” fishing sites. The Dalles Dam destroyed many more fishing sites and forced Celilo Village’s relocation.

In 1948, during construction of The Dalles Dam, the federal government acquired land about a quarter-mile east of the original village and built replacement homes using World War II surplus housing. Because the Corps was constructing the dam, the U.S. government charged it with relocating communities that would be inundated when the reservoir filled, including Celilo Village. The poor quality of construction materials and inadequate maintenance at the relocated villages caused structures to badly deteriorate, leaving residents without water or sewer access and with sanitary conditions that violated federal and state statutes and also endangered public health and safety.

IN 1988, OVER THIRTY YEARS after The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo, President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100–581, authorizing and requiring specific actions by the federal government to uphold earlier promises made to the four tribes. Those actions included improving boat docks, boat ramps, and camping sites as well as constructing fish cleaning, curing, and ancillary facilities at what are termed “in-lieu sites” — five sites authorized and constructed in lieu of lost fishing sites during Bonneville Dam construction — and at “treaty sites” — twenty-six new sites authorized to meet acreage objectives that had been established in earlier agreements between the government and the tribes but never met. The Columbia River Treaty Fishing Access Sites project was authorized in 1988 to implement the actions required by the law and to mitigate the impacts of federal water projects, particularly Bonneville and The Dalles dams, on the reserved treaty fishing rights of mid-Columbia River Indians whose ancestors signed treaties in 1855. The work required by the law and subsequent project is still being completed, and all in-lieu sites are to be improved and turned over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which will hold them in trust for the Native Americans. So far, all but three sites have been completed and transferred to the BIA. The total project cost estimate established by the Corps of Engineers, adjusted for inflation, is $88.9 million.

Those projects did not address poor living conditions at Celilo Village, and in 2000, tribal leaders met with Joseph W. Westphal, assistant secretary of the army for civil works, to request federal attention to correct the problems faced by the nearly fifty people who lived full-time at the village.

Congress must officially authorize and appropriate funding for projects in order for the Corps to work on them. Because there was no authorization or funding to redevelop Celilo Village in 2000, Westphal approved a recommendation that the Portland District prepare a Post Authorization Change Report to the law signed by Reagan in 1988, including analysis of and recommendations for renovations to Celilo Village in conjunction with the Columbia River Treaty Fishing Access Sites project. That report was approved by the Corps of Engineers in February of 2004, and Congress enacted the Native American Technical Corrections Act in March of that year, authorizing the Corps to undertake renovations to the existing village. Once the change report was approved, the Corps was able to use the funding provided by the Columbia River Treaty Fishing Access Sites project to improve living conditions at Celilo Village.

EXTENSIVE DELAYS IN FULFILLING obligations to Celilo Village made residents skeptical of claims that the Corps would complete this project. Due to the personal dedication of Northwestern Division Commander Brig. Gen. Carl Strock and Portland District project manager George Miller, both village residents and tribal leaders began to believe the Corps would come through. “General Strock was very visible in his support to correct what he saw as a Corps responsibility,” Miller said. “He listened to the residents and tribal leaders about what was needed and supported the District’s recommendations to prepare specific, quantifiable actions on how to proceed with Celilo Village’s redevelopment.”[3]

Strock became commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July 2004, and, according to Miller, his commitment to fulfilling promises to Native American tribes remained a high priority: “General Strock’s personal commitment was critical to explaining our project needs to Congress.”[4]

With authorization and funding in place to redevelop Celilo Village, Miller knew his first task would be to gain the support of village residents, tribal leaders, and elders — a task he knew would be difficult. “These people had essentially been waiting for the government to fulfill its promises for nearly fifty years,” Miller said. “It was very hard for them to believe what they first saw was not just more words, and I didn’t blame them at all.”[5] From the beginning, Miller listened to the residents with respect; more importantly, he backed up his words with action. The first meetings were planning sessions, exploring how best to accomplish the revitalization. Miller took all suggestions seriously, and members of the Wy-Am Board, a council of leaders from the four tribes and Celilo Village residents, saw their suggestions incorporated into the revitalization plans.

Miller points to the completion of the longhouse as an example of the Corps taking action. Once Celilo Village was included as a Columbia River Treaty Fishing Access site, Celilo Village Chief Howard Jim asked the Corps to rebuild the longhouse before any other actions were taken. In response to that request, the first phase of the Celilo Village redevelopment project was to plan and construct the longhouse. “Corps projects often are detailed and time-consuming,” Miller said, “but the longhouse project was planned and constructed within eight months.”[6]

The redevelopment project has been implemented in two phases. After completing the Celilo Village longhouse, Phase One upgraded water and sewer systems and provided temporary housing for residents. A contract to complete the final phase was recently awarded to Colville Tribal Service Corporation of Nespelem, Washington, a Native-owned company. Phase Two will remove the existing structures, build fifteen homes for residents, and rehabilitate the village infrastructure, including paved roads. In addition, a combined Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative office and classroom building will be constructed. All residents should be moved into new homes by May 2008.

