The Columbia River has a unique and essential history involving indigenous people from across the Columbia Plateau, spanning thousands of years and dozens of tribes. A gathering place and trade site for many, the Columbia River has long provided its inhabitants with food, shelter, and other natural resources. Chief among these is the wild salmon population that runs through the river’s reaches, which confederated Columbia tribes such as the Yakama, Warm Springs, Chinook, and Wasco among others have fished for as long as living memory. Even more important, however, is the abundant fresh water—a source that homesteaders and developers in the area have repeatedly been eager to utilize.
In the early twentieth century, farmers attempting to settle the Columbia Plateau faced roadblocks due to the region’s low rainfall. When other attempts to irrigate the landscape failed, interested parties began to formulate proposals for a dam on the Grand Coulee riverbed. However, as the idea gained popularity, its proponents coalesced around two different preferences for the dam’s primary design and purpose: irrigation and electricity generation. Changes to the dam’s design continued even after initial construction began in 1933. None of these contests, however, considered the needs of the Columbia’s other inhabitants. Though the dam would severely alter salmon migration patterns, designers gave no consideration to how this would impact the tribes of the Columbia River.
Grand Coulee Dam’s changes to the Columbia Plateau water levels had unforeseen ecological impacts. Though surrounded by desert scrub and sagebrush plains, water from the newly formed Roosevelt Lake flooded parts of the landscape carved out during the last Ice Age. The resulting wetlands attracted species that could now live comfortably in the area, mainly waterfowl, and pushed naturally occurring desert species to higher elevations. Ironically, these waterfowl inspired the United States to create Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.
Not even damming the river could stop Columbia tribes from fishing in the waters they had used for so long. However, some of the Grand Coulee Dam’s effects were irreversible. Areas south of the dam, including parts of Columbia Refuge, still run with salmon, but tribes living north of the dam have lost the fish’s spawn sites, preventing them from performing certain rituals. Multiple dams along the river have also flooded traditional fishing sites, such as Kettle Falls near Grand Coulee and the now-submerged Celilo Village near Dalles Dam. Regardless of the rights that Columbia tribes have retained, their losses are significant.
The Grand Coulee Dam has drawn an abundance of life to the Columbia River and its basins, providing environments and opportunities that were once unimaginable. Yet the various ancestral homelands—of Yakama, Colville, Spokane, and more—surrounding the Columbia Refuge on all sides provide a constant reminder of what used to be.