In another time, it would have been called a story fire, a time when the people would gather to hear the creation story, stories of valor, stories of prominent people or how spirit helpers came to be.

Before radio and television, before the internet and Facebook, there were the story fires and the storytellers, and the oratory process that passed important information from one generation to another.

Where the predominantly non-Indian audience at Thursday night’s final lecture of the Kittitas County Historical Museum series might not know much of their European heritage, the Wanapum people have always known who they are.

The Wanapum, the River People, have their own language, their own religion, their own dance, have their own customs and ceremonies as the caretakers responsible for the land and the education of the next generation.

“It’s not a culture, but a way of life,” said Wanapum elder Rex Buck Jr., whose ancestors include the legendary Wanapum religious leader Smohalla, and his grandfather and tribal leader Johnny Buck.

“Faith and belief, being truthful and accountable are who we are. That faith has always carried us through difficult times and it will continue to do so in the future.”

Rex Buck Jr. is among the last generation born when Priest Rapids still ran wild. As a tribal elder, his task is great in that it is on him and others of his generation to raise the children of the Priest Rapids Wanapum Village to know the old ways, while adapting to a modern world.

“Every Indian Nation has its horror story, but we’re still here,” Buck said with that infectious smile that was a part of every conversation he had on Thursday night. “But there are (non-Indians) that truly want to know what it was like, what it’s like now, and tonight was a good chance to give us a voice.

“I think my ancestors might have gotten into the negative thinking, but you can’t stay that way and live healthy. So we’re moving forward, doing the best we can.”

He told how the people lived along the Columbia from the Yakima River north to the Priest Rapids — called Shupt’kul in the Wanapum language — across ranges that include the present-day Hanford nuclear reservation. How they fished for salmon, harvested camas root and bitterroot fed the other tribal groups, with seasonal migration between lowlands and uplands.

Wanapum population, he said, was about 1,800 in 1770, but a decade later came the tribe’s first smallpox outbreak. Only 300 Wanapums remained by 1870, and they were being increasingly squeezed by settlers, federal Indian policy and the decline of the salmon.

By the time Grand Coulee Dam construction began in 1929, most of the region’s Native American groups had been herded onto federal reservations. Dams intruded even further on their way of life, damaging the flow of salmon, the staple food for the Northwestern tribes.

The area didn’t become truly valuable to government until the dawn of the nuclear age. During World War II, the remaining Wanapums were removed from the Hanford site to make way for the Atomic Energy Reservation. Ironically, the nuclear project at Hanford protected the wild salmon of the Hanford Reach, leaving a 51-mile river stretch unchecked by dams and development. An estimated 30,000 salmon spawn on the Reach every year.

At Priest Rapids, under law they had no claim to the land, the Grant County Public Utility District moved in to build Priest Rapids Dam in the 1950s. But Johnny Buck led the negotiations and signed a contract with PUD to provide permanent housing, electricity and water, and a guarantee fishing and foraging rights.

“I’m going to speak up so that our voice is heard,” Buck said. “My people were here before it was the United States. Our way of life is who we are and I will continue to sing the songs and honoring the Creator, so that he might be able to hear we continue to honor him in a good way.”

The utility also moved some of the sacred petroglyphs from Whale Island to the Wanapums’ traditional burial grounds. The agreement (signed Jan. 8, 1957) is the only contract known to exist between the Wanapums and any government agency.

At the time of the agreement, there were only three temporary houses and one ceremonial longhouse at Priest Rapids. Today there are 12 residences for about 60 people, plus a longhouse/community center. Some 35 children are bused daily from Priest Rapids Wanapum Village for their education in Mattawa.

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