River Land for River People—Land&People

Gulls circle and shriek, diving from low-flying clouds to the surging, slate-colored river below. On the cliffs rising from the river, a man skids across slick basalt before leaping recklessly from wet rock to a warped wood platform high above the water. He wears a battered baseball cap and dingy jacket, his dark hair in a loose ponytail.

As he lifts a massive angle of fishing net, the makeshift structure shudders. The 20-foot-long dip net, gathered on a pine rim about four feet in diameter, dangles from the end of an unwieldy pole. Leaning far out over the river, the man lowers the huge net into the eddies below–combing the current for fish in the ancient way of the River People. He is Klickitat, descended from a race that 10,000 years earlier heard its name called out by gulls chasing salmon up the Columbia River.

First their land was usurped, then their name. Just up the hill, below a grassy swell of land that hides the fisherman from sight, is a large for-sale sign announcing "Klickitat Landing"–a 33-lot luxury subdivision overlooking the river at Lyle Point, Washington–about 80 miles east of Vancouver, Washington, on scenic Highway 14. A 40-acre peninsula that juts into the Columbia at its confluence with the Klickitat River, Lyle Point is one of the few places on the Washington side of the Columbia where you can walk to the river's edge. The point reaches to within 900 feet of the Oregon shore, creating the narrowest stretch of the entire Columbia Gorge.

River and earth are bound together here, old friends steadying each other against change as constant and unruly as the wind. Now a low, blue metal gate set in stone announces a barrier–not only between Native Americans and the river that flows through their history, but to all who seek a quiet place along the river where they might contemplate what was and what will be.

When the prospective developers, Columbia Gorge Investors Ltd., bought Lyle Point in 1991 from Burlington Northern, a strong and favorable wind was blowing in their direction. An international destination for windsurfers and other recreationists, the Columbia Gorge receives more than 2 million visitors a year. Affluent windsurfers in pursuit of five-foot swells and 40-mile-per-hour winds were descending en masse on river towns ready to receive them. Developers saw a chance to buy into the boom at Lyle Point–one of the few remaining pieces of prime, undeveloped riverfront in the Columbia Gorge. There are no houses on the property yet, but there are roads and lot markers and utility boxes. Tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a windboard launch are promised amenities.

But not everyone saw Lyle Point as a future subdivision. After years of difficult negotiations with the developers, the Trust for Public Land last year secured a temporary option on the property. "We took an extraordinary risk to protect an extraordinary piece of property," says Bowen Blair, Jr., TPL Northwest regional director. "Not only is it a beautiful place, it has significant historic and cultural value." But optioning the $2.5 million property is only half the challenge. Within the next six months, TPL must raise several hundred thousand dollars to extend its option agreement, while also working to identify a long-term steward to own and manage the land.

The Native American name for this place is Nanainmi Waki 'Uulktt, or "place where the wind blows from two directions." Crossing an open field at Lyle Point, Chief Johnny Jackson walks slowly–not with age, but respect. The traditional chief of the Cascade Klickitat Band, Jackson believes his ancestors are buried at Lyle Point–their bones embedded in the ground as surely as their memory is fixed in his heart. So he is choosing his path to Nch'i Wana, "the Great River," with care. "My elders tell me there was once a village here, and that it was a home to Klickitat people for a long time," Jackson says, his speech matching his pace. It was a good place to live because the people could dry fish in a hurry. If an east wind wasn't blowing downriver, a west wind was blowing upriver.

"There used to be a landing here," the chief continues, "and white people would come by steamboat. One day a boat came and the people got off and gave the Indians gifts and smallpox. Soon the village was more dead than alive. The survivors dug deep holes and buried their dead. From the smallest baby to the oldest person, they buried them where they lay."

Some people do not believe this tiny peninsula is a burial ground. There is a dearth of physical evidence to support the claim; archeologists have found little more than stone and sheep bones at Lyle Point. "There is very little in the way of proof you can hold in your hands," admits Lynda Walker, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cultural program coordinator for the North Pacific region. "But that doesn't mean it's without historic and cultural significance."

