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

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

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

Bonnie Henderson  – April 25, 2007 | Updated May 21, 2018

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

Lin is awaiting the third of seven site blessings for theConfluence Project, which could be the most ambitious public workof art ever created in North America. Along 470 miles of theColumbia River basin in Oregon and Washington, Lin and her cohortsare planning up to 10 original art installations at the sevensites.

The Confluence Project took its initial inspiration from thepreeminent explorers of the Northwest, Meriwether Lewis and WilliamClark. But it’s equally nurtured by the native peoples whose worldLewis and Clark entered and forever changed. The project includesart installations but also environmental restoration of theColumbia and the land around it. Dozens of government agencies(federal, two states, countless counties and cities), nonprofitorganizations, and Native American tribes have been involved. Andit will cost about $27 million to complete.

“Nothing like this has ever been done,” says Jane Jacobsen, theConfluence Project’s executive director. “Anywhere. Ever.”

“How can you say no?”

The Confluence Project began life in 1999, as the Northwestprepared for the bicentennial of the 1804-06 Lewis and ClarkExpedition. The anniversary evoked deep and complicated responsesin Northwesterners. For many, the expedition represented adventureand the opening of the frontier West. For many others ―particularly the region’s Native Americans ― Lewis andClark’s arrival signaled the end of a way of life thousands ofyears old.

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

It turned out they weren’t alone. Independently, two othergroups ― the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and acommittee of community leaders in Washington’s Pacific County― had also imagined Lin as the right artist, someone whowould respond to the bicentennial with appropriate sensitivity.Together, and with other community members and tribes, theyassembled a proposal. In November 2000, Lin accepted thecommission.

Lin recalls the pivotal meeting in her New York studio. “Incomes Jane,” she says, “and she brings the Umatilla, the Chinooktribe, the Nez Percé.” She shakes her head, laughing.

“How can you say no?”

One river, many stories

Lin, her staff, the tribes, Jacobsen, and the associated publicentities spent more than three years determining which sites alongthe Columbia River and its tributaries would be most suitable forthe project. In geographic terms, the Confluence Project begins insoutheastern Washington, near the confluence of the Clearwater andSnake Rivers. Here, at Chief Timothy Park, a basalt-rimmed”listening circle” will stem from Lin’s interpretation of the NezPercé ceremony blessing the land (expected completion, 2008).Also set for completion next year is Sacajawea State Park (the nextsite downstream), with a boat dock, path, and sculptural “storycircles,” inspired by the tribal tradition.

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

The next two sites downstream are set to be finished thisautumn. Near Troutdale, Oregon, Lin is planning a bird blindaccessible via footpaths through a 17-acre meadow recently clearedof invasive blackberry vines.

Another 12 miles down the Columbia, a “land bridge” designedprimarily by Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones is under constructionat Vancouver National Historic Reserve. The 40-foot-wide pedestrianbridge, crossing a busy state highway to reconnect the reserve withthe Columbia River, will be landscaped with native vegetation, “soyou feel like the land is coming with you and going down the otherside,” as Jones puts it.

Jones, whose mother was Choctaw and Cherokee, is perhaps bestknown as the lead design consultant for the National Museum of theAmerican Indian in Washington, D.C. He has donated much of his timeon the Confluence Project. “I think it is an important thing forthe Indian community in the Columbia River basin: to bring the waysand beliefs of the native people into the design, and to help Mayaunderstand that better.”

Indeed, as Lin worked on the Confluence Project, her ideas aboutit changed. “When I started,” she says, “I thought that the Lewisand Clark story would overlap with the tribes’ story. It turns outthey happen to be flowing through the same place, but at differenttimes and often with very different intentions.”

Looking at two worlds

The first of the project sites to be completed is the one atjourney’s end: Cape Disappointment, at the mouth of the ColumbiaRiver. Here, on the cape’s ocean side, Lin has constructed aboardwalk to stretch toward the Pacific, its length inscribed withwords pulled from the journals of Lewis and Clark, in order oftheir travels from St. Louis to the Pacific.

To the east, alongside Baker Bay, Lin honors the native worldwith a heavy basalt fish-cleaning table that perches at the water’sedge. The table is working art: Fish scales glitter on the slab’sflat top and fish blood is smeared on the sides, nearly obscuringthe fine text inscribed on the slab’s polished surfaces. A closerlook reveals a Chinook creation legend about South Wind’s meetingwith Quoots-Hooi the ogress, who broke open the eggs of theThunder-bird to witness the emergence of humankind.

“It’s not about the history,” Lin says of her work. “It’s aboutreclaiming, and really using Lewis and Clark for the greatobservers that they were.”

INFO: Confluence Project, seea map of the sites.

MORE: Learn moreabout the Northwest »

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