The Salmon Chief and the Day Celilo Falls Was Lost


“If you are an Indian … you can still see all the characteristics of that waterfall. If you listen, you can still hear its roar. If you inhale, the fragrances of mist and fish and water come back again.”  Ted Strong, Intertribal Fish Commission 

It must have been unsettling for the 400 celebrants at the 1956 First Salmon Ceremony at Celilo Falls to watch their 101-year-old leader cry.  Then again, he had a lot to cry about.  

The 101- year-old was Tommy Thompson, the leader of Wy’am, or Celilo village.  He had lived in the ancient community, likely the oldest continuously inhabited site on the North American continent, since his birth in 1855.  

Chief Tommy Thompson (1855-1959).

Tommy Thompson cried that day because he had been Chief of that 15,000-year-old village for 81 years, and it had less than one year left to exist.  He cried because as the Salmon Chief of Celilo, he had been leading the First Salmon Ceremony, normally a joyous religious ritual, for half a century. When the spring Chinooks surged up the river next year, the fishing culture at Wy’am would be no more.  The United States Government was about to pierce the heart of his proud culture with a concrete dagger.

Thompson’s leadership roles had produced spirit-breaking job stress for most of his long life.  The Chief had been fighting an eight decades-long battle with the White Man.  He had lost skirmish after skirmish in this conflict, but somehow had managed to avoid losing the war.  Until now. 

The field of battle for Thompson was Celilo Falls, the jewel of the Columbia River.  The site lay 200 miles upriver from the river’s union with the Pacific Ocean, and may well have been the most visually dazzling place on the mighty river.  Here the Columbia had cut through the Cascade Mountains, and its rocky path constricted the river into a channel just a third its upstream width.  To squeeze the rainfall and snowmelt from parts of seven states and a Canadian province through these narrow rapids, the river raced through Celilo, tumbling riotously. Lewis and Clark stopped at the Falls in 1805 and William Clark described it as “agitated in a most Shocking manner.”  

With the Columbia narrowed to a raging 70 yards, migrating salmon had to ascend the crashing falls with athletic leaps that put them within reach of the native fishermen.  They pursued their aquatic prey with dipnets mounted on handles several times longer than their own height, on platforms protruding precariously from towering rocks.  As these daring fishermen wielded their nets over the roiling waters of the falls, a misstep often meant death.  

For centuries, fishermen from tribes all over Eastern Washington and Oregon had made annual pilgrimages to Celilo Falls.  In 1811, fur traders counted 3,000 Indians gathered to fish, trade, and gamble – and that was only on the Washington side.  It was the mission of the Salmon Chief to keep the peace among the fishing multitude and resolve the issues between them, and for most of the first half of the twentieth century that task had fallen to Tommy Thompson.  As time passed, protecting the Celilo fishery from the Suyapo, the whites, became the bigger part of the Salmon Chief’s job. 

As early as 1869, when the teenaged Tommy Thompson first went fishing, the damage to the fishery by the Suyapo had begun.  The first salmon cannery, located far downriver, was already three years old.  More efficient gear was beginning to appear: gillnets, beach seines, and bigger boats.  In the 1890s came the fish wheels, which scooped up migrating salmon with deadly precision. 

By then the white fishermen, not content with their access to the region’s biggest fish runs in the Lower Columbia, had extended their reach upriver to the Celilo Falls area.  With them came another cannery and more fish wheels, often placed right in the path of salmon swimming toward native fishing sites.  At times, native fishermen arrived at their laboriously constructed fishing platforms to find white men using the spots they and their ancestors had used for centuries.

If the advance of the non-Indian fishing industry plagued Chief Thompson’s tenure as Salmon Chief, running Celilo Village proved no less challenging. Hemmed in by mountains and hills, flat land was scarce near Celilo Falls, and highly coveted by builders who schemed relentlessly to appropriate Celilo Village land.

In 1884, when Chief Thompson was 29 years old, the railroad built tracks alongside the river, and its route had taken part of the Indian village.  In 1915, a canal had been dug to enable barges and boats to steam around the impassable falls.  That canal also used village land.  The following year, U.S Highway 30 came through Celilo, again commandeering some of the village’s scarce land.  The Indian leader was then past the age of 60. Tougher struggles were in store for his seemingly endless old age.

