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Oregon has some hidden treasures you would never find without a guide. Today I'll tell you about the best one.
On Interstate 84 Between Pendleton and The Dalles is a community at least twice as old as the oldest Pyramid and one of the most important sites for American Indian culture. And yet, because what remains today is a tiny fragment of what it used to be, you wouldn't know that there is anything special here at all.
Celilo Falls and the Narrows of the Columbia River, two of the most spectacular stretches on this river, lie approximately 13 miles east of The Dalles. You won't see them because they lie beneath Lake Celilo, waters impounded by the Dalles Dam. These features are important because they formed a choke point for migrating salmon. You can't see the historic salmon runs either because the dams and commercial fishing have reduced their numbers to a few percent of what they were, but in 1881, Gustavus Hines said \"Doubtless there are rivers in the world which afford a greater variety of fish than this but perhaps there are none that supply greater quantities. ... They literally fill the rivers of Oregon, in their season. And at all the falls and cascades in the various rivers of the country, the quantities taken and that might be taken, are beyond calculation. As they penetrate far into the interior, they afford almost inexhaustible supplies to the Indian tribes of the country...\"
But this was more than just a big fishing hole. \"The vicinity of the Dalles was probably the most considerable trading establishment of the whole northwest, marking the meeting place of the interior and coastal groups in the bottle-neck of the gorge of the Columbia as it cuts through the Cascade range. The great emporium is the falls.\" The Indians had perfected means of preparing the catch so that it would keep for a year or more, providing a tradable surplus and a basis for commerce. North to British Columbia, south to Nevada, West to the Pacific and east to the Rocky Mountains, they all met and bargained here. As late as 1862 Theodor Kirchhoff wrote \"Each tribe has its piscary and observes it rigidly; the gathering of distinct tribes composes a bright mosaic.\"
It is almost all gone now. First, European diseases greatly reduced native numbers. Then in 1858 the first portage railroad forced resettlement of some dwellings. The railroad expanded over time finally becoming a double-track intercontinental freight line of the BSNF, each expansion removing more dwellings. Then in 1908, a canal around the rapids was constructed requiring yet more removals. In the 1920s construction of Oregon highway 30 caused still more dislocations and in the 1950s when that stretch of road became the 4-lane I-84 even more land was appropriated. Finally in 1957 the flooding of the falls by the Dalles Dam inundated the original village. The government's preferred solution to resettlement of the remaining residents was to eliminate Celilo Village entirely, moving all the remaining Indians to various reservations or delisting them. The residents resisted vigorously and in the end a New Celilo Village was constructed south of the highway and the railroad tracks but \"Ultimately, only five of thirty-six families moved to New Celilo, while the rest moved to Gresham, The Dalles, Washington State, or their respective reservations.\"
So only a faint shadow remains of the thousands who once covered these river banks during salmon season. Considering the importance of the site very little archaeology has been done but one dig in the 1950s found \"The evidence then indicates that human occupation of the Columbia River in this central region had started at some unknown time before the end of the Pleistocene...It would probably not be far wide of the mark to suggest that the earliest occupation of the site started not less than 11,000 or more years ago.\" As you drive along the highway, you can see that the Columbia does not meander like some great rivers. It is constrained by great bluffs of durable basalt and its course has not changed appreciably in a very long time. The salmon runs involve several distinct species so it is certain that there have been salmon runs on the Columbia every season for much longer than ten thousand years. Therefore this is almost certainly the oldest continuously inhabited village on earth. There may be a few as ancient but I know none that could plausibly claim longer continuous habitation.
Some may object that while it may be old, there is not much stuff to look at. True, but this is part of what I think makes Indian culture worth studying. The Indians of the region between the Cascade and Rocky mountains built very little that would outlast a human life time. They dwelt in seasonal houses of reed or skins. Their utensils were woven fiber or wood. So none of the tribes left many permanent marks on the land, although we have proof that they have been in Oregon for at least 14,000 years. The only lasting trace is that anywhere in eastern Oregon where there is a little water, a brief search will usually find some flint tools.
One curious fact is that, as far as I know, no tribe in the Northwest practiced agriculture. They had plenty of opportunity. The West side of Cascade mountains contains some of the finest soil and best climate for agriculture in the world. Even in the east, there are large regions that today produce abundant crops. I think they must have known it was possible. There were numerous tribes to the south and east who had been planting corn and beans and squash for millennia. They were a long way away of course but a young man on foot can cover amazing distances. Jedidiah Smith went from western Montana down through Nevada, across to California and back up to Vancouver and then back to Montana, mostly on foot, twice. And a hundred years is a lot of time, they had millennia to visit the neighbors.
We call it civilization and the root of this word is the Latin word for city as if cities are the measure of existence. But cities carry a lot of baggage: kings, and priests, taxes that burden and laws that bind. Among the local Indians a Chief was not Chief because of who his parents were or how much wealth he possessed. It was a matter of how much his neighbors respected him. Human beings were not the crown of creation so much as one kind of animal with its peculiar nature among many others and they all rubbed along together each doing only what came naturally. If one is not locked down to a specific piece of ground, you can move to where it's coolest in the hot season and to where it's warmest during the cold. Nomads can take advantage of seasonal and local abundance, taking what nature provides without demanding more. Eastern Oregon is home to a wild plum. In season it produces so much sweet fruit that after the birds and the bugs and the bears and people have eaten everything they can the ground is still covered with uneaten fruit to turn brown and melt away into the grass.
Perhaps our native tribes did not plant and weed or build great temples not because they lacked knowledge or ability, maybe they thought their way was better.