Celilo Falls was a center of Native American culture for over ten thousand years—until the falls were completely submerged by the Dalles Dam

Seventh grade history students settled into the View Ridge Middle School Theatre. Onscreen, a slide read, “Since Time Immemorial: longer than humans have been able to record time and historical eras, longer than what human memory allows.” Gregg Ford, a member of the Cowlitz tribe, illustrated this mind-bending concept for the Ridgefield School District middle schoolers. 

Striding across the stage, Ford said, “Imagine you live by a massive waterfall. You’ve heard it since you were born, day in and day out. That sound, for generations upon generations, creates part of who you are, part of your soul.” The waterfall, Celilo Falls, was closeby, he said, and real, with more water rushing over it than Niagara Falls. “Nowhere in North America did people live longer in one place than here, for more than ten thousand years. From time immemorial. Until everything changed, in a matter of hours.” He stopped at the center of the stage, and students’ eyes widened with anticipation as they waited for the rest of the story. 

Ford spent more than forty years as a teacher in the Ridgefield schools, so he knows his audience. The group sat in rapt silence as he shared what happened at Celilo Falls. In 1957, the federal government dammed the Columbia River for hydropower and navigation—at the expense of tribes whose lives and cultures had centered around the falls for millenia. Despite Native American protests, Ford said, “The government shut the massive gates to the Dalles Dam. And within four hours, thirteen miles upstream, it flooded and completely covered the falls.” Students gasped as they learned that the huge waterfall and the settlements around it still stood—submerged underwater to this day. Opening the dam brought more than ten thousand years of continuous habitation at Celilo Falls, and even the falls themselves, to an abrupt end. 

Ford used Celilo Falls as one example in the larger topic of tribal sovereignty, the right of tribes to govern their own lives and lands. “It is a right that predates the settlers, given by the Creator,” he explained, “and it is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.” In concept, those rights mean that the federal government and tribal government stand on equal ground. But in reality, those lines are often blurred, so tribes found themselves powerless to stop the damming of Celilo Falls. Even now, Ford said, tribes have to work to protect their sovereign rights on a wide range of issues. 

Students at View Ridge Middle School had learned about tribal sovereignty in history class, but Ford’s words brought the topic to life, giving them a sense of the depth and breadth of Native American culture in this region. He shared photos of Celilo Falls and the people who lived there, taught them a variation on rock/paper/scissors called Bear/Salmon/Bee to show how the environment influenced native lifeways. 

Class time ran short, so they would have to wait to crown a Bear/Salmon/Bee champion. But their time together was relative, a mere blip in the thousands of years of Cowlitz culture surrounding them. From time immemorial, Ford reminded them, Native Americans cared for the earth for future generations. And he hoped that one day, these students would do so too, sustaining a tradition that no change could stop; not even the end of a roaring waterfall.