Prior to the arrival of the settlers, Celilo Village was the center of a flourishing Native American trade network. The network extended east and west from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast, and north to south from what is now Alaska to California.
The village was situated on the south bank of the Big River (now the Columbia), just east of the Cascade Mountains and modern day The Dalles, Oregon. It was strategically located in an area where Salmon were plentiful, and where both the down-river Chinookan-speaking people and the upriver Sahaptin-speaking people intermingled and sometimes intermarried.
Celilo Village — A Center for Trade
Inter-tribal commerce had been going on at that spot for thousands of years in the same manner. Year after year, Native people from nations throughout the Northwest came to trade, socialize, and fish with the people who called this region home.
Lewis and Clark, who first arrived there on October 22, 1805, were stunned by what they observed. They called the place “The Great Mart of the West,” and noted that people from many nations came there to trade.
Salmon were no doubt the main reason why the center flourished as it did. Millions of Salmon passed through the area each year on their way to spawn … so thick at times that you could almost walk across their backs to get to the other side of the river.
Indians who lived in the area ate the Salmon fresh, but they also dried it, in particular for the purpose of trade. For the purpose of trade and travel, they would first dry it in the arid and windy climate of the mid-Columbia. They would then pound it into a fine powder and then store it in specially-designed containers that helped to preserve it and at the same time, made it easier to transport.
Modern Day Celilo Village
While most of the village was inundated, a small group of Natives refused to leave. They and their descendants now occupy the small cluster of homes on the south side of I-84, just above where the original Village was located. While only about 100 people currently live there, the village remains culturally significant to the various Native peoples throughout the region.
Most of the people living at Celilo are enrolled as members of either the Yakama Nation or the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, some are enrolled Umatilla, and some Nez Perce.
The tradition of the First Salmon Feast continues in this small village to this day, when every year on the second weekend in April, Celilo Village holds its annual Salmon Feast. All are welcome to attend so long as the proper respect is shown.