River people

Native people, salmon and the river are displayed as an interlocking whole in a section of the “Gifts of our Ancestors” Confluence Project art mural on an outside wall of The Dalles High School, which is designed to promote awareness of local Native American culture.

This article is the second of two and considers growing up in The Dalles area, the destruction of Celilo Falls, the Granada Theater and signs in the city that read “No dogs, No Indians.”

Residents of The Dalles who attended the reading of “Celilo Falls: Parallel Lives Along N’chi-Wana” by Native American Poet Ed Edmo and Ethicist Lani Roberts on Nov. 10 heard two radically different portrayals of life in The Dalles in the 1950s, as reflected in stories illustrating the sharp divide between a dominant culture and a racial minority; stories that highlight the racial injustice of the past.

Roberts and Edmo are of the same age, and both grew up near The Dalles.

Growing Up

Roberts described growing up in a house built by her great-great-grandfather in 1868 on land deeded to the family as a homestead. She said she grew up with the perception that the land was “empty and unused” when the family arrived,  learning only later that it had been ceded by the indigenous people of the Mid-Columbia area in an 1851 treaty. The family also homesteaded a wheat ranch on the Deschutes River, lost to them in the Great Depression.

Her great-grandfather served in the Oregon legislature in the 1920s, and a room at the back of the Congregational Church Sanctuary in The Dalles, used for overflow crowds on Easter and Christmas, was  dedicated to him as well.

She was the fourth generation of her family to graduate from The Dalles High School.

“My roots are deep in the Mid-Columbia region,” she said.

Edmo was born on an Indian reservation in 1946. His grandparents lived at Celilo Falls, a seasonal gathering site for Native Americans who came there from throughout the northwest to trade and socialize. “They made a plan for me to visit...It’s been a long, long, really long visit,” he said with a chuckle. “My home was on the river. The river was a welcome playmate—the sound of the river was soothing to my ear, like a lullaby. The river was always a friend.”

“We have been on the river a long, long time, fishing, digging roots, hunting, trading along N’chi-Wana—the big river bed, we called it—the Columbia River.”

Edmo said his father worked on the railroad. He said there were legends about the coming of his people, and stories, and they would talk of them at the dinner table and warm up the wood stove. “I remember being always warm, by the fire, in our house,” he said.

“I learned to read by a coal oil lamp before I started first grade in The Dalles. My mom would give me classic comic books: I broke my reading teeth on the classics.”

Destruction of Celilo Falls

“Without a doubt, the single most tragic and traumatic wrong done to the Mid-Columbia  river and to the people who lived there was the flooding of Celilo Falls,” said Roberts.

“Although both of us still grieve this tragic loss, the direct impact and experiences were radically different between them, at the time and still today,” she said of the inundation of the falls by The Dalles Dam.

“When the government man came, it seems like he was constipated all the time,” remembers Edmo. “He never smiled.” He said the man had the same attitude to them as the townspeople of The Dalles, mocking them with his eyes. When government workers began leveling the ground for the railroad tracks they realized what they were going to do. “‘We’ll stand on our treaty rights,’ the Indians said,” Edmo recalled. “Many remembered when they built the Bonneville Dam in 1938, remembered the Indians were the first to move out,” losing their fishing sites and houses.

He remembers meetings were held in people’s houses, and the government man being told, “‘You should give us $50 for every board in the drying house.’ It was a fair offer.” The government man responded that he would go to the judge and condemn the land, and not give them “a red cent.”

The white man who lived at Moody owned a gas station and a store, and he held out for a higher price, Edmo recalled. “I remember that white man was standing there crying into a red bandanna; the government had made an example out of him, and not paid him a fair offer.”

“It was done in the name of progress,” he said. “No one stuck up for us Indians except the Democratic Society of Wasco County and the Daughters of the American Revolution.” He said the government refused to let them settle near The Dalles Dam, because that land was destined to become hotels and gas stations. “The agreement was that the Indians would have a room to have a curio shop, to sell coffee and food to tourists. What happened?”

 Roberts recalled visiting the falls when she was 10-years old. “I remember it well, mostly because the mood was serious, somber,  almost spiritual—very much like it feels at a funeral. My parents explicitly told me they wanted me to see Celilo Falls because it would never exist again. That impressed me—how could something as huge and powerful and magnificent as Celilo Falls cease to exist? The water roared, the falls were taller than any building I’d ever seen, and the Indian fishermen dangled dangerously over the water, dipnetting salmon from the river.”

In March of 1957, the falls were flooded out of existence by the backwaters of The Dalles Dam. “I have mourned the loss of Celilo Falls my whole life. When I understood what had happened, I used to scare my parents by wishing someone would blow up The Dalles Dam,” Roberts said. “I doubt I am the only person who imagines such a thing.”

With the construction of dams along the Columbia, Roberts noted, “It seems completely wrong, a mistake, to call the Columbia  a river anymore.”

