by Nancy Nusz
From the first inhabitants to its most recent migrants, the Columbia River and its many tributaries have always provided a source of livelihood, transportation, recreation, cultural practices, creativity, and much more. A look at the folklife of the people living in the region provides a snapshot of the diversity of cultures residing there today. The five counties of north central Oregon (Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam and Jefferson) are alive with music, crafts, occupations, foodways, practices, stories, and beliefs that have been passed down from one person to the next over generations. The people practicing these traditions are living links between the past and the present and knowing some of them can enrich all our lives.
Both sides of Brigette McConville’s family are river people—her mom from The Dalles down river and her dad from The Dalles up river. She first learned to fish with her father’s family. Her grandfather had two platforms at Sherar’s Falls on the Deschutes River that still belong to her family. Additionally, her husband (Nez Pierce) is a commercial fisherman, and they now fish together from Bonneville Dam up river as well as on the Klickitat, Deschutes, and John Day rivers. Between Brigette and her husband, their family fishing rights allow them access to 26 sites on the Columbia. Brigette smokes most of the fish, but she also wind dries some, makes salmon candy, and cans the rest. All are sold in her shop, Salmon King Fisheries, located in the shopping center beside Indian Head Casino in Warm Springs. Brigette is the first Native American woman to serve on the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and on the Board of Directors of the Oregon Historical Society.
John Garret was born in St. Louis but his mother was from the Hood River area so the family moved back when he was a young child. He has always loved fishing and started tying fishing flies in the 70s while he was in high school. Travis Duddles, owner of the Gorge Fly Shop, gave John some tips on his flies for the fish in local rivers. John now ties many different flies for steelhead, salmon, trout, and sculpin. To successfully dress a fly, John has to know what each fish eats and how it behaves. For 23 years, he was a full-time river guide on the Columbia, Deschutes, Klickitat, Lewis, and John Day rivers so his fishing knowledge is vast. Today, John works at the Gorge Fly Shop and ties flies for his personal use, for special gifts, or for people at work.
Maria Diaz was born and raised in Hood River but her parents came from Michoacán, Mexico. They now work together in Odell at the family restaurant, Michoacán Sports Bar & Grill, known for its traditional carnitas. Maria’s great grandfather, grandfather, and father have all made traditional carnitas. At the restaurant her father prepares an entire pig, first cutting off the fat he then uses to cook the meat. When the lard reaches the right temperature, Maria’s father puts the pieces of meat into the large copper pot that he brought from Mexico about 20 years ago. Next he adds just garlic and salt, in keeping with tradition. He then cooks it for 4-5 hours. Maria says, “The meat tastes better in this type of pot, and its appearance is part of the flavor the meat—it must have a caramelized color.” Carnitas are served with traditionally handmade tortillas. All of their dishes are prepared from recipes that were handed down from older family members from Michoacán.
Bud Jones started playing the guitar with his dad at about 4 years of age. They would sit on their back porch in Texas and play with many of their neighbors who were also musicians. When he married Phyllis, she didn’t play a musical instrument. However, once, when he went on a hunting trip with friends, she bought a 45rpm record and learned a few basic cords to surprise him. After that, Bud taught her, and they have been playing country-western style music together ever since. They also sing in a quartet with friends from their church and are active in the informal music scene around The Dalles where they live. Phyllis says, “It’s been wonderful as a married couple to play music together.” Their two sons, Lon and Dale Jones, are musicians in Portland.
Larry Dick, who now goes by his Indian name Taaw-Lee-Winch (Tule Man), was a young when his uncle, Chief Nelson Wallulatum, started teaching him Wasco tribal rituals, including those related to burials. Taaw-Lee-Winch apprenticed with Nelson and eventually became the tribal undertaker. This position requires him to abide by strict codes, such as avoiding any contact with pregnant women and young children for a certain time after he has handled a body. Taaw-Lee-Winch also officiates at Name Givings, First Kills, First Huckleberries, and Root Feasts, and he is the oldest singer in the Medicine Society. He is a master craftsman of tule mats and of deer hoof embellished items worn by men. Taaw-lee-Winch knows where tules grow as well as how to harvest, dry, and make them into various sized mats for everyday, as well as ritual uses.
Jose “Pepe” Contreras learned to play piano at age 12 in an after school program taught by Juan Antonio Martinez at Hood River Middle School. A couple of years later, Pepe picked up the guitar, and once again Juan Antonio helped him. Pepe joined Juan’s mariachi group when he was 13 and stayed with it until he was 20 years old. In 2007, he formed his own Mexican norteño group, Los Amigos de la Sierra. In addition to Pepe, the band has three other members: Alex Viramontes (drums & bajo sexton), Armando Lopez (electric base and guitarrón), and Cameron Marquez (bajo sexton). In the last 5 years, Pepe has started playing the accordion, adding a characteristic sound to their norteño music. The band has performed throughout the Northwest as well as in Vera Cruz, Mexico.