Water is life.

This simple yet powerful decree holds the key for the survival of Sin-wit-ki, meaning “All life on earth.”* Salmon need healthy water to survive. This basic requirement, however, is quite complex. Salmon are a specialized species that are interwoven into the delicate balance of the relationship between land and water. While small changes in balance—such as drought or heavy snows—occur frequently, the land, salmon, and water can adjust accordingly. Yet many dramatic man-made changes have had devastating and lasting effects on the survival of the salmon. This lesson explores two of them: dams and pollution.

Two case studies show how threats to salmon also carry consequences for people. See how the construction of The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River and the prevalence of pollution in the Puget Sound area of Washington State impact Native People and Nations of the Pacific Northwest.

*The expression is in Ichishkiin, a Sahaptin language dialect of the Pacific Northwest.

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Case Study 1

Dam: a barrier constructed to hold back water and raise its level, the resulting reservoir being used in the generation of electricity or as a water supply

 The United States Army Corps of Engineers built numerous dams along the Columbia River and its tributaries, destroying entire Native villages and treaty-guaranteed fishing sites, and with them the economic, cultural, and spiritual livelihood of thousands of Indian people.


The Columbia River is one of the largest river systems in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. The Columbia and its tributaries have long been central to the region’s Native cultures and economies. Today, there are more than sixty dams in the Columbia River watershed. 


  • Corps of Engineers
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Other
Run of River
  • Corps of Engineers
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Other

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District Visual Information


The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation were just one among many nations who traveled to Celilo Falls to trade. Tribes were said to have come from as far away as the Dakotas, Alaska, and Northern California. The building of The Dalles Dam in 1957 inundated Celilo Falls.

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Celilo Falls, ca. 1940s. Photograph courtesy of Ray Atkeson

 Celilo means “echo of water on rocks” in the Sahaptin language. Fish were so abundant, the people said, that you could walk across the river on their backs.

Celilo Falls, ca. 1940s. Photograph by Ray Atkeson, courtesy of ©Ray Atkeson Image Archive 2008.72.7

In 1850, the United States Army founded Fort Dalles  next to the Columbia River to protect travelers and miners who passed through the area in pursuit of gold and silver.

Soon after, non-Indian settlement in the town of The Dalles and across the entire Pacific Northwest region soared, and indigenous communities faced enormous pressure to cede their lands. In treaties negotiated with the United States (1855), Native Nations gave up lands but reserved for themselves the right to fish at their  “usual and accustomed places.” Celilo Falls was one such usual and accustomed place.

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Yakama Head Chief Kamiakin, one of the treaty signers.

Kamayakhen head Chief of the Yakimas, 1855. Portrait by Gustav Sohon, courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society, Takoma 1918.114.9.65

Continued settlement in the region created a demand for more energy. In 1938 the U.S. Congress passed the Bonneville Project Act to sell power from federal dams on the Columbia River.


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Dip net fishing at Celilo Falls, 1949. Photo by Ray Atkeson. Accession Number: 93.17

The federal government’s decision to build the dam—while providing a cheap and clean source of power for the region—brought disastrous effects for traditional salmon fishing shown here in the village of Celilo Falls.

Dip net fishing at Celilo Falls, 1949. Photograph by Ray Atkeson, courtesy of ©Ray Atkeson Image Archive 93.17

Acknowledging that dams would destroy important Indian fishing places and limit salmon migration, Congress passed a law that promised that fish lost because of the dams would be replenished with the help of hatcheries downriver. Constructing hatcheries downriver, the government argued, would limit fish loss and more would return to spawn  naturally upstream. Only the falls would be lost; the fishery could continue. Fish ladders were proposed as an easier route for adult fish than the falls.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, “Fisheries Timeline” 

“In brief, it would be easier for the fish to go over a [fish] ladder in the dam than to fight their way over Celilo Falls. The dam would eliminate the historic Indian fishery, but more fish would reach the spawning grounds in better condition.”

—Samuel J. Hutchinson, Acting Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1951


The government reasoned that fish ladders at the dam would provide an easier route for adult fish than the falls themselves.

In 1953, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a large dam that would transform the river. Because the Indian fishing sites at and near Celilo  Falls were to be inundated by the dam’s reservoir, the federal government negotiated a settlement with the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes to compensate them for the lost sites.

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The Dalles Dam Blast. Photo by Ray Atkeson. Accession Number: 2008.72.1

Construction of dams requires explosive forces. This blast used more than twenty tons of explosive powder and removed 60,000 cubic yards of basalt. 

The Dalles Dam Blast, 1952. Photograph by Ray Atkeson, courtesy of ©Ray Atkeson Image Archive 2008.72.1

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Bonneville Dam Under Construction. Photograph by Asahel Curtis, courtesy of University of Washington Digital Collections

Dams block fish migration and dramatically disrupt salmon spawning. 

The Dalles Dam, 1957. Photograph by Ray Atkeson, courtesy of ©Ray Atkeson Image Archive 2008.72. 9

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Upstream of the dam, a once free-flowing river ecosystem is reduced to an artificial water reservoir habitat.

Photograph by Doug McMains, 2016


There are many stories that chronicle the mournful event of the inundation of Celilo Falls, all bearing witness to the loss of a way of life practiced and cherished for millennia. 

Discussion Questions: Dams

  1. Why did the United States government want control of the Columbia River system?
  2. Why was Celilo Falls significant (important) to Native Nations?
  3. What are the benefits of building dams along the Columbia River? What are the costs?
  4. Why do you think so many Native People dressed in regalia to witness the inundation of Celilo Falls?
  5. Would you have stayed to watch the inundation of Celilo Falls? Why?