Roll on Columbia

Woody Guthrie

The Columbia River has long been sacrosanct for Pacific Northwest Indians, who consider it an integral feature of their lives and spirit. Researching the mediated discourse and public opinion about tribal issues arising from the river has opened my eyes and heart to the majesty of this living force.

I wanted to smell and breathe the river, so this past weekend we greeted chipmunks while climbing Beacon Rock and chatted with Yakama fishermen at Cascade Locks.

But I witnessed the river though a different lens last night. A new documentary, Roll on Columbia, premiered at Portland’s Baghdad Theatre, featuring the songs penned by Woody Guthrie during his one-month gig with the Bonneville Power Administration. The documentary explores how Guthrie wrote 26 songs in as many days, including the eponymous Roll on Columbia.

Guthrie’s tunes punctuate the documentary’s black and white stills of the dam construction, which heralded the prospect of electricity for churches, schools and houses. The director intercuts snapshots of Oklahomans leaving the dust bowl and heading west, packing their old Fords and making signs that read: California or Bust.

Historian William Lang introduced the film and reminded audiences that we need to channel life in the 1940s to understand the seduction of progress. The advent of electricity, produced by the great dam, heralded a paradigm shift in lifestyle and thinking. Bill cautioned that our modern-day sentiments color how we imagine life in the World War II era, and the dam served as a riveting symbol of enrichment and ascendancy.

But no one mentioned how the dam irrevocably altered the lives of tribal people who lived along the Columbia. And the dams extracted a high price among the native people who lost access and intimacy with the great river.

I understand that the point of the film is to feature Guthrie and his music. But you can’t talk about the Columbia and the dams and then ignore the indigenous people who made the Columbia home. Focusing on the dust bowl settlers emphasizes the salience of the movement West, but at the expense of the denizens who made this area home for thousands and thousands of years.

It’s a pity that the filmmakers skipped over a vital element in the river’s history.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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