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Celilo Village Is Rebuilt, But Poverty Remains


Drive ninety miles outside Portland through the Columbia River Gorge and you'll pass Celilo Village.  It's a tiny community made up of members of four Northwest tribes.

For decades the people in Celilo have lived in housing that was literally falling apart. Nine years ago, the tribes asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild the community.

This month we've been looking into tribal economies.   In our second installment in this series, Sadie Babits reports that the redevelopment of Celilo is nearly finished but it remains a poor community.


When I meet Karen Jim Whitford at Celilo Village, the first thing she asks me is if I want to go for a ride. In my car we drive past freshly painted homes and kids skateboarding in the street. In a couple of minutes, we're on a dirt road, to the top of a bluff.

 Salmon
Tribal Economies Audio Slideshow

Karen Whitford: "This is the most gorgeous place to be."

Up here you can see the new water tower and the longhouse in Celilo Village.  What really stands out are the railroad tracks and I-84, which push the community against this bluff.

 That isn't what Whitford brought me here to see. It's the Columbia River and what's buried below its glossy surface.  This is where Celilo Falls used to be - an iconic Northwest landmark before the Dalles Dam was built here in the late 1950s. 

Karen Whitford: "You know our people used to say that the Celilo Falls was the Wall Street of our Indian people. And I understand that the falls is still there. It's just covered. The falls echo here in our hearts and mind."

Whitford grew up here in a drafty old World War II army barrack. It was considered temporary housing by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Whitford remembers turning on the faucet and having only a drip of water.

Karen Whitford: "I used to feel hopeless. When I was young, go to a little school, I'd feel so ashamed in the old houses. I would go out and pick up garbage before the bus come. I wanted people to know that we were clean and we just poor and had to deal with what we had."

Poor and forgotten until tribal leaders in 2000 asked the Corps to do something about the Third World living conditions.

George Miller: "Pretty amazing that you could be 90 miles away from Portland and be so far away economically from the standards that we see here."

George Miller is the project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland. He says the longhouse was the first to be rebuilt. Then came a new water and sewer system followed by the new homes.

George Miller: "The tribes lost so much when we built The Dalles Dam. Access to the falls, the fishery. There was significant economic impacts and cultural impacts. This was in my view was minimally necessary to address those concerns and to sustain the people."

Last year, Karen Whitford moved into her single level home with its log trim around the front porch. 

Karen Whitford: "I sat in that new house and I just sat there and cried."

Whitford's living room is spacious. The kitchen is open and airy with a dishwasher. But, she says, that's not the best part.

Celilo FallsKaren Whitford:  "And biggest, the happiest thing is to have clean water!!!! The tower."

Sadie Babits: "So everyone has clean water?"

Karen Whitford: "And showers."

Ronald Jim: "We never had paved streets or sidewalks. It's all different now."

That's Ronald Jim. He sits on his front porch looking out over his boats and trucks parked where his front lawn should be. Jim shares this home with his brother.

Ronald Jim: "It's pretty nice, comfortable. No drafts nothing in it. It's too modern for us right now."

You can almost touch the train as it passes behind Jim's house. He says he's used to it. But he misses the days when the salmon runs made Celilo an economic hub for Northwest Tribes.  

Since then he's spent most of his life living in dilapidated conditions. Now, the kids here get picked up for school in a safe and clean environment. 

Ronald Jim: "I think the kids enjoy it because they got places to go play and they do the skateboarding and the bike riding."

Two young boys shoot hoops not far from Jim's house.

They'll soon have an actual court to play on and a playground. Those projects will be finished this year along with the landscaping. But there's still work to do.

Poverty remains a fact of life here. Unemployment is high in Celilo Village.

George Miller with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the redevelopment has definitely improved Celilo.

George Miller: "But really the test here is time. And I think how the community sustains themselves and how they stay connected to the river and I'm sure they're going to do that."

With that goal in mind, the Corps is setting aside $2.5 million to be held in trust, with the interest to be used for the benefit of Celilo Village.

Meanwhile, the people who live here, say they will continue fishing for salmon for survival. The question now is will the salmon be enough.


Reporting on poverty is supported in part by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation, helping communities to reduce poverty by identifying, sharing and advocating for strategies that really work.  On the Web at NWAF.org .

On the Web:

Celilo Village relies heavily on seasonal salmon fishing on the Columbia River for its economic survival. More than forty-percent of all families in Celilo live below poverty. You can learn more about Celilo's economic makeup by visiting the U.S. Census Bureau's website .

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