Washington needs a new folk song. Yes, the State of Washington has an official folk song written and performed by early American folk singer Woody Guthrie. The song entitled “Roll on Columbia, Roll on” was one of twenty-six that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) commissioned from Guthrie. At the time, BPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just built the Bonneville Dam (about 45 minutes east of Portland, OR) three years prior. Roll On was a propaganda song that would pedestal federal regulation of hydroelectric dams in the face of private hydro projects proposed by local state and county entities. Washington State adopted it as its official state folk song in 1987, and it should have never made it that far.
Roll On whitewashes history glorifying hydropower as a trophy of progress and development, thus eliminating the Native population. It is a byproduct of Manifest Destiny tones set in another Guthrie song, "This Land is Your Land." He was provided a history book by then BPA Information Specialist Stephen Kahn, which covered the Indian Wars from 1855-1859. It was from this history book that Woody pulled information about the non-Native perspective of the Wars. Despite Woody's visits to the Native fishing stations along the Columbia, his outlook remained biased against Native people. In his lyrics in the fourth verse, there is an assumption that Natives are peaceful as long as they are dead. Ironically, the “Injuns” rested peacefully on “Memaloose Isle” until they were exhumed to make way for both the Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam. In the fifth verse, he describes the Battle at the Cascades, historically referred to as the Cascades Massacre, which resulted in the defeat of a limited force of soldiers by Yakima, Klickitat, Cascades warriors, and leaders (Verses 5 and 6). The Yakima and Klickitat warriors escaped. However, the Cascades leaders were all hung in retaliation for their skirmish involvement (Verse 7). Their bodies were buried at Bradford Island, where Bonneville Dam now sits. Their burials were exhumed before the construction of the Bonneville Dam.
…Year after year we had tedious trials,
Fighting the rapids at Cascades and Dalles. 4th verse
The Injuns rest peaceful on Memaloose Isle;
Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!
It's there on your banks that you fought many a fight,
Sheridan's boys in the block house that night, 5th verse
They saw us in death, but never in flight;
Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!
Our loved ones we lost there at Coe's little store,
By fireball and rifle, a dozen or more, 6th verse
We won by the Mary and soldiers she bore;
Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!
Remember the trial when the Battle was won,
The wild Indian warriors to the tall timber run, 7th verse
We hung every Indian with smoke in his gun;
Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!
Native burial exhumations were not quiet affairs; in fact, Federal agencies had them publicized in several newspaper articles in 1938 and 1957 despite the emotional and mental toll on Columbia River Natives. A tribal elder voiced concern about burial impacts by dam construction in a 1953 Yakima Herald Article by Click Relander. Relander interviewed Casaseca, aka Susan Whiz, Yakama elder and resident of Maryhill, WA, who spoke to her concerns about Columbia River Native burials by saying, “[t]here are graves of my people scattered up and down the river. I want to go back and see them again. We don’t feel that these graves should go under.” She continued by adding, “[t]hey are doing that all up and down the river—overrunning the wishes of the Indians and covering the graves of the people with water, and they are digging up what graves they can fine. We would think it terrible if the cemeteries in the cities were covered by water and we would want to help relatives who have people buries there save the graves from water or being dug up, but only a few want to help us and a few people are not enough.”
To make matters worse Native graves at “Memaloose Isle” have been rampantly looted by non-Native pot collectors. So, at no point since 1805 (year of initial contact with non-Natives) have the Native burials at Memaloose Island rested peacefully.
Former BPA Information Specialist Bill Murlin, said “I really do believe that this is a snapshot in time, that this is a very small section in history, encapsuled in these songs. What was happening at the time in the Pacific Northwest in 1941, is for the most part what’s captured in these songs”
If these songs are a snapshot of 1941, then why not keep them in 1941? Even then, it is not an accurate snapshot because Natives on the Columbia River were experiencing something completely different. They were surviving the loss of their ancestral fishing sites, village sites, burial sites, petroglyph/pictograph sites, spiritual and ceremonial areas, to name a few. While the “common man” was fighting to make a living, dams were killing the living of Columbia River Natives. It speaks volumes that all Guthrie ever learned about Pacific Northwest Natives during his month-long visit came from a biased history book provided to him by a government agency looking to solidify its stronghold on the Columbia River at the expense of the minority.
Is Roll On a reflection of history? Yes, at least as some understand it, but it is viewed as at the very least outdated by today's standards. Yet, it is not, nor should it be, a reflection of the Washington experience. The song, as Natives of the Columbia River might understand, would likely sound very different. For these reasons, Washington needs to move on to a new state folk song.
To learn more about the impacts of Dams on Natives of the Columbia River please check out this case study done through the National Museum of the American Indian.
1941 Roll on Columbia, Roll On. Song composed for the Bonneville Power Administration. Portland. Taken from https://woodyguthrieinthepacificnw.omeka.net/roll-on-columbia-roll-on.
Madjic, Michael & Denise Matthews
2000 Roll on Columbia: Woody Guthrie and the Bonneville Power Administration. University of Oregon. Eugene.
1953, Flooding of Old Indian Village Strikes Note of Sadness in Heart of Casaseca 90. February 8, Yakima