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Rock Island was sacred

Editor’s note: A version of this story first published in The Confluence, a historical quarterly magazine produced by the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center. To learn more, visit wenatcheevalleymuseum.org.

Rock Island was sacred

For thousands of years, a stretch of the Columbia River 12 miles below present-day Wenatchee was a cultural center for local Indigenous people. Before being flooded by a dam and hydropower project in 1931, Rock Island was shared by Wenatchi-P’squosa and Columbia-Sinkiuse bands for fishing, dwelling and spiritual quests.

For many generations the village near the now-submerged island, on the river’s east bank, was a major trade center for Northwest tribes. David Thompson, the first Caucasian to travel down the 1,243-mile Columbia River in 1811, spent several hours at this village (called N’Kawa’xtctn) and estimated its population at 800. The mile-long island, surrounded by large boulders forming treacherous rapids, was a major challenge for canoes — and, later, for steamboats.

The late Wenatchee amateur archaeologist Dr. Russell Congdon, who studied the Rock Island site extensively before and after dam construction, found at least 40 house pits on the highest part of the island. These would have been covered by tule-mat dwellings. He speculated that up to 450 people may have lived on the island in winter, with additional temporary shelters being set up during warmer months. Salmon fishing was excellent here.

Rock Island was also a place where native peoples sought inspiration through puberty rites or vision quests. Some of them recorded their experiences by etching images into the island’s rocks. These rock images are called petroglyphs. Interpretation of rock art by non-natives is not recommended, but Indigenous people sometimes share their observations. Hypotheses have emerged that the images reflect visions or dreams, tell traditional stories, represent appeals to spirit guardians and celebrate achievements.

Archaeologist Harold Cundy counted 350 petroglyphs on Rock Island in 1923, and guessed that the site may have held as many as 500. Before the completion of Rock Island Dam, Wenatchee photographer Alfred Simmer made numerous trips to the island to document the rock images, and local archaeologists persuaded dam-builder Puget Power & Light to remove about 30 petroglyphs before they were permanently submerged. After a few changes in ownership, most of them are now in the collections of the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center and the Chelan County PUD. (The museum also has Simmer’s photographs in digital format.) Members of the Colville Confederated Tribes participated in a dedication ceremony at the museum on Oct. 24, 1984, expressing gratitude that a bit of their ancestors’ history was being preserved for public view.

Chris Rader edits the Wenatchee Valley Museum’s quarterly historical magazine, The Confluence.