A buried history

When explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived at Lyle Point in 1805, they found a thriving indigenous population living largely on fish. And while the major Native American trading center was several miles upriver at Celilo Falls, Lewis and Clark witnessed brisk commerce here: Natives from as far north as British Columbia and as far south as northern California bartered for fish, oil, obsidian, baskets, and dentalium shells–used for currency and personal decoration. Even Plains Indians came to trade, swapping buffalo hides for salmon.

In 1853, government surveyors found a village but far fewer Natives. This did not trouble them particularly. In fact, it was something of a relief, as they were charting the course for a new railroad along the river. The head of the surveying party was Isaac Stevens, Washington's territorial governor. By 1855, Stevens had coerced a number of tribes to sign treaties ceding their lands and confining them to reservations. East of the Cascade Mountains, both Inland and River People were interned in the desert, legally bound together by treaty as the 14 Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. Among them were the Klickitat, who had lost nearly all their land but retained the right to fish in the Columbia.

A decade later, pioneer James O. Lyle settled at Klickitat Landing on Lyle Point with his family. With westward expansion, a town sprang up and, fed by steamboat and railroad, grew rapidly. By 1905, when the railroad was completed, Lyle boasted two saloons, two hotels, a post office, bank, sawmill, and warehouses for fruit, grain, and other perishables. Sheep sheds, large enough to house up to 30,000 animals, dominated the west side of town. In the mid-1900s, the town moved across the tracks, where there was room to grow.

"With all of that happening, it's not realistic to expect that much physical evidence of the Klickitat village–let alone graves–remains," says Lynda Walker. "To evaluate the cultural significance of a place such as Lyle Point, we must listen carefully to the elders' stories and study the written accounts of early life along the Columbia."

While the question of whether Lyle Point is a Native burial ground is unresolved, diaries and dispatches of early settlers and explorers leave no doubt that entire Native villages were wiped out by disease. "All we want," Chief Jackson says, "is for our people to finally rest in peace."

The right to fish

Peace can be elusive, even in the Columbia Gorge, where the natural surroundings would seem to subdue human conflict. In the fall of 1993, as the salmon returned to the Columbia, the River People returned to Lyle Point. Days before, over the objections of Native Americans and the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, county officials had granted developers final approval for the subdivision. Now the River People pitched tipis, built a sweat lodge, trucked in portable toilets, and settled in for what would be a long, tense occupation.

"I am a quiet person. I do not like to fight," says Margaret Flintknife Saluskin, a Wishcum and a member of the Yakama Nation. It was Saluskin who led the protest. "I could not permit a blue metal gate to separate me from my ancestors, my way of life."

Developers assured tribal members that they would have access to the Columbia, and that their right under the Yakamas' Treaty of 1855 to fish from riverbanks would be respected. But Saluskin and others questioned whether the owners of new luxury houses would tolerate Indians cleaning fish and camping next door. "The salmon is our 'first food,' given to us by the Creator," Saluskin explains. "Our rights to fish cannot depend on the kindness of strangers."

For the better part of two years, the River People, together with the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, occupied the land. "The action created a real sensation," Bowen Blair recalls. "It raised people's awareness of the land's cultural and scenic value, making it hard for the developers to move ahead. And, I believe, the occupation is the only reason we were able to secure an option on the property."

Preservation of Lyle Point fits well within TPL's Tribal Lands Program, launched last year to help secure lands of spiritual or cultural significance. "This land," Blair says, "is at the epicenter of one of the most important cultural areas in North America: the eastern Columbia Gorge, where Native Americans have lived, traded and fished for more than 10,000 years."

Protecting the Columbia Gorge

Federal stewardship of the Columbia River Gorge was first proposed in 1916. For the next seven decades the hills reverberated with the sound of angry voices fighting over whether to protect this natural wonder or leave it to private development. Finally, in the fall of 1986, Congress passed the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act, designating 292,615 acres–roughly 450 square miles–as federally regulated land.

