Ed Edmo remembers the day Celilo Falls vanished.
As the waters rose on that day in 1957, the roar of the falls fell silent. Fishing platforms and the village of Celilo disappeared under a hungry Columbia River. An iconic Indian fishing area just vanished as if it had never existed.
But it had.
For Edmo and other Indians, the memory still brings pain.
“It hurt my heart to see that,” he said.
Edmo was 11 that day. His father let him skip school to watch the water rise.
The Shoshone-Bannock Indian grew up near the falls, which served as a prime fishing area and trading center, known as the “Wall Street of the West.” Edmo’s family moved to Celilo Falls from the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada when he was six months old. The family lived in a house built from railroad ties. They had no electricity or running water.
However, they had a rich source of fish 200 yards from their front door.
Edmo doesn’t obsess about the heart-wrenching loss — it took him most of the hour to get around to the subject as he spoke Tuesday in the Bob Clapp Theatre at Blue Mountain Community College. Until then, he spoke in stories, his words ebbing and flowing in a poetic waterfall of words. He spoke of snakes, salmon, animal people, fire, the Great Spirit and sparks that changed into mosquitoes. He spoke of a monster woman with long hair, claws for fingers, “snot down to here” and bad breath.
Edmo regularly brings his traditional tribal stories into mainstream America by speaking to diverse audiences. He collaborated with the Eugene Ballet Company, narrating productions based on the legends of four Northwest tribes. He did a gig as a television actor, appearing in “Portlandia” in Season 3, Episode 9. During the show, the storyteller morphs from a coyote into a man.
On Tuesday at BMCC, he wore his “Portlandia hat.” He has modified the hat since then. The brim now has beads. A hat band sports the words “Eat, Sleep, Powwow.”
Edmo fell into storytelling naturally, the stories lodged deep in his soul after hearing them from his father eventually coming out unbidden. That’s the way of things in the oral traditions of Native Americans.
Edmo told the BMCC audience a story about two Indian men who wanted the same woman. By the end, he’d told the legend of the Bridge of Gods and how Mt. Rainier, Adams and Hood were formed.
He segued from this topic to Celilo, directing the audience to two slides, a before and after of the fishing area. A series of falls in the first and a wide expanse of smooth water in the second. Celilo Falls became a casualty of the construction of a new hydroelectric dam at The Dalles. Affected tribes got $26.8 million in compensation.
A map showed the flow of tribal traders to Celilo before it was flooded. Burns-area Indians brought obsidian, roots and seeds. From the Plains came pipestone, buffalo products, horses and clothing. Blankets, beads and bone shell arrived from elsewhere.
One slide showed Edmo’s father proudly displaying a 65-pound salmon he had speared and netted. In another, his older brother smiles as he struggles to lift his catch. Ed wasn’t yet big enough to lift an average size fish from the river. He offered himself instead as a model to travelers who stopped to take photos of the fisherman.
“If they had a camera or binoculars around their neck, I knew they were tourists,” Edmo said. “I charged them a quarter to take my picture.”
With his take, he bought soda pop, candy bars and Bazooka bubblegum.
After the water rose, Edmo said, his extended family dispersed.
“We were in two states, seven counties and three or four Indian reservations,” he said.
Edmo channeled his memories and stories into his storytelling performances, poetry and a one-act play called “Through Coyotes Eyes: A Visit with Ed Edmo.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-966-0810.