To the editor:
On Jan. 25, a program about railroading in the Columbia Gorge was presented at the Discovery Center. A great many folks attended this event and there were many slides about railroads on both sides of the Columbia.
There was no mention of the displacement of Native tribes caused by the railroad and in fact, only the final slide alluded to Natives at all. This last slide was the famous photo of a Union Pacific engineer receiving a salmon from a tribal member on the tracks, reaching up to the locomotive to hand up the fish.
Lewis and Clark estimated that there were about 10,000 Natives residing between the Cascade Rapids and what is now the city of The Dalles. In 1884, the Northern Pacific reported to its shareholders that the Coeur d’Alene, Yakama, and Puyallup reservations were an “embarrassment to the company and prevented settlements on nearby lands.” The company offered “homeseeker fares” to the West for the purpose of establishing settlements on reservation lands.
Great Northern produced a pamphlet in 1900 urging Americans not to “spend one’s life ‘renting’ high priced eastern land” when there were free homesteads out west for the taking, near railroad tracks, on a first come, first serve basis.
How very sad, yet how very typical that “first come” did not extend to the First Peoples here, who were careful and respectful stewards of this land and this river. The coming of the railroad drove a wedge between those Natives and the Nchi’wana, the big river which was both a waterway and a source of food and culture for thousands of years. Early photographs show the railroad running right next to Celilo Village. Later, the building of the interstate highway served to further cut off access to the river. This, combined with the flooding of Celilo Falls, comprised staggering blows to Native culture in the Columbia Gorge.
I would like to see another presentation about railroading in The Gorge, one that would include its impact on tribal life and heritage.