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Cover of a book on the Wanapum Indians.
Drummers and Dreamers:
Wanapum Indians and the Wanapum Dam
March 2, 2014
On March 1, a 65-foot-long crack was found in the hydroelectric Wanapum Dam in Grant County WA. This dam generates over 4 million megawatt hours annually, providing power to over 45,000 local customers and throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Bonneville Power Administration, now investigating the “risk of failure” presented by this crack, has notified residents downstream of possible evacuation and has closed all nearby boat ramps. (For updates: http://www.grantpud.org/your-pud/media-room/news) The dam’s initial 50-year operating license was granted in 1955 and extended by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2008. However, that approval came with conditions, including modernization of the facility’s power generation capability.
Downstream side of the Wanapum Dam.
Columbia River near Vantage WA, upstream of Wanapum Dam.
Wanapum Moccasins and weaving at the Heritage Center Museum.
In 2007 a No Water No Life expedition, following the Columbia River from source to sea, visited Wanapum Dam to add to its documentation of the values and the impacts of hydropower. The dam is named for the Wanapum Indians whose tule houses along the Columbia River were flooded by the building of the dam. Respecting the longtime Wanapum residents, the dam also houses the Heritage Center Museum displaying their cultural artifacts and documenting the upstream relocation of the town of Vantage.
The juxtaposition of this large, now-cracked hydrodam and displays of the heritage of Wanapum weavings, moccasins and prayers is a bit ironic. Perhaps lessons can be gained from the traditional values of these “River People” as we consider the risks presented today by infrastructure, industry, machines and our efforts to control nature. The words of Rex Buck, today’s Wanapum leader, are shown at the Heritage Center Museum:
Before the arrival of white man, Native Americans believed that all living things were endowed with spirit. They believed that nature was alive and responsive to their needs for physical and spiritual nourishment. Wisdom was passed from generation to generation in stories that embraced the spiritual characteristics of coyote, bear and all the animals. Native Americans were the sensitive guardians of earth and all living things. The arrival of the fur traders brought a slow and disastrous end to this symbiotic relationship.
In the early 1800’s the Wanapum numbered 2500 to 3000, according to the journals of Lewis and Clark. Historically, the Wanapum have gathered roots from fields above Ephrata (near Soap Lake) down to the Snake River. Until 1956 they had permanent winter villages of A-frames made with mats of tule gathered by the riverbanks, that were stowed during summer months.
Salmon sculpture at the Wanapum Dam.
In the spring the Wanapum went to Soap Lake to gather fruit. In the summer they fished salmon with 14-foot poles, submerged basket traps and torches at night. While drying and storing their salmon, they ate eel and fresh-water mussels. In the fall the women dug for roots which they ate raw, cooked or dried. Into the winter hunted deer, big horn sheep, elk, rabbit and waterfowl.
According to Lenora Seelatsee, their mother was “Earth Woman,” who provided spiritual and physical sustenance and encouraged them to respect nature, peace and cooperation with others. Around 1700 the horse was introduced to this community; and the first impact of Europeans was the introduction of metal and glass beads. Because the Wanapum never went to war with the United States, there was never a treaty. Thus, they’ve received no recognition, land titles or money from the US government.
Editor and author of Drummers and Dreamers, Click Relander is the only white man buried in the Wanapum cemetery – an expression of their appreciation for his letters during the dam-building agreement requesting that the Wanapum got housing, electricity and jobs. The Public Utility Department (PUD) rebuilt their 10 homes and long house. The US Military still protects the Wanapum cemetery and their root-digging fields per an agreement with the Department of Energy, downstream at Hanford Nuclear Site. Seven years ago there were only 65 Wanapum left, according to Susan Parker, a Heritage Center docent. That community represented 3 or 4 families on the west side of the Columbia River adjacent to military lands across from Priest Rapids.
Transmission lines at the Wanapum Dam.
In 2007 NWNL spoke with Rex Buck, today’s Wanapum “prophet and spiritual guide.” (The Wanapum had no need for a “chief” because the tribe never fought.) NWNL unfortunately didn’t meet Rex in person because his sister Lenora had died just “three sunrises earlier.” But in a short phone conversation with NWNL, Rex talked of ongoing Wanapum culture and customs, as he explained that the Wanapum honor their deceased by not using their proper name for one year after their death. At the end of that year observance, there is a “Give Away” memorial service that bequeaths the belongings of the deceased.
Archival photograph of the Wanapum and their long house, covered with tule mats.
Today Rex continues to disseminate the spirit of Smowhalla, the first Wanapum prophet and shaman who is remembered for interpreting his dreams and stressing the importance of sharing with others. The museum displays Smowhalla’s words to his people: “Each one must learn for himself the highest wisdom. It cannot be taught in words.”
As Smowhalla’s current successor, Rex Buck shared ongoing Wanapum wisdom with NWNL, saying, “We have feeling for all this land and to our past.” When asked about the cultural resources of his tribe, Rex answered, “They are further and beyond dictionary definition.” It seems that the Wanapum intertwine cultural resources with natural resources and together both are valued as the Creator’s promise for the future.
Electric transmission towers at Wanapum Dam.
Puck Hyah Toot (Johnny Buck) spoke about the Creator’s gifts at the naming of the Wanapum Dam at Public Utilities Department office at Ephrata in May 1955:
The part of the District where we lived the Creator made. He made Earth. He spread upon the Earth things for the Indian people so they could live. He gave them roots and berries, salmon he put in their streams, and caused wild fowl and wild animals to come upon the land. These were the foods the Indian has enjoyed, good food the Creator had given. When I think of losing these things, I think I am losing my life! I do not feel I should get angry or say anything that a dam is being built. I feel that somehow I and my people will get by as long as we have friends like are here. The Creator predicted and directed that the light shall fall upon the earth and give warming light to everything upon it. The sun will brighten and warm the body of the Indian and will preserve that body. You and I get this living under that light. If any person does wrong to another race, the Creator will punish that person. That we believe.
“Saving the Past for the Future” – Philosophy of the Wanapum Indian Trust Collection.
The Wanapum are disappearing. When the dam was built (1959-1963), there were only 5 full-blooded Wanapum. Now there are about 60 Wanapum enrolled and assimilated into the Yakima Nation. But even the family of Rex Buck, today’s Wanapum prophet, is not full-blooded. Rex’s mother is from Warm Springs, Oregon, and his wife is a Yakima Indian.
Despite this assimilation, diabetes, alcoholism and epidemics, the messages of these “River People” will survive. But will the natural resources given by their Creator survive? What risks are engendered when dams crack? The Grant County PUD’s policy is to “care for the preservation and conservation of the Collection” of Wanapum cultural resources in its Heritage Museum. Are they also caring for “the preservation and conservation” of our natural resources?
Maintenance construction at the Wanapum Dam in 2007.
Frank Buck, Rex’s uncle, asked us to share and respect their differing approaches to stewarding water, power, and food needed for all living on shared riverbanks. On June 2, 1962, at the dedication of Priest Dam downstream of Wanapum Dam, Frank Buck shared this Wanapum perspective:
I have a few words to express about white people. You are glad that this Priest Rapids Dam is finished. You are dedicating it today. We are very glad to be with you here today. This power is very important to you. This power is like food to you. The water that is making this power provides you all the food you need. Your power and my power are two different things. The things that I am showing outside of the teepees (in the village built for the dedication of the dam site), that is the food that we Indians was provided with. That food will take care of us. That food makes me strong and healthy. It is our medicine. Even what law comes against us, we don’t hold it against you. We Indians are still friends with you. You White People, We Indians. It is our thoughts to go together as one on this Earth. We will be taken care of.