What did this mean? It was one of many important questions the Confluence Project raised. In a world where people’s histories, languages and philosophical beliefs are so disparate, is there such a thing as a shared architecture of memory? When a trauma is so deep that it has already obliterated memory, is it possible to commemorate it at all? Can public art hope to rebuild the collective memory where politics has failed?
Unfortunately, these were not the questions I had chosen to ask. And without much further ado, Lin, evidently fatigued and distressed by my interest in the memorial underway in Manhattan, informed me that now the interview really was over.
Two months ago, in September, Lin released a conceptual plan for her artwork at Celilo Park. It will consist of a 300-foot walkway arcing across the grass, its terminal point cantilevering over the water. Like the black granite in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the water beneath the walkway will glisten, reflecting its surroundings rather than exposing what lies underneath. Still, fragments of text will invoke the history of the falls from the time of their geologic formation to the present; the words at the river’s edge will describe the crashing sound the waters had once made before they were forever muted.
But on March 18, Lin didn’t know what would happen as she stood on a patch of lawn between the river and an expansive parking lot, with about 200 people—some Indian, many white—who gathered to observe the Celilo blessing ceremony. Lewis Malatare, a tribal elder of the Yakama Nation, was among the last to speak.
Malatare spoke of the many hardships his people—the Indian people in general—had endured. He warned of the endangered status of Indian cultures, and of the importance of continuing to keep oral histories alive, so that “generations yet unborn would know that this”—Celilo—“was such a beautiful, beautiful place to be.”
He spoke of being a veteran, and of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, to pay respects to friends and relatives he had lost in the war. Of how, when he touched the smooth stone, “it became a part of me.”
“I hope,” he said, “that this memorial will have the same feeling that the memorial in Washington had.”
The stories of Celilo, the stories shared with children, would never change, he continued, his voice wobbling. “Through our words and our oral history, the mists, the noise, the sound of laughter will always be there.
“One day, we will receive, once again, Celilo. Because we did not give it up. We did not sell it.”
Col. O’Donovan, a distinguished-looking man in a brown uniform who represented the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, took the podium next.
“I’m proud to welcome you to Celilo Park,” he announced, “which belongs to the people of the United States, which we the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hold in trust …”
Mercifully, his speech was short. Lin’s was even shorter.
“I am here because you asked me to be here,” she said, in a voice that seems always a bit thin on affect, but always, at the same time, persistent and clear. “I only hope I can do something here that doesn’t disappoint. I sense still a power under the water. And I sense a loss that can never truly be recovered. But I hope that I can put something here that can tell my children, your children, your children’s children, what is still there in memory, under the water.”