This article is the first of two and considers The Dalles High School mascot and the city-owned swimming pool. Part two will look at the Granada Theater, the destruction of Celilo Falls and the exclusion of Native Americans from local businesses.
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.
“The first few times we read this, I cried in the middle of it,” Roberts told the audience after the reading. “That was the depth of my feelings about the material. This is not an academic exercise—it is an attempt at truth and reconciliation. If you can’t tell the truth, there is no possibility of reconciling it.”
The essay presented a picture of racism in the region, and in the city, going back to the earliest days of European settlement, as witnessed by the authors.
“Edmo is Shoshone Bannock, Nez Perce, Yakama and Siletz and lived at the fishing village at Celilo Falls until it’s destruction in March 1957. I grew up six miles away just outside The Dalles, a descendant of an early settler family,” Robersts said. “Although we grew up in the same area and are the same age, our lives were lived in parallel fashion because of the differences in our ethnic heritage—Ed is Native American, I am European American.”
Their paths crossed first at a conference on environmental justice. Edmo was attending as an acclaimed poet, storyteller, actor and clay artist; Lani was a faculty member in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University.
They talked of growing up in the same area near The Dalles.
After the reading, Roberts said that she was helping Edmo make copies of his poetry book so he could sell it at the conference. As they worked, Edmo asked if she remembered how the Indian kids weren’t allowed to enter the city swimming pool.
She did not.
“I don’t have words to describe what that did to me,” she said. “It knocked me for a loop.”
That conversation was the spark that led them to collaborate.
They began working together, talking and emailing back and forth, and piecing together two “Parallel Lives Along N’chi-Wana.”
“It soon became painfully clear that our lives were in divergence and at odds in ways explainable only by the racism and sexism the dominant culture imposes on native peoples,” Roberts said. “We have very different memories of growing up, living near the river, the destruction of Celilo Falls, the city-owned swimming pool, the Granada theater and the The Dalles High School’s mascot. We grew up in the same geographical space, but lived in radically different worlds. We live together yet apart—we are estranged,” she said.
The Dalles Natatorium
The Dalles Natatorium was a public swimming pool owned and operated by the City of The Dalles.
For Roberts, the pool was a beautiful relief from the heat in The Dalles, where the hottest days are over 100 degrees and the nights sometimes don’t cool below 80 degrees.
“Like lots of kids, my siblings and I walked there nearly every day in the summer. As a child I did not notice that the Indian kids weren’t swimming with us, even on the hottest days,” she said. “As is all to often the case, people of ethnic minorities are invisible to the dominant culture, and my childhood was no exception. I did not even notice that ‘kids’ meant ‘white kids,’ and no adult in my life pointed out this fact.”
It was, in fact, many years later as she was helping Edmo make copies of his poetry for a conference they were both speaking at that she learned Indians were excluded from “The Nat.” Edmo said that when he was five years old, he did not understand why Indians were not allowed in the public swimming pool, with its deep greenish-blue water and its high diving boards. “If we wanted to get wet at the pool, we had to go to the Thompson wading pool (outside the pool fence), even grown men and women. I guess the white people believed that some of their white would wear off if we experienced some of their white privilege.
“One time the Boys and Girls Club had a swim day. My brother was a member and we went to the swim pool on Saturday morning.” The night before, their house was tense and his mom and dad talked in hushed voices. “I could see the serious in mom’s face.”
When they arrived at the pool the next day, they joined the long line of kids who were members of the club. At the entrance, the teenage boy watching the gate yelled, “Red Faced Man,” and a discussion ensued as to whether or not the Edmo kids could enter pool. A phone call was made to the pool manager. “Looking back at me and his brother, Mr. Warren [the leader of the club] said, “the Boys and Girls Club is open to needy children. Well I had a mom and dad, my grandma lived on the hill above us, the warmth of the wood stove, I didn’t think we were ‘needy.’ Sometimes we ran out of food, and we went to the missionaries house to eat.
