Gazing out over the placid water of the Columbia River on a quiet day at Celilo State Park offers no hint of what sleeps beneath.
Not quite six decades ago, before the backwaters of The Dalles Dam covered it up, a visitor would find the river roaring with a torrent of water bashing its way through the jagged basalt chasms forged by fiery prehistoric lava flows. Native peoples, gathering in hordes, would net the rich bounty of salmon fighting their way upriver through and over the rugged channels to their spawning grounds.
Today that scene lives only in the memories of the people who fished the raging waters of Celilo Falls and the people who came to watch them.
But the Confluence Project is working to change that and plans to see an art installation cantilevered at the river’s edge, inspired by the fishing planks used at Celilo falls before it was submerged in 1957. The work was designed by renowned artist Maya Lin and is due for completion in fall 2016. It will be one of six sites along the river that are intended to create a “catalyst for discovery.”
Four are already completed: Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash.; Fort Vancouver in Vancouver, Wash.; the Sandy River Delta in Troutdale; and Sacajawea State Park in Pasco, Wash. Along with Celilo, Chief Timothy Park in Clarkston, Wash., is still in the works.
“If you think about all six sites as a work of art, this is the keystone that holds them up,” said Colin Fogarty, the new Confluence Project executive director, at Celilo Park in late May. He joined the project at the first of the year, taking over the role formerly held by Jane Jacobsen.
The Confluence Project has created these places as “’teachable places,’ transformed and reimagined to explore the confluence of history, culture and ecology in our region,” www.confluenceproject.org explains. “Each work references a passage from the Lewis and Clark journals as a snapshot in time, while comparing it with the deeper story.”
The aim is to spark “moments of insight.”
“The point is to tell the story of the Columbia River and its people,” Fogarty said.
The art piece will not be a memorial, Fogarty is quick to note.
“It’s as much about the people who live here now and will in the future, as it is about the past,” he said, later adding, “The idea is to tell a more inclusive history in order to create a more thoughtful future.”
Fogarty is working to complete the necessary funding for the Celilo project. The Confluence Project has seen some recent success in that regard. Last year, the Oregon Legislature allocated $1.5 million to the Celilo arc project. Since December, the Ford Family Foundation and the Collins Foundation have granted the project $250,000 each. Its most recent grant, $150,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation, announced in May, is contingent on the organization raising an equal amount from other sources.
Making sure the Confluence Project remains vital and relevant in the future will be the continuing goal of its supporters once the final artworks are in place. Work on that transition has already begun.
The Confluence Project effort was ignited during the 2005 bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery trek in search of an inland passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Throughout most of its existence, the Confluence Project has had an educational component, Gifts from Our Ancestors,” that connects native artists and storytellers of today with school-age young people in the areas it serves. It also helps organize school field trips.
How the Confluence sites will be used in the future Fogarty doesn’t know, but he said the sites will aim to provide deeper meaning and understanding.
“This will not be a Disneyland tourist destination,” he said.
Artist Maya Lin’s involvement in the Confluence Project came about as a result of invitations from two different fronts. Jane Jacobsen was working with a large group of people in Vancouver on a vision that would eventually become the Confluence Project. At the same time, Antone Minthorne, a leader of the Umatilla Tribe and a Vietnam veteran, wanted to see a monument to the tribes. Lin’s solemn and understated Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., draws veterans and their families from around the nation. Both Minthorne and Jacobsen thought her work would create the kind of drawing point they were looking for.
“All of the elders of the tribes are veterans,” Fogarty noted.
Lin only agreed to lend her creativity to the project once she understood it had tribal support, Fogarty said.
That tribal support will continue to be vital to the Confluence Project.
“We’re never done with that,” Fogarty said. “We will never take that for granted.” He hopes to create a committee of advisors representing all four of the treaty tribes.
Community support for the projects has also been strong, he said. Leaders of nearby population centers, including Columbia Gorge towns, hope the installations will spur more tourism in the area, boosting the local economies.
Fogarty will be presiding over the home stretch of the Confluence Project’s building phase, and the fundraising that goes with it.
“We’re in the midst of raising $38 million total over 12 years and we only have a little bit to go,” he said. “We’re still going to have to work hard and make our case — and make our case where we are. A lot of people still don’t know what the Confluence Project is. We think the more people learn about the project, the more excited they will get.
“I’m shocked at how many people don’t know the story of Celilo Falls who live in Oregon. There’s a disconnect from this story that is so critical to not only our history, but our future.”