Yesterday Bill and I drove to Celilo Village, Oregon. It’s just east of The Dalles, on the bank of the Columbia, and it’s easy to miss. What was once a thriving hub of commerce is now a collection of small buildings, abandoned trailers, and a single, spectacular bulding rising far above the others—the Celilo longhouse. This is village is now the center of the ancestral Celilo fishing grounds, the ancient waterfalls drowned in 1957 by the impounded waters of The Dalles Dam.
Celilo Falls may have been permanently silenced, but the life of the Columbia plateau indigenous people endures. Every year, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission hosts the First Salmon feast. For these aboriginal people, salmon isn’t just a food—it’s a way of life, a locus of creation, and the center of their spiritual practices.
The First Salmon feast takes place in the Celilo longhouse (right), with day-long ritual and a ceremonial meal. The meal features the four sacred foods: salmon, deer/elk, roots, and huckleberries. The feast begins and ends with water. Men enter the longhouse and sit along the north side, women along the south.
This is definitely one of those, “you had to be there” moments, as far as description. The songs and drumming made me tingle. The Indian people wore their finest clothing—Elizabeth Woody had told me this on Friday. “Everyone wears their best,” she’d said. And so there were women and girls in beautifully colored dresses and men and boys in ribbon shirts, everyone bedecked in silver and feathers and beads.
The food was amazing. It was a true feast—I had serious doubts about whether my paper plate could hold up to what was piled on it.
The ceremonial foods are eaten in order. You begin with salmon, which was cooked outdoors, both on barbecue grills and spit-roasted in front of open flames.
Next was venison. There were two kinds: a pot roast of venison and wild onions and a piece of really incredible dried elk. I’ve never had it, and it was delicious.
Third came the roots—both camas and Wapato. They were tasty—with a slight, astringent bitterness that hinted at the vitamins within.
Finally there were berries—huckleberries gathered last season and frozen for the ceremony, as they don’t ripen until mid- to late summer.
On top of that: potatoes, carrots, potato salad, fruit salad, and biscuits.
Bill and I found a quiet bench to sit on and to enjoy our food, and as we ate, a big dog came and watched us. It was a gorgeous dog—reddish gold with startlingly golden-orange eyes (right). I’ve never seen anything like it. Bill said that is was a relative of the “yellow dogs,” which are said to be a breed unique to American Indian tribes. It was a sweet dog, and happily gobbled up the tidbits we offered.
After we finished, we wandered down to the river’s edge to spend some time with Celilo Falls. Below is what the site looks like now. I was filled with a tremendous sadness as I looked out over the silent water and thought of what it had been like, long ago, but there was still the joy of being there, of eating and honoring the salmon, and of knowing that life continues, always in its great and magnificent cycle.
Amidst these thoughts, I dipped my hands in the river water, touched the water to my forehead and heart, and murmured my thanks for having this feeling of simply being there, and of being home.