There was also an air of anxiety emanating from the research crew regarding matters of symbolic content. Lin’s request for a list of the tribes that had frequented the site was virtually impossible to fulfill, in part because so many of the tribes had been nomadic, and in part because of the sticky politics of naming, the researchers informed her. Moreover, Jacobsen was concerned that “they” had expressed concern about the placement of the longhouse.
“Who are ‘they’?” Lin asked, her voice rising in frustration.
“The elders,” the researchers mumbled nervously.
Three days later, at the Red Lion in Lewiston, Henning summed up one of the many challenges presented by the project. Not only was there no way to identify conclusively all the tribes from near and far that had used the site, but the location to be commemorated also had no definitive geographic identity. “Maya would like a list of the tribes,” Henning said as she raised one finger, “that lived_”—she raised another finger—“_there.” A third finger went up. “There is nothing about that statement that is achievable.”
‘For the tribes it’s about giving them a sense of homeland, and a sense of feeling that people will know that this is their place, this has been their place for thousands of years.’
My last interview with Lin in March, which took place following the Chief Timothy Park site visit in the backseat of a minivan piloted by Henning, offered a final chance to elicit her comments on how the Confluence Project related to the larger story of American memorial design, a story in which she had played such a famously pivotal role. To that end, I asked her how she’d sum up what she wanted to achieve with the project.
It had always been a mouthful, she replied.
“I’m asking you to reflect on what we’ve done, where we’ve come from and where we are going,” she continued. “At the same time, that’s almost too simplistic. I think for the tribes it’s about giving them a sense of homeland, and a sense of feeling that people will know that this is their place, this has been their place for thousands of years. There is something very important about telling what I call the ‘deeper’ story of a place. If you want to say that Confluence as a whole will give people a deeper understanding of the Columbia River system—and not just from the history of men, but from the history of the geology and the ecology of the place—that might be the better summation.”
Lin seldom, if ever, uses the word “memorial” to refer to the Confluence Project. She prefers the term “memory work,” indicating that the artworks are meant to inspire reflection on the past rather than to mourn who or what’s been lost. Many of the seven works will subtly address loss, she acknowledged—the inundation of fishing grounds by dams, the broken treaties, the transformation of the river into “glorified lakes,” the extinction of species, even global warming—but against a backdrop of restoration. She categorically rejects the dismal, which is why she had chosen to create an artwork at Chief Timothy Park, a wildlife preserve, rather than at a previously proposed site, a paved industrial lot at the actual confluence of the Columbia and the Snake. The buried land, she said, “broke my heart.”
“I don’t rely on irony. My artwork is not sardonic that way; it just isn’t,” she explained. “There will be one site focused on a real sense of loss, and it will be Celilo.”