River Land for River People

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

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