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News / Life / Clark County Life

Latest ‘Voices of the River’ highlights dams: Confluence Project aims to revive tribal history along river

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 7, 2023, 6:02am
2 Photos
The second annual edition of &ldquo;Voices of the River,&rdquo; the journal of the Vancouver-based Confluence Project, is out now.
The second annual edition of “Voices of the River,” the journal of the Vancouver-based Confluence Project, is out now. (Cover art by Chanti Mañon) Photo Gallery

The fate of big hydroelectric dams on Pacific Northwest rivers is a longstanding, hot-button issue that gets hotter every day.

Tribes and political progressives favor dam removal to restore salmon runs and ecological balance. Agricultural and business interests and conservatives want to retain dams for the power they provide and the modern comforts they enable. Some cried foul after it was revealed in November that the Biden administration and dam opponents have drafted a potential agreement about preparations to breach four Snake River dams in Eastern Washington.

The history, legacy and future of Columbia River dams is the focus of the latest edition of “Voices of the River,” published in November by the Vancouver-based Confluence Project. Launched in conjunction with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial observance of 2002, Confluence aims to revive the forgotten or ignored history of tribal peoples along the river, and to highlight today’s still-vital Indigenous voices and perspectives.

“It’s sometimes politely said that (Indigenous history) has been ‘overlooked,’ ” said Colin Fogarty, Confluence’s executive director. “But the truth is it was systematically erased from public discourse and from the history books.”

To buy the book

To order “Voices of the River,” visit www.confluenceproject.org and click on “shop.”

This 32-page second edition of “Voices of the River” includes poetry and art; a Columbia River timeline; reviews of fish-management and fire-suppression practices; and an overview of Yakama Nation storytelling and cultural values.

“Our traditional stories are the backbone of our traditional Indigenous education systems,” writes Michelle M. Jacob, an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation and a faculty member at the University of Oregon.

A story often told about Northwest dams is that they were necessitated by soaring regional population growth and demand for power. An essay in this edition of “Voices of the River” suggests the opposite: Dams preceded and facilitated population growth, with the Bonneville Lock and Dam, completed in 1937, leading the way.

There simply wasn’t much demand for the Bonneville project when it was first envisioned, according to an essay by Lindsey Schneider, an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at Colorado State University and a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

In 1932, before work began, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that “significant growth in demand for electricity and irrigated land would be needed to justify the tremendous cost,” Schneider writes.

“Bonneville and other Columbia River dams were not built as a response to the natural growth of the region’s economy; instead, they paved the way for that growth” by first providing power, irrigation and opportunity, Schneider writes. “Part of the impetus for the massive undertaking was to provide jobs during the Great Depression.”

By the late 1940s, the Department of the Interior even reported that big Columbia River dams “would completely eliminate salmon” and were “incompatible” with fish runs and tribal treaties, Schneider writes.

“Removing the dams seems not only feasible but urgently necessary if we are interested in a habitable future,” she concludes.

“These are tough times, requiring gifted minds and great hearts,” writes Carol Craig, a veteran of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program. “Our Elders remind us that we are only borrowing the foods and medicines, borrowing the language, borrowing culture and tradition, and saving it for future generations.”