Edmo said his dad took him to Wishram on the Washington side of the Columbia to watch as the falls were flooded. “It was like a bad dream, that something so big and wonderful was flooded,” he said. He said he had watched his grandfather and father and uncle fish, and believed he to would become a fisherman one day. “Those role models were taken away by the flooding of the falls. Nowadays I tell legends about the river, I tell stories about Celilo Falls. I go to Fred Meyers and get my groceries. I am still a fisherman, but in a different way.”

Granada Theater

Saturday Matinées at the Granada Theater, still standing at the corner of Second and Federal streets downtown The Dalles, were popular among the kids as Roberts and Edmo were growing up.

Roberts noted that cowboy movies were a mainstay at the theater during those years. “It was from these movies that we kids drew our inspiration as we played cowboys and Indians in the neighborhood,” said Robers. “In retrospect, I can recall that no one wanted to be the Indians. The littlest kids had to be the Indians, because the cowboys were always supposed to win.”

This kind of play was thought of as normal and harmless, but Roberts said that as an ethicist who studied how we human beings organize ourselves to harm some of us for the benefit of others, such play and the movies that inspired it had an impact on how native people were viewed. “How could it not have led us to view them as other than us?” she said.

The Granada was the only movie house in The Dalles, Edmo said, and his parents always sat in the balcony. “I always thought they picked those seats because they were the best seats in the house,” he said.

“One time my brother and I were sitting down on the main floor. The usher came down. ‘Indian boys have to sit up in (racial expletive deleted) heaven,’ he said. His brother pointed to his uniform. “See this uniform?’ he said.  ‘I fought for this country, I can sit where I want,’” Edmo said. The manager threatened to “call the cops,” and his brother said, “Go ahead, call the cops. He’s got a uniform, I’ve got a uniform, we can talk to this out man to man.”

“The manager never did call the cops, and ever since  the Indians sat on the main floor of the Granada Theater,” Edmo said.

No Indians

Roberts said, “even though I was raised to not judge others by the color of their skin, and my parents forbade in no uncertain terms the use of racist words, I grew up smack dab in the middle of toxic racism directed toward the Indians with whom I lived.”

She said when she describes the racism at the pool and theater, and the signs in the stores that said “no dogs, no coloreds,” her students were quick to think of the Jim Crow south. “When I tell them this was my own home town, The Dalles, Oregon, when I was a kid, they’re shocked,” she said.

“I remember seeing the signs in the windows in most of the stores in The Dalles that read, ‘No dogs or Indians allowed,’” Edmo said. “I couldn’t understand. I was raised in a good, Christian home, taught that we should love and overcome all. But when we went to town, the white men would throw rocks with their eyes.  You can’t see the rocks, but they sure hurt and the bruises last for a long time.”

He said the exclusion wasn’t just one store, but most stores. There was only one cafe in The Dalles where they could eat, for example. [Johny’s Cafe, now closed]. If they were allowed into a store, they were waited on last and if a white person entered, they would stop helping the Indian and help the white customer. For a long time, they were not allowed to try on clothes, and they had to guess if they would fit, Edmo said.

Yet the racism against the Indian, so prevalent when she was growing up, was unseen by her in her youth. “Why is it that the wrongs most present in our everyday life are the ones most difficult to see?” she wondered. “Is it because they are so ever present, everywhere, that like the air we breathe it becomes invisible? Is it because I’m European American, white, so that my privilege plays in my Oregon home town so I didn’t have to notice?”

Her questions remain unanswered in the essay.

About the reading

The reading was sponsored by the Confluence Project, a series of outdoor installations and interpretive artworks located in public parks along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Each art installation explores the confluence of history, culture and ecology of the Columbia River system.

Ed Edmo

Internationally acclaimed poet, storyteller, actor and clay artist, Ed Edmo uses puppets to tell Indian legends to children and adults – helping people learn to laugh again. Since 1981, Ed has traveled to colleges, pre-schools, trade shows, pow-wows, and more as a Native Consultant. In 1984, Ed earned top prize at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center One Act Play Festival for his play, Through “Coyote’s Eyes: A Visit with Ed Edmo.” In addition to co-authoring “Celilo Falls: Parallel Lives Along N’Che Wana” in “Seeing Color: Indigenous Peoples and Radicalized Ethnic Minorities in Oregon,” he is also the author of “A Nation Within.”

Lani Roberts

Lani Roberts (Ph.D., B.A., Philosophy, University of Oregon) was a faculty member in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University from 1989 through 2011. She is now retired and lives in Hood River. During her time in the OSU Philosophy Department, Roberts directed the graduate program, coordinated the applied ethics certificate, and directed the peace studies program. She was a founding member of Faculty and Staff for Peace and Justice, and member of AFAPC (Association of Faculty for the Advancement of People of Color).

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.