The Gorge is 85 miles long, a deep divide braced by the Cascade Mountains. Waterfalls plunge from hanging valleys, islands rise in the river, ponderosa pine grows alongside Oregon white oak. There are five vegetation zones, from sea-level meadows to alpine forests and sage-covered deserts. More than 800 species of wildflowers and shrubs grow in the Gorge, including about two dozen species found nowhere else on earth. It is a singular landscape. "But if not for federal legislation," says activist Nancy Russell, a founder of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, "the scenic vistas would be obscured by smokestacks, minimalls, and overgrown subdivisions."

Even before passage of the law, TPL stepped in to protect the unique quality of the Gorge. "In the past 20 years, we've initiated more than 70 different projects in the Gorge. Some, like Lyle Point, are still in the works," explains Sam Hodder, TPL project manager. "So far, we've helped conserve some 16,500 acres of environmentally sensitive land and culturally or recreationally significant sites."

The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act of 1986 advanced by Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, Senator Slade Gorton of Washington, and other Northwest delegation members passed on the eve of a Northwest economic boom, installing development controls just as Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington–the two largest cities on the river–were starting to sprawl. The only federal legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan to create new public lands, the law won approval only after a reluctant compromise by conservationists: 13 urban areas were carved out for new industrial and residential development unfettered by federal law. In all, 28,511 acres were exempted from the act. Lyle Point sits squarely within an exempted urban area.

A 13-member Gorge Commission was established and made responsible for enforcing a myriad of land use regulations. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Native American tribes, and county governments, the commission developed a management plan. As counties have adopted ordinances in keeping with the plan, the commission has returned zoning control to local authorities.

Klickitat County–which encompasses Lyle Point–openly fought passage of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act and has so far refused to amend its land use ordinances. "People here resent being told what to do by the federal government, or anybody else," says Dave Elkins, chairman of the Lyle Community Action Council. Driving down Highway 14, Lyle's main street, he waves at his neighbors. "They want a hand in their future."

A small town faces a choice

A rural, unincorporated community of 1,200 people, Lyle has little to offer but location. The town has a gas station, cafe, mercantile, tavern, post office, and a historic hotel that's only open in summer. There is a high school, but the elementary school is closed now and the children are bused upriver. Most of the adults here grew up in an era when property owners could do whatever they wanted with their land; many lost their jobs when that began to change. Today the Gorge has a higher unemployment rate and lower per capita income than the Pacific Northwest region as a whole, reflecting a steady decline in fishing, logging, and mining. In Klickitat County the jobless rate approaches 16 percent, and the average worker earns just over $17,000 a year.

The paucity of jobs is obvious in Lyle, where the major employers are the high school and the post office. Like the paint peeling off the houses, the town appears to be peeling off the hills. "People are worried about jobs," Elkins says from behind the wheel of his pickup. "And they're worried about their families, about their kids having no choice but to leave the area to find work."

Although just 3 percent of the county's 1,900 square miles is federally owned, county officials argue that if more private land becomes public, economic growth could be permanently stifled. "When development is limited, we must be very careful about further restricting opportunities," says Tom Seifert, head of Klickitat County Resource Development and Community Enhancement. "And I've no doubt that local business would have been helped by an expanded, more affluent resident population."

Lyle residents have not opposed the construction of a subdivision. But neither have they embraced developers' plans for a gated enclave obstructing access to the river. "This is a pretty tight-knit community. People pull together here–nobody wants that to change," Elkins asserts.

"People kind of like Lyle the way it is," he continues, turning his pickup through the half-open gate at the point. "If the town could get a facelift and maybe a park–someplace where the kids could play–folks would be happy."

Stopping near the river's edge, Elkins leans out his window to watch a golden eagle soaring on the wind. Another winter storm is blowing in, threatening more rain. "If the Trust for Public Land can figure out a way to conserve the property, I think people would be real supportive," Elkins says, easing his truck into gear. "Truth is, the Columbia is about the only reason Lyle is here. It's been within walking distance for more than a century, and folks don't like the idea of losing access now. I guess you could say, we're 'river people' too."


Land & People, Spring, 1999


Marla Williams is a documentary film and magazine writer who lives in Seattle, Washington.