The evil faced by Tommy Thompson from his 80s on was the one that would kill his fishery:  dams.  In the 1930s, the government decided to build the Bonneville Dam about 60 miles downstream from Celilo.  Though there were dams on its tributaries, Bonneville was the first on the Columbia itself. Indian protests fell on deaf ears. Bonneville went into service in 1937, and salmon production began dropping upstream.

Soon after work on Bonneville began, construction of the Grand Coulee Dam was approved.  The biggest structure ever built by humans came on line three years after Bonneville.  Grand Coulee was built at the midpoint of the Columbia, about 400 miles upstream from Celilo.  The concrete behemoth was built with no fish ladder, cutting off 1100 miles of spawning grounds above it..

Tommy Thompson was 85 when the floodgates of Grand Coulee first opened.  He had kept the village together as it absorbed displaced Indian families from the areas flooded by Bonneville.  He persisted in his leadership as the runs dropped due to Grand Coulee.  He battled government fishing regulators who responded to the declining fish runs by cracking down on Indian fishing.   

Then came catastrophe.  The government decided to build a dam at The Dalles, a dozen miles downstream from Celilo.   The waters behind the dam would soon submerge Thompson’s magnificent falls. He joined leaders from the Yakama, Nez Perce, and other tribes that fished at Celilo to fight the government’s plans.  They lost.

Tommy Thompson’s long war with the Suyapo had come to an end, and the time of Celilo Falls grew short.  As his tears flowed at the 1956 First Salmon Ceremony, the White Man’s triumphant soldiers in this battle, the Army Corps of Engineers, were less than a year from slackening the wild waters of the most dramatic and sacred site on the Columbia.

When that day came in March, 1957, Thompson refused to watch the death of his beloved Wy’am.  Chief Thompson was not far from death himself; he was 102 and not long before had moved to a nursing home in nearby Hood River, Oregon. 

Ten thousand people gathered to watch the waters rise after the gates were closed on a rainy Sunday morning.  Many natives were among the onlookers. They wept as the familiar rocks and islands disappeared and as the site of North America’s oldest village slipped underwater.  A woman watched with her granddaughter as the thunder of the waters slowly faded to a whisper.  Young Rosita Wellsey remembered her grandmother “trembling, like something was hitting her…she just put out her hand and she started to cry.”

Chief Thompson may have been very old, and he may have chosen not to watch, but Celilo was on his mind that day. He tossed and turned and thrashed about on his bed.  

“Bring me more blankets,” called the old man from his nursing home bed.   “I can feel the waters rising.  They are covering me up.  I am shivering with cold. My people will never be the same.” 

Chief Tommy Thompson died at age 104, living two years longer than his beloved Celilo.  He remained contentious and defiant to government bureaucracies even as a centenarian invalid.  Shortly before his death, he refused to accept the $3,750 due him as compensation for the fishing sites covered up by the waters behind the new dam, a sum equal to the average annual salary in the nearby town of The Dalles.  He declared that he would never “signature away” his right to fish for salmon.  

Primary sources are Empty Nets:  Indians, Dams and the Columbia River, by Roberta Ulrich and  Death of Celilo Falls,  by Katrine Barber.

John Brockhaus
John Brockhaus
John Brockhaus taught in South Seattle for 20 years. He also spent a dozen years as a commercial fisherman in Puget Sound and Alaska.  He recently read his stories at the FisherPoets Festival in Astoria.  He is writing a collection of stories about Washington state Natives and their encounters with whites.


  1. What else can be said about dams on the Columbia: a few decades ago, in an era less sensitive to Indian concerns, they were likely hailed as a “Triumph of Progress,” though they were/are a disaster for Indians who had fished there for eons.

    There has to be a reckoning, a summing up of what was gained offset by what was lost. We have drylands irrigation, navigation and “cheap” hydro-electricity, but have lost the wild river and its natural ecosystem, of which the salmon were a major part. We can calculate our gains — which mostly accrued to non-Indians — but can we calculate the cost?

  2. A very powerful story, I could feel the shivering from their weeping as I read. Thank you for breathing new life into this story and bringing it to our attention.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.