Maya Lin's artful journey along the Columbia River basin

How the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is paying tribute to the human spirit through the Confluence Project

Bonnie Henderson

Sacajawea State Park, Pasco, Washington. The low sun casts diamonds on the Snake River. A breeze ruffles the Columbia River. The two great waterways converge here, at a point of land dense with gray willows and sycamores. A few yards away, drummers and singers from the Nez Percé, the Walla Walla, the Wanapum, and the Umatilla tribes beat out a blessing to a hushed circle of dignitaries. Among them ― inconspicuous but for the news photographers pointing cameras and jostling for a better angle ― stands Maya Lin, still blinking away her fatigue from the red-eye she caught from New York the night before.

Lin is awaiting the third of seven site blessings for the Confluence Project, which could be the most ambitious public work of art ever created in North America. Along 470 miles of the Columbia River basin in Oregon and Washington, Lin and her cohorts are planning up to 10 original art installations at the seven sites.

The Confluence Project took its initial inspiration from the preeminent explorers of the Northwest, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But it's equally nurtured by the native peoples whose world Lewis and Clark entered and forever changed. The project includes art installations but also environmental restoration of the Columbia and the land around it. Dozens of government agencies (federal, two states, countless counties and cities), nonprofit organizations, and Native American tribes have been involved. And it will cost about $27 million to complete.

"Nothing like this has ever been done," says Jane Jacobsen, the Confluence Project's executive director. "Anywhere. Ever."

"How can you say no?"

The Confluence Project began life in 1999, as the Northwest prepared for the bicentennial of the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition. The anniversary evoked deep and complicated responses in Northwesterners. For many, the expedition represented adventure and the opening of the frontier West. For many others ― particularly the region's Native Americans ― Lewis and Clark's arrival signaled the end of a way of life thousands of years old.

Jane Jacobsen, then director of a program at the Vancouver (Washington) National Historic Reserve Trust, dreamed of a project that would commemorate the bicentennial in all of its complexity. She and colleague David DiCesare came up with the idea of approaching Maya Lin, best known as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It turned out they weren't alone. Independently, two other groups ― the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and a committee of community leaders in Washington's Pacific County ― had also imagined Lin as the right artist, someone who would respond to the bicentennial with appropriate sensitivity. Together, and with other community members and tribes, they assembled a proposal. In November 2000, Lin accepted the commission.

Lin recalls the pivotal meeting in her New York studio. "In comes Jane," she says, "and she brings the Umatilla, the Chinook tribe, the Nez Percé." She shakes her head, laughing.

"How can you say no?"

New charms of old Astoria
Stop here on the Columbia River's super-scenic highway
Vines with a view
One river, many stories

Lin, her staff, the tribes, Jacobsen, and the associated public entities spent more than three years determining which sites along the Columbia River and its tributaries would be most suitable for the project. In geographic terms, the Confluence Project begins in southeastern Washington, near the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. Here, at Chief Timothy Park, a basalt-rimmed "listening circle" will stem from Lin's interpretation of the Nez Percé ceremony blessing the land (expected completion, 2008). Also set for completion next year is Sacajawea State Park (the next site downstream), with a boat dock, path, and sculptural "story circles," inspired by the tribal tradition.

The third designated site, near The Dalles, Oregon, is perhaps the most complicated in terms of both engineering and emotions; with the specifics still under consideration, it will be completed last. At its location in the eastern Columbia Gorge, you see the collision between Native American traditions and the ways of the outside world. For millennia, native peoples netted salmon from wooden platforms cantilevered over what was then Celilo Falls ― until the 1950s, when water backing up from newly constructed The Dalles Dam inundated the falls. Because of the sacredness of the place, Lin is gathering inspiration and information from tribal elders to help her mark the loss of the falls.

The next two sites downstream are set to be finished this autumn. Near Troutdale, Oregon, Lin is planning a bird blind accessible via footpaths through a 17-acre meadow recently cleared of invasive blackberry vines.

Another 12 miles down the Columbia, a "land bridge" designed primarily by Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones is under construction at Vancouver National Historic Reserve. The 40-foot-wide pedestrian bridge, crossing a busy state highway to reconnect the reserve with the Columbia River, will be landscaped with native vegetation, "so you feel like the land is coming with you and going down the other side," as Jones puts it.

Jones, whose mother was Choctaw and Cherokee, is perhaps best known as the lead design consultant for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He has donated much of his time on the Confluence Project. "I think it is an important thing for the Indian community in the Columbia River basin: to bring the ways and beliefs of the native people into the design, and to help Maya understand that better."

Indeed, as Lin worked on the Confluence Project, her ideas about it changed. "When I started," she says, "I thought that the Lewis and Clark story would overlap with the tribes' story. It turns out they happen to be flowing through the same place, but at different times and often with very different intentions."

Looking at two worlds

The first of the project sites to be completed is the one at journey's end: Cape Disappointment, at the mouth of the Columbia River. Here, on the cape's ocean side, Lin has constructed a boardwalk to stretch toward the Pacific, its length inscribed with words pulled from the journals of Lewis and Clark, in order of their travels from St. Louis to the Pacific.

To the east, alongside Baker Bay, Lin honors the native world with a heavy basalt fish-cleaning table that perches at the water's edge. The table is working art: Fish scales glitter on the slab's flat top and fish blood is smeared on the sides, nearly obscuring the fine text inscribed on the slab's polished surfaces. A closer look reveals a Chinook creation legend about South Wind's meeting with Quoots-Hooi the ogress, who broke open the eggs of the Thunder-bird to witness the emergence of humankind.

"It's not about the history," Lin says of her work. "It's about reclaiming, and really using Lewis and Clark for the great observers that they were."

INFO: Confluence Project, see a map of the sites.

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