“Mr. Warren asked, ‘When did you bathe last?’ This morning, sir. They talked in hushed voices. After a long time, he handed the phone to the white boy, who slammed the receiver down. There was a lot of cussing as me and my brother went to get our baskets. ‘Dirty Indians,’ one of boys said from behind the desk.”
Edmo happily put on his new swim suit and went to the pool, felling as if he could “walk on water.”
But one visit, his mother was late picking him up. “Five white boys shoved me. ‘Go back to your village, savage,’ they said. ‘We don’t like you around here, dirty Indian.’ They began pushing me, grabbing me. When my towel fell to the ground, they stomped on it and kicked me.”
Edmo responded by throwing a few “haymakers” or punches at them. A couple connected, which added to the hostilities. One of the boys grabbed his arm, twisted it behind his back. “I cried out in pain. But then mom came driving up with the car horn blaring. The white boys took off running when they saw her.” He tried to chase them, but his mom said no. “They have small hearts, to pick on you,” she told him.
“How appropriate that we are sitting here (in the TDHS auditorium),” Roberts said as she introduced the section of the essay addressing the TDHS “Indians” and their mascot, “Chief Wahoo.”
The issue of Native American mascots in sports has been a topic of concern throughout the United States, she noted, and it was a part of her ethics class when she was teaching.
“I have had to tell my students, with chagrin, that my high school was The Dalles Indians and, worse, that the mascot image was Chief Wahoo, a grinning cartoon caricature of an Indian, complete with a feather.”
She noted statewide newspaper The Oregonian stopped using such names in the early 1990s, but The Dalles and other high schools continued to use Native American names for their sports teams.
Roberts said that during the debates surrounding the merging of The Dalles and Wahtonka High Schools, she tried to get the new, combined school to stop using the Indian name and, more importantly, the Chief Wahoo logo. The debate was intense, she said.
“The chief argument of those who wished to keep the name and logo was ‘to preserve a proud history.’ I am a fourth-generation graduate of The Dalles High School, and it was my expressed view there was nothing whatsoever in the historical record encompassing the treatment of Indians in the community which was worthy of pride or preservation. To the contrary, the historical past was shameful.”
Several decisions regarding the name and the mascot were made, and rescinded. In 2004, the school was named The Dalles Wahtonka Union High School, and the board adopted the Eagle-Indians as the mascot. [The name has since been changed to The Dalles High School and the mascot, the Riverhawks.]
Edmo said he testified regarding the mascot issue in Salem, in two public hearings. Eventually the decision was made that school districts had to seek permission to use Native-themed mascots from the Native people themselves.
“My brother and I were mascots at The Dalles High School for the basketball team,” he said. “I’m not sure how the arrangement went, that we became mascots. I can only speculate that it was the way my father and mother tried to get us accepted in a community that hated Indians. I would wear my war bonnet, lead the team out on the court, dribble, and shoot the basketball.”
He said he got to go see the ocean as a mascot, and he even stayed in a motel. “I remember eating a steak at a cafe, and not being asked to leave because I was an Indian,” he said. He was later a mascot in Wishram as well.
“People do things for strange reasons,” he said of that experience.
After the reading, the authors were asked how things were today for those attending high school in The Dalles.
Edmo said he didn’t know as that things had changed that much, noting that a few years ago, his niece organized a Christmas party for Native Americans living at “in lieu” sites along the river. These sites were provided “in lieu” of the traditional living and fishing sites along the river, he explained. “She got a lot more support in Hood River than she did The Dalles,” he said.
Several of those attending were students at The Dalles High School in the 1950s and said they thought the Native Americans were well assimilated: They were heroes on the swim team in The Dalles, said one man. Another, speaking of their experience in the Yakima area, said Native residents were cheerleaders, and “we wouldn’t have had a football team without them.”
Roberts spoke of the difficulty of perceiving others, saying that as an ethicist she explored how we rank each other visually by sex, age and race. Roberts said people need to cross the artificially-constructed barriers of a society to understand the experiences and the realities of their lives to reach truth and reconcile.