Ghosts of Celilo

For 10,000 years, the mid-Columbia River has been a sacred and traditional fishing area for local Native Americans, referred to as River People. These River People, or Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum (literally, Salmon people), were made up of the Nez Perce Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation. These tribes were made up of different ancestral groups and familial bands that all, to varying extents, made a subsistence on the river and the fish that swam its waters.

One group in particular, the Wyampum, prospered in their fishing village, Wyam, and have roots in the area that span more than 10 millenia. Wyam, which translates to "Echo of Falling Water" or "Sound of Water upon the Rocks," was a sacred fishing site that saw many generations of fishermen support their village with the fish they caught. The Wyampum built intricate fishing systems along the falls, which included wooden platforms and scaffolding that allowed dipnetters and spear-fishermen to stand over the falls for better access to the fish runs. The significance of Wyam, now called Celilo Falls (just over an hour from Portland), extends beyond the food the river provided. The fishing activity also increased the areas importance as a trading site, where other tribes would come to trade for salmon, steelhead and eel, with commercial canneries purchasing what was not eaten and traded among the locals. In more recent times, the intricate fisheries along the river became somewhat of a tourist attraction ("Hey, mom, look at the Indians fishing!"). To say the least, Wyam, or Celilo, was historically important and culturally deep.

All that changed, though, 50 years ago when, in the name of progress and modernity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the river in an attempt to generate hydro-electric power. When the dam's floodgates were closed in 1957, and the river's flow impeded, Celilo became an afterthought, as the fisheries were destroyed and the falls and village flooded. The people whose life blood had been the falls, were now left with a diminishing food source and a lot less land...not to mention the complete loss of 10,000 years of history and tradition.

To mark 50 years since the historic travesty, Marv Ross, in conjunction with Artists Repertory Theater and Youth Resources Incorporated, has brought the story back to life with his play, Ghosts of Celilo . The story revolves around four ghosts, all stuck beneath water in the flooded village of Celilo. Each of the four ghosts are connected by their respective relation to the main characters, Chokey Jim (Noah Hunt) and Train (ColtonLasater). By figuring out their connections, and thus retelling the story of events leading up to the damming, the ghosts will be able to escape the purgatory they've found themselves in under the river. Mary, one of the spirits (played by Chenoa Egawa), is the mother of Train, a boy from Celilo who is kidnapped, along with his friend Chokey, and taken to an Indian boarding school. The man who kidnaps the two boys, Inky (Kevin Michael Moore), is the second of the four ghosts. He and Mary are joined under water by the ghosts of Big Eddie (Thomas Morning Owl Jr.), who, despite being from Celilo, helps the missionaries run the said boarding school, and The Colonel (Corey Brunish), an Army engineer assisting with the completion of the dam. The story follows Chokey (loosely based on the life of Nathan Jim) as he seeks to escape the boarding school and return to Celilo before the eventual flooding of his village. The play comes together as a musical interpretation of the lives that were effected by the river and its subsequent damming, as well as what Native Americans were forced to endure as the encroaching white population sought to make them assimilate into their society.

Marv Ross' production, with the direction of Greg Tamblyn and musical contributions of Chenoa Egawa, manages to turn a sad and unfortunate story into one of strength, perseverance and deep cultural history. To see the play, you must do so before its last showing on the 14th of October. For more information, or to buy tickets, visit the website, http://www.ghostsofcelilo.com.


cindy said...

Thanks for sharing information about an area, and it's rich heritage, that has been lost to PROGRESS. I was quite moved by the play, "Ghosts of Celilo," and found your review poignant.

luckygreen said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the play.