LYLE, WASHINGTON

 

On maps it is called Lyle Point, but to tribal fishing people it has always been Nanainmi Waki Uulktt, “the place where the wind blows from two directions.”

The rocky promontory overlooks the confluence of the Klickitat and Columbia rivers, providing spectacular views of the Columbia River Gorge as it cuts through the Cascade Range. To the west, Oregon’s Mount Hood stands sentinel over magnificent canyon walls rising to 4,000 feet above the river.

The gorge was the center of trade for tribes from the Plains to the Pacific. Lyle Point was home to a Cascade and Klickitat village, and provided an important fishery and meeting place for over 10,000 years. But like many tribal lands in the Northwest, it was lost when white immigrants moved to the area in the mid-1800s. The drowning of Celilo Falls, another traditional tribal fishing place, under the waters of The Dalles Dam 50 years ago was a further blow. Now, at least one of those lost fishing grounds will be restored to the tribes that once depended on it. On May 8, the Yakama Nation announced the $2.4 million acquisition of Lyle Point from the Trust for Public Land, ending a long-simmering battle with would-be developers.

“This is a great day for the Yakamas — to get the land returned back for access to our fishing right areas,” announced Yakama Tribal Council Chairwoman Lavina Washines. “The younger generation will continue to exercise their Creator-given right to our very important salmon.”

The same winds that made Lyle Point a primary salmon-drying area for thousands of years also made it a world-class windsurfing mecca in the late 1980s. Klickitat County approved a 33-lot subdivision in 1992, threatening to turn the area into a gated community.

Yakama Margaret Saluskin was the first to raise the alarm about the subdivision plans. One day while she was drying salmon that her husband, Douglas, caught at Lyle Point, she noticed bulldozers carving the first roads into the promontory. Protests by tribal members and environmentalists swiftly ensued. When vandals destroyed a fishing scaffold at the point, the protesters began a nine-month encampment on the site. The tribe’s access to traditional scaffold fishing, protected by the Treaty of 1855, was at stake, Saluskin said.

Conservation groups joined the protest, saying Lyle Point was a resting place for bald eagles. The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit specializing in conservation of real estate, began negotiations to purchase Lyle Point and held discussions with tribal members about ways to protect and manage the sacred site.

By 2002, the trust had purchased most of the lots, paving the way for conveyance to the Yakama. But tribal councils could not reach a consensus until the current administration, led by Washines, accomplished the acquisition.

 

Word spread like wildfire among Columbia River tribal peoples when the land deal finally became official. Nearly 200 tribal members and their supporters gathered at the point on May 15 to celebrate their long-awaited victory.

“Today marks the return and protection of sacred land,” said Charles F. Sams III, director of the trust’s Tribal and Native Lands Program and a member of the Cocopah, Payuse and Assinoboine Sioux tribes. “My grandfather took me up and down the river and showed me what we had lost. He told me I had a responsibility to the People, and to the salmon, to ensure their existence so they would continue to feed the People.”

Some visibly struggled to maintain composure as memories were brought to life. “We fought for this,” Cascade Chief Wilbur Slockish said. “It almost came to actual blows! So they can recreate? Make money, and windsurf? It was because we were standing in the way of economic progress. Progress.”

He brought out a chuckle when he told the crowd, “Progress always involves our homes, our cemeteries, our fishing grounds. There would have been coffee shops, cheese shops, wine tasting here.”

In 1945, Nisqually Billy Frank Jr. was arrested at age 14 for illegal fishing, starting a fight with the state of Washington that culminated in the 1974 Boldt decision affirming tribal fishing rights as reserved in treaties with the United States. “When I started singing today, I started thinking about all my partners,” he said. “All the good times here. All the bad times.” He paused in reflection. “I’m happy to be here to witness this great occasion. It feels good.”

 

Even as the tribes and the Trust for Public Land celebrate, the nearby town remains divided. There are those who still hope to see Lyle Point developed. “We need the tax basis for schools and fire departments and so forth,” resident Don Smith said. Others, like Pam Essling, support the return of the land to the Yakama. “We honor the historical, cultural and spiritual significance of this place,” she said. “We’re here to congratulate the Yakama people for reacquiring their land to preserve, protect and enhance their cultural and natural resources for all people. It can be a place for healing old wounds and misunderstanding.”

The purchase of Lyle Point ensures that thousands of years of tradition will continue along the river. Supporters from nearby communities will continue to be invited to tribal gatherings and feasts, Yakama leaders say, aiding cultural understanding and reconciliation.

After those who’d gathered finished a dinner of salmon and dried venison, Margaret Saluskin, who had fought so long and so hard, said with a peaceful smile, “Whatever you had in your hearts and minds for saving this land where the wind blows two ways, I want to thank you.”

The author writes from Portland, Oregon, and is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.