In the summer of 2003, I was preparing an article for The Nation about the legacy of the Energy Department’s Hanford site. Since it was around the time of the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which had camped near Hanford, I wanted to know if any historical knowledge was passed down by the Yakama tribe about their encounter with the Corps of Discovery as it passed through what was once their traditional wintering grounds.

So I sat down with Wilfred Yallup, former chairman of the tribal council, to find out what happened in mid-October of 1805, after the exhausted discoverers finally reached the Columbia River Basin — the gateway to the Pacific.

Wilfred told me that the expedition was soon spotted when their canoes entered the high sagebrush desert and camped on an island in the crystal-clear water of the Nch’i-Widna, or “big river.” The area was teeming with deer, elk and wild horses. There were an astounding number of salmon — more than in any river of the world — and some weighed over 100 pounds.

The presence of this unexpected group of strangers prompted a meeting of the tribal council to determine what to do — especially since the visitors stole firewood that had been set aside in reserve. This was no minor issue for tribal people living a subsistence life. “Our ancestors debated whether or not this warranted an attack to be killed,” Wilfred said. “But we decided to leave them alone, since they had an Indian woman with them.” Sacagawea had saved them once again.

Following my meeting with Wilfred, I returned home and consulted William Clark’s journal of the expedition. “We were obliged for the first time to take the property of the Indians without consent or approbation of the owner.” He reasoned that “the night was cold and we made use of a part of those boards and split logs for firewood.” Before, Lewis and Clark had scrupulously “made it a point at all times not to take anything belonging to the Indians.” But the temptation was too great, setting an ominous precedent.

On January 16, 1943, General Leslie Groves, the military leader of the Manhattan Project, chose Hanford, in eastern Washington near the Lewis and Clark campsite, for the world’s first large nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The Indians were promptly banned from their homes and from religious, fishing, and medicine-gathering sites.

Since then, after a long struggle, tribal people won the legal right to half of the fish in the Columbia River and continue to fight for the restoration of their land and water.

This story comes from our collection, Bob Alvarez: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism.

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