The most valuable catch

by Bill Hollenbeck
(Portland, OR)

Before the dam was built in 1956 at The Dalles, Oregon, the Indians had a natural fishing area called Celilo Falls. Lewis and Clark on their trek to the Pacific reported this ancient fishing area in their journals. The fishing area was basically a giant series of falls in the river, which would stop the run of salmon up stream. The fish were churning the water below and would frantically attempt to jump up over the falls, most always tumbling back into the churning torrent. Indians built flimsy wooden scaffolding in the water at the edge of craggy rock outcroppings and used dip nets at the end of long poles to scoop salmon as they fought to jump over the falls.

As the fishermen would catch the fish the squaws would cut open the salmon and drop the fish guts into a race or flume running with a good stream of water back into the river. This fish waste would flow back into the Columbia River and float down stream. We were at the falls one day watching the Indians dip for fish and observing the various activities such as gambling and smoking of fish and little Indian kids playing and a general hubbub of activity. One of the young squaws cleaning fish had a small baby or papoose on her back in a makeshift backpack. As she leaned over the flume to pick something up the baby slipped out of the holding pouch and plopped into the stream of rushing water and quickly floated toward the raging river. She screamed and ran to catch the little one but to no avail. The baby was gone and shot out into the boiling river below. One of the fishermen on the rickety stilted platforms saw the splash and thinking it was a fat salmon scooped it up with his net. As he brought it up on the scaffolding he saw that it was a papoose and not a salmon. The babies mother was frantic and quickly scrambled down the bank to claim her papoose.

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