ON A CUSP-OF-SPRING SUNDAY MORNING in March, a light wind riffled the tall, dry grass ringing the strange, concave crown of Chief Timothy Park, an island dune that hunches out of the Snake River near the twin cities of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash. A bowl of bare earth, about 300 feet in diameter, had formed there—a natural crater, perhaps, or a manmade rubbish pit—and Maya Lin, the celebrated designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, stood at its lip. A handful of recruits from the Portland landscape architecture firm GreenWorks had arrived before sunrise, toting lengths of flexible PVC pipe to mark future seating terraces in the outdoor amphitheater she envisioned in the crater’s place. Lin, a slight 47-year-old dressed in studiously plain black jeans and a black rain shell, regarded their progress with dismay.
“This was supposed to have been cleared away,” she scolded to no one in particular, gesturing at piles of brush that had accumulated in the pit. “This is going to be a complete waste of time.” She picked her way down the slope.
Time is relative, of course. More than seven years had passed since a group of Oregon and Washington residents, primarily Native Americans, had petitioned Lin to design an extraordinary memorial, the Confluence Project. The seven landscape artworks, sited at major junctures of the Columbia River and its tributaries, would plot the final leg of Lewis and Clark’s journey, from Washington’s eastern border to the Pacific Ocean, in conjunction with the bicentennial anniversary of the 1804-6 expedition. But instead of recapitulating the epic journey from the Corps of Discovery’s point of view, the artworks would capture the perspectives of the people who were already living there when the explorers arrived. Sited in public parks—or more typically overtaking them—Lin’s designs would incorporate fragments of text (Native American myths, Lewis and Clark’s journal entries) and functional sculptures (a bird blind, a land bridge, a fish-cleaning table) to evoke a landscape and a way of life submerged in time and memory.
Perhaps the Project’s plodding pace partly explained Lin’s impatience. A year after the bicentennial commemoration had tapered off, only one of her seven designs had been built (at Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park in April 2006). And at least another year was expected to pass between that first ribbon-cutting ceremony and the next one, at the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, directly across the Columbia River from Portland, where a mammoth pedestrian land bridge will be dedicated on the 16th of this month. Owing to the astounding complexity of a design process involving input from dozens of research and technical consultants and representatives of at least eight native tribes, the project was materializing over what could easily become the course of a decade.
Lin also faced immediate time pressures. Earlier that morning, she had arrived late for our scheduled 6 a.m. interview, in the dining room of the Lewiston Red Lion Hotel, because she’d been packing and repacking for her trip to China the following day, where she was scheduled to work on a project involving the “greening” of an existing university. On the breakfast table, the front page of the Seattle Times displayed a photo of Lin, haloed by sparks, working in the hot shop of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, where she’d just spent a two-day sculpture residency. After her site visit at Chief Timothy this morning, she would speed some 260 miles west to an afternoon blessing ceremony at the most politically knotty of the Confluence Project sites: Celilo Park, where Celilo Falls, for eons a Native American fishing and trading center, had been inundated by the Dalles Dam in 1957.
Atop the summit of Chief Timothy Park, Lin’s demeanor lightened as she charged into the fray of people and dirt. A three-person documentary video crew, hired by Confluence Project organizers, loped along behind her, carefully avoiding tangles of branches, as she delivered brusque greetings and crisscrossed the rugged depression. Calling out questions and opinions (“I’d call this shape a warped potato chip”), ordering photographs taken, vehicles moved and sketches drawn, she pulled Nez Perce landscape designer Brian McCormack alongside to vet the contours of the seating terraces for cultural sensitivity and finally, perched atop a black minivan, directed the GreenWorks crew to pull the circle of PVC pipes representing the lowest section of the amphitheater a couple of feet southeast.
During our brief breakfast meeting, Lin had explained that of the seven Confluence Project sites, Chief Timothy best symbolized the pristine state of the landscape before European settlers arrived. The relatively untouched, 198-acre wildlife preserve offered magnificent views of a glistening river canyon cutting through a field of rolling Palouse hills (despite the fact that dams had turned the once-wild Snake into a slow-moving industrial channel for the nearby Clarkston-Lewiston port). Besides gaining the amphitheater—Lin called it a “listening circle,” its form inspired by a Nez Perce blessing ceremony that had occurred there two years earlier, after the site had been chosen for the project—the park would be landscaped with native plants. It would also receive a new name (still to be determined), reflecting what Indians might have called the area in days past. Timothy, after all, was considered a traitor by many Native Americans, as one of the first Nez Perce leaders to convert to Christianity and to adopt the white man’s agricultural ways. Lin’s greatest hope for the park, she said, was that the Nez Perce would use it on a regular basis for ceremonies—symbolically reclaiming the land for the tribe.
That sentiment was echoed by Horace Axtell, the tribal elder who initially guided Lin to the park and later led the blessing ceremony there. I’d met with him a year and a half earlier. An old man with a kind, weathered face and two long braids, he’d observed that the Confluence Project was already having an effect. Area schoolchildren had participated in an outreach program, creating their own commemorative sculptures. And Lin’s design for the park would hopefully initiate a long-deferred discussion.
“If things go the way it’s going here, maybe we’ll be able to tell the story of our people,” Axtell ventured. “And people will understand that we were the ones who were here before—when our language was the only one heard in the canyons.”