Long before the Historic Columbia River Highway carved its winding path through the Pacific Northwest’s lush forests and basalt cliffs, the mighty Columbia River and its surroundings were home to the Chinook, Klickitat, and Yakama peoples. For these Indigenous tribes, the river was the lifeblood of their cultures, provider of sustenance, the centerpiece of spiritual beliefs, and the very chord binding them to this breath-taking land.

The Chinook lived in large cedar-plank longhouses in villages dotting the river’s northern banks and coastline, including the areas now known as Astoria and the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge. Masterful traders, they facilitated the exchange of goods like potent fish oils, woven goods, and dried meats with other tribes across a vast network stretching from the Pacific shores to the Continental Divide.

Their staple foods were the abundant salmon runs that defined the river’s seasons and cedar trees that provided timber for homes, transportation, and tools. The Klickitat tribe occupied villages primarily along the river’s eastern flanks near the Cascades, fishing its churning waters and hunting the forests for game like deer and elk.

For all the tribes, the arrival of the summer salmon runs up the Columbia’s rapids and cascades marked a period of profound spiritual reverence and celebration. As the fish battled their way upstream through roiling white waters and over breathtaking falls like Celilo, the Native peoples performed elaborate rituals and individual spiritual quests to ensure prosperous fishing.

Each waterfall along the Columbia held deep spiritual significance, their haunting mists and thunderous roars echoing the heartbeats of the land itself. The Yakama tribe believed souls passed through the veil between the spiritual and physical worlds at these misty cataracts. Legends told of young tribesmen vision questing at sites like Multnomah Falls, holding rituals to mark their passages into manhood.

The profound relationship between human life, the river’s cycles, and the ceaseless rhythm of the falls bound these peoples to the land in spiritual synchronicity. As the seasonal salmon arrived each year, entire communities would gather at Celilo Falls on the easternmost edge of the gorge to fish and trade, celebrating their vibrant culture and mutual reverence for the river’s life-giving bounty.

While the Chinooks residing closest to the river’s mouth enjoyed a mild, rainy climate, the Interior Salish tribes like the Yakama endured harsher conditions surviving the blazing eastern summers and freezing inland winters. Yet all shared an overriding ethos – a supreme respect for maintaining harmonious balance with the natural world that provided their sustenance and shaped their spiritual identity.

The arrival of European explorers and settlers in the 19th century brought a tectonic shift, forever altering the Native way of life along the Columbia River. Yet even as organizational tribes like the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs reclaimed governance, the echoes of the past still reverberate through the ancient falls and enduring presence of the Columbia itself – an eternal connection to the first humans who called this place home.