First Sunday in Advent
Wherever the river flows, everything will live
Wherever the river flows, every living thing that moves will thrive. There will be great schools of fish, because when these waters enter the sea, it will be fresh. Wherever the river flows, everything will live. Ezekiel 47:9 CEB
Each spring and fall, Jeannie Strong’s father fished salmon at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River to provide food for his family and community. Nez Perce fishermen from Idaho joined those from other tribes netting fish from platforms suspended above the falls while their families cleaned, smoked and dried the fish to preserve it. They were part of a 9,000 year-old ritual of Native people meeting at Celilo Falls to fish, trade and feast.
In 1957, the Corps of Engineers completed The Dalles Dam (12 miles downstream from Celilo Falls) to generate hydropower and to simplify barge navigation on this stretch of the Columbia River. When the Fall’s cliffs were submerged under the dam’s reservoir, native people lost access to sacred sites including Celilo’s village, cemetery and fishing grounds. At the time of the damming, fishers annually caught 2.5 million pounds of fish for subsistence and commercial purposes.
The inundation of Celilo Falls was a devastating cultural loss for Columbia River tribes. The cycle of their lives brought them to Celilo for fellowship and ritual in addition to sustenance.
“We took my father down for the 50th anniversary of when Celilo was flooded. He lived to 96, and outlived a lot of people. It was good to have the different tribes together again for ceremony and the reunion. He was an elder at Northfork Presbyterian Church where my brother is now an elder.”
In 2017, many Native fishers live in substandard trailers and families’ homes still haven’t been replaced as promised by the US Government. Resentment over the loss of sacred waters and land still simmers among Native People.
At the new Celilo Long House, participants from the Spirit of the Salmon pre-conference immersion enjoyed a salmon feast hosted by Celilo-Wyam fishing families. Elders told stories of Celilo Falls and its import to their lives. Children and young adults explained how their canoe family prepares for an annual spiritual journey. Hosted by a tribe in the US or Canada, canoe families paddle and camp, sharing traditional songs, language, dance and celebrations along Pacific Northwest waterways. The real journey is an internal, personal experience for each member of the canoe family. “What we do out there is we heal. We heal the land, the water, the people,” explained Shannon Comenot, who compared time on the water to a constant, and conscious, state of prayer. “It’s a way of life. Going out on the water is the only thing unchanged since our ancestors.”
Meditation: Do you have home waters to which you return or long to see again? Pause and imagine that you are by your home water. Are you alone or with others? What are you doing? Do you touch the water or cause a splash? Does the sound of the water affect the rhythm of your breath? Are there children to whom you want to introduce these home waters? In the Advent time of preparation, may our memory of the waters of our lives refocus us to see what is sacred and holy in and around us. Amen.
Jeannie Strong is an elder in First Indian Presbyterian Church in Kamiah, Idaho - a church founded by her grandfather on the Nez Perce Reservation. She describes herself as “three part Nez Perce; one part French. Dad was a Nez Perce speaker.” She traveled from Lapwai, Idaho to participate in the Presbyterians for Earth Care conference on the Columbia. She said, “I felt really good about the conference; Celilo and Standing Rock are so important.”
Jeannie’s father is wearing a white t-shirt in the foreground of this historic photo of native fishermen at Celilo Falls prior to its inundation in 1957. (Corps of Engineers photo, public domain)
Advent is a time to recognize that the world needs Jesus and God’s healing restoration of the world. It is about looking for Jesus’ return as much as it is about the birth of a baby.