Lerena Sohappy, of the Yakama Nation, replied that unfortunately, of the 14 languages and dialects once used by the 14 bands of the Yakama Nation, most were all but extinct.
‘I don’t think you can return back in time,’ Lin ventured. What she hoped to do was to restore some of the native vegetation, to give visitors a sense of the tribes whose homelands overlapped the park.
Roberta Conner, director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, a museum devoted to the history of the three tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (the Walla Walla, the Umatilla and the Cayuse), said she’d struggled with the question of how to represent languages when designing the institute’s exhibits. The Cayuse language had presented a particularly complex challenge. Owing to the tribe’s decimation by disease and warfare, many members had intermarried with other tribes, primarily the Nez Perce; as a result, most people of Cayuse descent who spoke an ancestral language used a version of Nez Perce. That language itself, unfortunately, was poorly documented. “We have a small dictionary of about 400 words. It’s really just a vocabulary list; it’s not a language.”
Lin’s search for an earlier name for the river confluence at Sacajawea State Park raised similar doubts.
“It’s certainly not Sacajawea,” said Sohappy, chuckling.
“Our traditional leaders thought of Sacajawea—I don’t want to say as a traitor, but she was not associated with Native Americans,” concurred Phillip Olney, then-chairman of the Yakama Nation General Council.
In any case, Conner added, there would have been many names for the confluence, including, most likely, separate names for cliffs and for the water. Nearby features—a mountain, for example, or an area where sunflowers grew thickly—might also have been used to refer to the site. “The Daughters of the American Revolution had more to do with the naming of the park than anyone,” she said.
The tribal representatives also couldn’t agree upon a single name for salmon, the sacred lifeblood of the Columbia River peoples. Various names might have applied to the spring chinook, fall chinook, summer chinook, sockeye, coho and salmon that go up different rivers. Furthermore, although salmon were important to the tribes, so were other fish—suckerfish, eels, steelhead, crayfish, mussels. And ultimately Celilo Park would be the more appropriate place to address the salmon issue. The two-hour meeting ended with nothing significant resolved.
But 17 months later, in March of this year, the design for Sacajawea State Park had progressed considerably. Lin had decided she wanted to create a series of “story circles.” Massive rings set in the earth, they would represent themes such as trade, seasonal plants and salmon. One, symbolizing a longhouse, would likely be inscribed with the names of the tribes of the Columbia Plateau.
The principal members of the creative team met to hammer out final details in a high-ceilinged conference room at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma—Jacobsen; Jones; a four-person research team headed by Betsy Henning; Dylan Farnum, an artisan from the Walla Walla Foundry; and Lin, who, just in from New York, was suffering from jet lag.
“My fantasy is to get a pure ring of bronze,” said Lin, seated at the head of the table, pulling a gold wedding band from her finger. “It either pops down”—she mimed sinking the ring into the ground—“or pops up”—she mimed setting the ring atop the ground’s surface.
Unfortunately, it was against the law to dig into the ground. In one of the more ironic technical challenges faced by the project, the park was an archaeological heritage site. To make it look as if the rings were sunk below grade, Jones and his team would need to figure out how to build up the soil and regrade it to appear natural. And this wasn’t the only technical sticking point. It was unclear whether the rings would actually be made of bronze, versus stone or concrete, or how thick a ring of welded bronze had to be to hold its shape. Or exactly how big Lin wanted the letters to be, so that Henning could choose quotes of appropriate length to inscribe inside the rings. Or what would be placed inside the rings: Gravel? Mowed grass? High plateau grass? Would a weedwhacker be likely to put scratches in the artwork?