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Photo of Celilo Falls Courtesy of Yakima Regional Library Archives

“River, flowing, the dam done took your life, how many more generations must face these tears we cry.” Rachel Gill, lyrics from Hydropowerless,

“The Columbia is that cruelest of all stories: a thing changed into exactly what Americans wanted, and, once changed, proving to be a disappointment of an entirely different sort.” –William Dietrich, Author, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River

For at least eleven-thousand years before European invasion, Native Americans lived along various points of the twelve hundred mile long Columbia River and when The Dalles Dam drowned Celilo Falls in 1957, the oldest known continual community on the continent was lost. From the first knowledge of its existence, Europeans viewed the mighty Columbia as a necessarily exploitable resource. On May 12, 1792, three-hundred years after Christopher Columbus took a wrong turn to India; Robert Gray came upon and named the Columbia after his boat. A crew member remarked “This River in my opinion, wou’d be a find place for to sett up a Factory.” (Dietrich 69).

Between the Columbia River source starting from Northern Canadian Glaciers that seep into Columbia Lake and its foggy, foreboding end that dumps into the sea at Cape Disappointment, there are fourteen dams that include, on the Canadian side, Mica, Revelsoke, and Keenleyside and on the American side, Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph, Wells, Rockey Reach, Rocke Island, Wanapum, Priest Rapids, McnNary, John Day, The Dalles, and Bonneville dam. From these several power generating obstructions, irrigation reaches approximately a million acres of farmlands, holds forty percent of United States hydroelectric potential, generates hundreds of millions of annual revenue, and in contrast, several types of salmon, once teeming in the Columbia, teeter on the brink of extinction like the endangered tribes who wane without their nourishment.

Despite, humanity’s determination to exchange illusory capital for life-giving resources, the Columbia River is still a mighty force, its mouth opening unto the sea, dark, shifting, and lethal enough to make its passage nearly impassable, but for a fraction of the year. Its massive weight flows with less urgency these days, but it is still sacred to the tribes who honored and respected it for millennia. Its power is not so much diminished as it is distributed, manipulated, humiliated, financially, politically calculated. While there may be hope for us who dream of crumpling dams, sadly, there is little hope for the precious few wild salmon. What a shame to discard a resource so precious, it may be, perhaps, the best protein-rich nourishment a human can get. Apparently, it is better to irrigate fields of alfalfa to feed fields of cows, to feed millions unhealthy food that promotes obesity via the sedentary effect of electricity, thus, increasing the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and/or stroke. However long it takes, there will come a day when the Columbia River’s hits capitalism in the face with a shock as cold as its glacial source. Like a bucket of cold spring water on the head of Mr. Sandman, eventually, for better or worse, the American dream must wake up; Rivers are not commodities. They are the circle that sustains all life. 

Works Cited

Dietrich, William. Northwest Passage-The Great Columbia River. University of Washington Press: 1995.


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