PGE meets Tribal members at Willamette Falls during lamprey harvest

07.29.2011 Dean Rhodes Culture, History, Natural resources

Smoke Signals staff writer

During this year's lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls, a Portland General Electric video crew interviewed Grand Ronde Tribal representatives for a short history of the Falls.

"All we can do is scratch the surface," said Jeff Gersh, owner of Portland-based NarrativeLab Communications and producer of the upcoming PGE video. "I'm 50 and I could spend the rest of my life on this project."

"One of the most historically rich places in the Pacific Northwest," in Gersh's words, the Falls also are a marvel of cultural, biological, geological and, of course, electrical history.

Following the long Native experience of collecting lamprey at the Falls, the area became "a laboratory for electric power generation," Gersh said. "When Westinghouse sent his turbines to the Falls (at the end of the 19th century), he didn't guarantee they would work. He didn't know. Obviously, they did work and Westinghouse had an ongoing business and electricity in this country was changed forever."

The project was the first long-distance transmission of electricity in the country, Gersh said, and it drew industry to the site, much of which has now moved on.

"It's a hidden gem," said Gersh, "a secret. It's the second largest waterfall in the country by volume, behind Niagara Falls. It's a magical, deeply powerful place."

"Holding on to traditions is really, really difficult," Grand Ronde Cultural Protection Coordinator Eirik Thorsgard told Lindsey Grayzel, field producer for NarrativeLab Communications, as the camera rolled, "but through the annual lamprey collection, the Tribe keeps this tradition alive."

Especially these days, when the numbers of lamprey and the number of Indians who still eat lamprey, have dwindled. The Tribe collects lamprey each year to make it available to the Tribal community. Elders may find it difficult to collect lamprey the way they used to and Tribal youth may know little about this part of their culture.

Thorsgard called the collecting and preparation of lamprey an important part of Tribal culture.

The catch was better this year than last. The first look at a spot at the foot of the Falls yielded only a few, but Thorsgard found a cache in a small pool he had sat down by while waiting for the camera crew.

"I saw something move, and I reached in and pulled out five of them," he said. Then he reached back in for more.

"No matter how many we catch," said Tribal Fish and Wildlife Coordinator Kelly Dirksen during his interview with NarrativeLab, "they're always all gone in the first half-hour (of the giveaway to the community). There's a huge demand, but if you've ever eaten it, you might wonder why."

He described the taste of lamprey as a cross between "burnt tire and fish."

"My grandfather called them 'slave food,' " said Thorsgard, "which is ironic because he ate them himself."

The interviews covered Thorsgard's and Dirksen's early experiences with lamprey. They included public disinterest in preserving the lamprey runs, ("They suffer from bad p.r.," said Dirksen) and some of the reasons that the public should care. 

Beyond their cultural importance and ancient origins, Dirksen said, if other predators don't have lamprey to eat, they'll probably be dining on fish that humans do like to eat.

Tribal member and Natural Resources staff member Torey Wakeland was thrilled, as he always is, by the experience. He has been participating for years, he said.

"I really enjoyed it. It's fun and it's exciting. I always like it. It's something I look forward to every year."

The interviews also touched on some concrete cultural history. An "eel man" petroglyph still is visible, when the water level is low, on one of the rocks seen as the boat approaches the Falls.

Back in the day, said Thorsgard, "When the water went down, the eel man showed up and our ancestors knew it was time to fish for lamprey."

The history "is alive" in Thorsgard, Gersh said.

While the mostly deserted mills and factories across the river from the Falls detract from the cultural scene, Dirksen said, once you're under the falls everything else disappears and the feel of the history and culture return.

There will be two versions of the video, due for completion in the first quarter of 2012, Gersh said. One will be a 10-minute, You Tube piece, and the second, for distribution to community groups, schools and others, will be 30 minutes long.

"At Willamette Falls," Gersh said, "we can reach back deeply into Oregon's history. The Falls is a touchstone for who we are, where we come from and perhaps where we're headed.

 "People who know the Falls are passionate about it."

"Stay tuned," he added. "We'd love to do a screening in Grand Ronde."