USING NATIVE AMERICAN CONTRACTORS and materials — part of which were donated by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation — the longhouse, the lifeblood of mid-Columbia Indian communities, was completed in July 2005. As with any community, not all members agreed with how the longhouse was built — or even that it should have replaced the one built by residents in the 1970s — but everyone could appreciate the large kitchen and elders’ lounge in the newly refurbished building. “Completing the longhouse was an important step for the Corps,” Miller said. “Now the residents could see something was actually being done.”[7]

Lt. Gen. Strock, by then the Corps’ chief of engineers, was an honored guest at the dedication ceremony, held on a sunny July afternoon. His remarks that day reflected the Corps’ commitment to Celilo Village and its history:

Your longhouse has been returned to you. It has new fixtures, but the old spirit shines through. The hopes and dreams your elders had for the village are beginning to be realized. It is not finished, but you have seen the plans and know the timelines. In the near future you will have a completely renovated village….

We stand together before this new longhouse with an old spirit. Its revitalization is only the first step in a journey that leads us to rebuilding the entire village. On that day I hope to stand with you once again and celebrate another great event, the completion of the Celilo Village reconstruction.[8]

Another great milestone was reached in August 2007, when all permanent residents were relocated from their old homes into temporary structures so new homes can be built. It was a bittersweet milestone; while there was pleasure in having clean, running water and new buildings, Celilo Village Chief Olsen Meanus lamented: “It’s the only house I’ve ever lived in. I have a lot of memories in that house.”[9] Once the improvements are complete, the Corps will transfer ownership of all buildings and infrastructure to the BIA, which will hold it in trust for the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribes and other Columbia River Indians. The Corps will transfer $2 million to fund operations and maintenance, and the Wy-Am Board is working with the BIA to determine how those funds will be administered to ensure future upkeep.

In addition, residents are working with the Corps, the BIA, and the Wy-Am Board on a charter for self-governance. Because Celilo Village is not located on any one reservation and is used by members of tribes from around the region, jurisdiction and maintenance responsibilities have been informally decided. There is no Celilo tribe per se; the village has been used during fishing seasons by Indians from tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest, with a limited number of permanent residents who are enrolled in one of the four tribes. The Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama reservations are many miles from the riverside village, making tribal jurisdiction difficult. The self-governance charter will define resident rights and responsibilities, use of village assets, and access to community property such as the longhouse. “There is a lively discussion going on about the charter,” Miller said. “The residents have definite views about how to manage their community; the challenge is finding common ground among the various perspectives.” Miller has no doubt about a successful outcome. “These people are survivors, strong and committed — they’ve held onto this place called Celilo and their way of life in the face of some difficult challenges, often brought on by governmental action — or inaction. They’re up to the task, I’m sure.”[10]

ALTHOUGH THE FALLS ARE GONE and only a few still remember the thunder caused by the cascading water, tribal leaders and residents are adamant that Celilo Village will remain. “It was concluded that a presence of Native American Tribes was important and had to remain on the Columbia River and that it would be the Celilo Village and the people that endured and continued to live there,” said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He credits the perseverance of one resident with helping to reshape her community. “I was approached more than once and challenged by a persistent Celilo Villager [Delilah Heemsah] in the early days about any progress being made,” Minthorn said. “That persistence provided the energy and coordination to keep us all moving — that is, the [Wy-Am ] board, [Corps of Engineers] Portland District, and the Yakama, Warm Springs, and Umatilla councils.”[11] Heemsah, whose father fished on the platforms at Celilo Falls and whose mother prepared the river’s gifts for her family and to sell, is still working to keep her community relevant and viable for the next generation of Celilo Village residents. Even without the falls, tradition will remain strong on the banks of the Columbia River.

When U.S. Army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the Columbia River in 1805 and 1806, they were met and helped by Indian peoples who had lived near and fished the river for thousands of years. Perhaps some people knew then that the region would never be the same. As white settlers followed the Corps of Discovery less than twenty years later, that understanding must have became clearer with every wagon seen heading west. In 1871, the Corps of Engineers established the Portland District, whose mission was to improve water-borne transportation to facilitate the movement of commerce. For decades, federal interest in the region was focused on meeting the needs of a growing society, often at the expense of Native Americans. The construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957 was a devastating blow to those who had traditionally fished in the rushing waters of Celilo Falls. The Corps, as the nation’s engineers, built the structure, but the decision do to so rested with the federal government and resulted from a variety of local and national influences. Many years later, the Corps, largely because of the vision and perseverance of a few individuals, helped the United States live up to responsibilities that stemmed from treaties signed in 1855. At last, the residents of Celilo Village are watching their village receive improvements they have been waiting fifty years to see.


1. William F. Willingham, A History of the Portland District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992), 160.

2. Treaty with the Yakama, 1855, Article 3, paragraph 2. Similar language was used in treaties with other Pacific Northwest tribes. See Charles J. Kappler, ed., Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1904).

3. George Miller, conversations with the author in August and September 2007.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, Celilo Village longhouse dedication ceremony, July 23, 2007, in possession of the author.

9. “Ancient place has new features,” Oregonian, July 11, 2007.

10. George Miller, conversations.

11. Antone Minthorn, e-mail message to author, September 7, 2007.





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