A visit with the River People of Hanford Reach

  • A lone fisher on the Hanford Reach in Washington

    Carlotta Collette photo
  • Wanapum Elder Robert Tomanawash

    Carlotta Collette photo
  • Spiritual teacher Rex Buck

    Carlotta Collette photo

"In time to come the white men will build dams which will close the Columbia River to the salmon. At Priest Rapids, there is nothing the white people want in our little life, and there we may live unmolested."

 - Prophecy of Smowhala, founder of the Dreamer Religion of the Wanapum people in the mid-1800s, reported by Click Relander in his book, Drummers and Dreamers

It was March 31, 1997, and I had all but given up on the Wanapum people. I was scheduled to meet in January with the Tribal Elder, Robert Tomanawash, the last full-blooded member of the 60-member tribe, and Rex Buck, a descendent of the prophet Smowhala, so I could write a story about the Wanapums' relationship to the salmon along the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States.

My plane had been canceled due to ice storms. Buck and Tomanawash, whose people have always been more secretive than other tribes, seemed to think the weather was a sign that they should discourage my coming. I pursued them for weeks afterwards and was always politely put off.

Then I called once more. "I still want to come," I said into Buck's answering machine at the Grant County Public Utility District, where he works. Buck phoned back. "If you can fly up tomorrow, Bobby will meet with you. We can go out to White Bluffs and walk around. We can tell you what's in our hearts. After that we'll get busy again, so it has to be tomorrow." "I'll meet you in Richland," I said, and quickly made the arrangements.

Richland, Wash., is the company town the Army built when it took over this part of the state to process plutonium for the first atomic bomb. It is immediately clear why the government chose this part of the country: It is dry, was largely uninhabited and to some it seemed useless. Buck and Tomanawash meet me, and we head up across the high desert with a plan to work our way upstream, eventually ending at the last Wanapum village, Priest Rapids.

First we pass through the guard posts onto the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Buck and Tomanawash have permanent passes to get onto their ancestral lands. I have a day pass issued in Richland. Once inside, we head east toward the river and the site of the Wanapum fall chinook fishing camp, where Tomanawash was born.

The 1,400-mile-long Columbia River is shallow here. Stones the size of grapefruit cover nearly every surface. This so-called "gravel" is the chosen nesting ground of the mighty salmon that spawn in the Columbia. Using only their tails and the river current, salmon weighing 20 to 30 pounds lift and turn dozens of rocks, shaping them into "redds' that look from above like comets with tails. In a good season, thousands of redds can be seen from the air.

Today on the mainstem Columbia River, only one run of salmon spawns naturally - the fall chinook that head up to the 50-mile-long Hanford Reach. In a typical season, 30,000 to 50,000 fall chinook make their way to this place to spawn. Fisheries scientists want to know why these fish are succeeding even though they must pass four major Columbia River dams on their way to the sea and back. They believe Hanford Reach chinook may hold the key to the future of salmon in the Columbia River Basin because these fish have survived where others are now only memories. Their genes are precious.

Buck says the success of these fish is an indication of the tremendous value of his homeland. As we sit near the water's edge, the bright, low, spring sun warming us, he closes his eyes and explains: "The Wanapum people were put on this land to protect it - all of it - with its fish and wildlife, its plants, even the ground itself. Everything we needed was here, even our medicines. We don't want to own the land," he says, "we want to maintain it."

Some 50 years ago, the Wanapum and the white settlers who shared this place had to give it up.

"The government told us they needed our land for the Manhattan Project, to help win the war, and we didn't really have a choice," says Tomanawash. "We didn't realize we'd never be able to come back."

The white farmers who had dug irrigation canals and planted cherry trees also thought they could return after the government finished with their farms.

Both the Indians and the farmers were given about a month to gather their belongings and move out. Then the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, each of which had populations of around 300 people, were leveled. Soon after, the army cut down nearly all the fruit trees so the farmers wouldn't be tempted to return for harvests.

In a matter of months a new city was built, and more than 50,000 engineers and scientists moved in.

Today, the place the Wanapum considered "spotless and ordered," and the townspeople called "fruitful," is home to more nuclear power plants - nine - than any place on the planet. In some areas, signs warn of contamination so deadly that the soil should not be walked on.

At the same time, much of the area is unspoiled. This is the last place in the Columbia where salmon spawn. A planned dam was never built because of the fear of radioactive contaminants leaching into the river. Concern for security at the nuclear reservation also halted any development.

Tomanawash and Buck have become philosophical about the bomb builders. "Maybe it took the government to protect this place all these years," says Buck.

The federal government with its top-secret plutonium production closed off more than 550 square miles of land, including the river itself. Because of this "protection," there is much that biologists and botanists believe is unique to the area. That protection is hotly debated today. The federal government is finished with much of the area and plans to turn it over to peaceful uses, which might be as diverse as wild and scenic river protection or irrigated farmland. Who will manage it now, and for what purposes, will be determined by Congress (HCN, 9/1/97).

Upriver at the last village, which contains 11 buildings dwarfed by Priest Rapids Dam, the few surviving Wanapum people wait to see what will happen. Smowhala's prophecy about Priest Rapids has come true, of course. The people seem to be safe there, on a small parcel of land given to them by the utility district that built the dam. But the village is surrounded. On the west is the Army's Yakima Range, which covers a ridge where young Wanapum used to meditate. Wrapping around the south of the village is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

There are fences everywhere. The only real access is over the service road on top of the dam. Priest Rapids, about 400 miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia, had always been the home camp of the Wanapum Band. It was one of the best fishing places, the most sacred place. Explorer Alexander Ross named it Priest Rapids after he saw a medicine man performing ritual dances there.

If Ross came back today, he could still see the priest dancing. For centuries, the Wanapum have kept the same traditions. Today, they are keeping alive their strongest belief.

"This is a very special place," explains Buck. "I can't tell you how special. It must be special because it has been protected. When everything else was developed, this place was not. It has to be that way."

Carlotta Collette has written about the Columbia River Basin for nearly 20 years. She lives in Milwaukee, Oregon.

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