TOPPENISH, Wash. — On the bluffs overlooking the Columbia River four decades ago, a group of American Indians gathered in sorrow to watch Celilo Falls disappear.
"They stood up on the hillside for three days," recalls Bill Yallup of the Yakama Indian Nation. "Some of them sang songs like a funeral. They were very sacred songs. Three days and nights with no sleep. It was a sad day for them."
For thousands of years, Indians had fished for salmon at Celilo, where the wild Columbia thundered over rock cliffs on its unencumbered way to the Pacific Ocean.
"I still hear it," says Yallup, a tribal council member and former chief judge of the Yakama Nation. "It was loud and deep."
In 1957, completion of the Dalles Dam drowned the falls, one of many historic Indian fishing sites that disappeared as the powerful river was transformed into a series of placid reservoirs.
The fishing sites were sacrificed in the name of cheap hydroelectric power.
Foremost among creatures revered by the Indians, the salmon began a steady decline toward extinction in a river where their incredible abundance two centuries ago had left explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in awe.
Trying to rescue a fish they feel is sacred, the Indians today have become major players in the complicated, contentious fight to improve Columbia River salmon runs.
Armed with their own battalion of biologists, hydrologists and other fishery experts, and bolstered by treaty rights more than a century old, the Indians persistently have pursued their goal of trying to save the fish, often to the aggravation of the other forces fighting for control of the mighty river.
The Indians' own detailed salmon recovery plan is more radical than proposals by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It calls for reducing the amount of water backed up by the dams to make the Columbia and Snake rivers more like free-flowing rivers again.
When a panel of leading scientists this summer released a federally funded study considered to be the most thorough report yet on how to bring the Columbia salmon back, many of its conclusions matched those already reached by the Indians' experts.
The Indians scored a major victory this year when the Clinton administration decided the Indians must be consulted by federal agencies in determining how money should be spent to restore salmon and steelhead runs.
The depth of feeling behind the Indians' advocacy is hard for others to understand.
"When I caught my first salmon, I had to have a ceremony, to be initiated, to be a fisherman," says Johnson Meninick, a Yakama religious leader. "This is a ceremony to respect a sacred resource. We treat it with honor. The words I was told and always use are, 'The resource does not belong to us. We belong to the resource.' "
At the root of the Indians' faith is the understanding that the fish were provided by Earth's creator as a renewable source of food.
"People along the Columbia have been taking these fish probably for 9,000 to 10,000 years," says Kenneth Ames, professor of anthropology at Portland State University. "The salmon have been central to their economy in one way or another for that long. It's like bread is our staff of life. It's at that fundamental level."
Before the white man arrived, the unspoiled habitat, with moss-covered stream banks, cool water and plentiful gravel spawning beds, provided a perfect home for remarkable fish that migrate hundreds of miles to the ocean.
Three or four years later, the salmon return to the exact spot where they were born to spawn and die.
"They came to provide us an example of sacrifice and because of that sacrifice we thank our creator for the divine intervention that gave the salmon the feeling of servitude," says Ted Strong, executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a member of the Yakama Nation.
Yallup and Meninick can't count how many times they have been in court over salmon issues. The Yakamas' legal fights date to the early 20th century, when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in a dispute with a white man who attempted to fence off a section of the Columbia.
"The salmon cannot fight for themselves, so we must fight for them," Meninick says.
The Indians suffered significant setbacks in the 1940s, '50s and '60s as one dam after another was built on the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake.
The government shrugged off Indians' concerns in the name of the national interest.
With the construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia and Hell's Canyon Dam on the Snake, the salmon disappeared from about one-third of the river system because neither dam has fish ladders.
From this low point, the Indians began to fight back on the white man's turf--in court.
"What's happened in that 30- to 35-year period of time have been a number of important court cases, which generally have been won by the tribes, defining, and in some ways expanding, their rights," says Oregon state fisheries director Doug DeHart.