Guest column: Maya Lin’s art will connect people to silent Celilo Falls

The roar has been silent for 58 years. I am talking about one of the geographic and cultural features that helped define the Northwest for thousands of years. Celilo Falls was a stretch of river once considered one of the most productive fishing grounds in North America. It was a center of commerce for Northwest native people. But it was much more. The place tribes called W’yam was a cultural and spiritual focal point for the entire region.

On March 10, 1957, The Dalles Dam closed its massive gates and harnessed the river for power. It also flooded Celilo Falls, which until then had produced a roar that was as iconic as Mt. Hood, Crater Lake and the Oregon Coast. Today, it is a flat lake and the falls are invisible. The sound there now is the din of the freeway and hourly trains bustling by. For many, the flooding of Celilo Falls was as painful as a physical wound.

Fifty-eight years later, the river provides in a different way. Every time we flip a light switch or charge an iPhone, chances are that some of that electricity comes from the dam that turned Celilo into a serene pool.

Just off the freeway, there is little at Celilo Park that tells this important story, beyond a few signs. Confluence is a nonprofit organization focused on making a small but profound gesture to connect people today with this important history. Internationally renowned artist Maya Lin has designed a curved, elevated walkway modeled after the fishing platforms tribes still use at rivers throughout the region. This work of art will serve as a reminder about the profound significance of this site and the role the river still plays in our lives.

This will be the sixth art installation designed to promote moments of insight about the confluence of history, culture and ecology along the Columbia River system. The first was at Cape Disappointment near Ilwaco. The next three are at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, the Sandy River Delta near Troutdale, Ore., and Sacajawea State Park in Pasco. We are now working to build a “listening circle,” inspired by a Nez Perce blessing ceremony, at Chief Timothy State Park near Clarkston. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for May 29. These individual projects span 438 miles. But this is one river system and one work of art, to be completed with the Celilo Arc.

If the natural formation of Celilo Falls helped define the Northwest, it is up to us to recreate and reimagine its place in our region today. Confluence began 13 years ago with a simple question from Antone Minthorne, an elder and leader with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “What is a legacy?” he asked. In the grand, unfathomable 16 million-year history of the Columbia River system, what is our legacy on this anniversary of a dam shutting its gates 58 years ago? I believe it is far more than the ability to flip a light switch and charge an iPhone. The Celilo Arc is scheduled to be completed in 2017, when the falls will have been silent for 60 years.