River Land for River People

River Land for River People by Marla Williams

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 secured a temporary option on the property in 1998. "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 was only half the challenge. TPL acquired the land in two separate parcels in 2000 and 2002, holding the land while working to find a steward who would conserve and protect the historical, cultural and spiritual land. In May 2007, TPL conveyed the land to the Yakama Nation, a steward that holds the land sacred.

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."

This article first appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of Land & People, a magazine published to advance the mission of the Trust for Public Land. Author Marla Williams is a documentary film and magazine writer who lives in Seattle, Washington.

A Buried History

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