Place and Memory
Many different people feel an attachment to the community of Umatilla. Sahaptin peoples from The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation remember the place between two rivers as a site of origin and traditional home. Some early residents also recall relationships to the lands and communities that existed near Umatilla before the building of McNary Dam. Others remember the lure of opportunity in a thriving community bolstered by federal investment. Some of the changes that have taken place are refected in the oral history interviews excerpted below.
We had thousands of people who lived here in this whole area [Umatilla Basin] - very sacred place. They lived here, they died here, they got married here, they fell in love here, they had ceremonies here. . . my mother can sit back and tell me where my family tree goes back ten generations of people specifically talking about them being here and what their lives were at that time.
Jeff Van Pelt, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Many years ago when my mother was a young girl and Grandpa had a big barn. . . The Yakima Valley Indians would come across the river and they'd leave their stuff in the barn and pick up their mountain stuff and then they'd go to the Blue Mountains. . . they did it every year; certain time of the year they'd go to the Blue Mountains and then they'd come back through and park their mountain stuff in the barn and pick up their valley stuff and go across. . . Margaret D'Estrella, born in Umatilla, 1916.
They moved them up, my grandfather Tom Joe, he was a young child or maybe the older child when they moved him away from there. . . I think they lived right across from Umatilla . . . When they started putting up fences, I don't know how they put up the fence, but it was barb wire, and then he ran down to look at the train because it was running down the hill there some place. . . and he ran into it and cut his throat, and then all his life he had a scar there from the incident. So it was within three generations our people moved up from down that way. . . it was later after the treaties when they rounded them all up and brought them down here [to the reservation]. Thomas Morning Owl, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
There are no houses down there no more, of course, but the road is still there where you turn off of 730. . . it's [the town of Umatilla] all wiped out from there on down. And then there was nothing at McNary, that's all new. I mean there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing. . . there was no bridge, no dam, just a big ol' rock current, what they call the rapids where the dam is sitting now. . . the wild horses used to come down from Horse Heaven Hills and drink water right there where the bridge is now. You could actually see those wild horses come down and drink water. The last year they come down there that I saw them was like '46 or '47. I guess too much construction because wild horses never did come down there to drink water anymore.
Sam Nobles. Umatilla Resident since 1943.
. . . The fact was that it [Umatilla] was a thriving community. That's one of the things that attracted me to it. . . I felt real at-home because it hadn't been that long since I'd been out of the service, I moved into a school that was mainly made up of army barrackes. . . I knew my students, I knew every student's parent. . . and those kids knew I knew them. I had them for everything except for every other day music and every other day P.E. . . And that was nice, that was the most enjoyable teaching that I've ever had. And they'll never have that kind of teaching again.
George Hash, Mayor of Umatilla, Umatilla resident since 1954.
There's a lot more people now than when I first came here. I mean when I first came here, there was only like, I don't know six [Latino] families maybe. When I went to high school, nobody spoke Spanish. . . since then you know, if you go to a school you'll see a lot of little kids, Hispanic little kids, or they're probably American kids now, but their parents are probably from Mexico. . . or from different Latin countries. Yeah. . . the population has grown quite a bit since I've been here.
Francisco Torres, Hermiston resident since 1974.