Reviewed by Bradley Snow (Montana State University)
Published on H-Environment (October, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
This edited volume comprises a “biography” of the Spokane River, a major tributary of the Columbia River (p. 10). The impressive project was spearheaded by Paul Lindholt, an author and professor of English at Eastern Washington University. Realizing the lack of a good comprehensive volume on the Spokane and its people, Lindholt conceptualized the project and wrangled twenty-eight writers, including himself, into contributing pieces to the book.
The Spokane River is divided into three sections, each focused on a different aspect of the river. Section 1, “Encounters and Excursions,” primarily highlights different ways people have experienced the river—from kayaking and swimming to fishing and skinny-dipping—and what it has meant to them. Section 2, “Culture, History, and Society,” provides a variety of takes on the river’s long connection with disparate human cultures. The reader hears from Spokane Indians and archaeologists and about, among other things, the late nineteenth-century “clean water” battle between anglers and lumbermen; the 1970s restoration of the river from a state near to that of an open sewer; the creation in the 1980s of the sixty-mile “Centennial Trail” bike path from Lake Spokane, Washington, to Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and the genesis of the countercultural “People’s Park,” astride the river in the city of Spokane, as a counterpoint to the nearby “Expo ’74” World’s Fair. Section 3, “Beneath the Surface,” examines “the politics of the river and the scientific research on its waters and ecosystem” (p. 8). This section includes pieces on the hydrology that links the Spokane River and the ten-trillion-gallon Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer; the effects of climate, water flow, upstream mining pollution, and water quality on insect populations; and an environmental studies professor’s suggestions for “rewilding” the river.
At 111 miles in length and heavily dammed, the Spokane is not an especially major or wild river. It is not likely to be confused with its more famous western neighbors, the Columbia, Missouri, and Yellowstone. But that seems to be part of the point of the volume: that unfamous, non-wilderness, and far-from-pristine rivers like the Spokane can powerfully influence community and culture and create a sense of place. For many of those who contributed to the volume, the Spokane is primarily an urban river, flowing through Washington State’s second-largest city, Spokane (population 219,000). Though employed as a dumping ground for raw sewage and all kinds of industrial pollution until the 1970s, the river began to be cleaned up around the time of preparations for Spokane to host the 1974 World’s Fair. As numerous entries to the volume make clear, the showcasing of the river for the fair in turn led Spokaneites to begin to look at, interact with, and take pride in the river. A section of the former fairgrounds, which became Riverfront Park following the conclusion of the World’s Fair, emerged as the city’s pride and joy in subsequent years. It is doubtful that contemporary residents of Spokane would countenance the return of the river to its former degraded condition.
Archaeologists have determined that indigenous peoples have lived on the Spokane River for at least eight thousand years. In the volume, Spokane Indian tribal members Margo Hill and Barry G. Moses discuss the importance of the river for their people and the role it has played in tribal identity and tribal life. In her piece, “The River Gives Us Our Way of Life,” Hill describes the way the salmon fed her people and gave them valuable trade goods until the Grand Coulee and other big dams were erected on the Columbia in the 1930s and the salmon runs declined—the last of the “hogs,” fifty-to-eighty-pound summer chinook salmon, were seen on the Spokane many years ago. In his piece, “What Is the Name of Our River?,” Moses traces the many different names used for the river by his people and by neighboring tribes in their native languages. One of the names, which translates to “the Fast Water,” indicates the river’s high gradient and rapid flow in the pre-dam era (p. 77).
The Spokane River and much of the topography of the surrounding “Inland Empire” region were created relatively suddenly about 750,000 years ago in the violence of the Lake Missoula Flood. About 160 years ago, Colonel George Wright, of the US Cavalry, caught and hanged sixteen Indian chiefs on Latah (Hangman) Creek, a tributary of the Spokane River, to end the so-called Yakima War. About eighty years ago, Grand Coulee Dam was erected (without fish ladders) on the Columbia. Roughly fifty years ago, the lead, silver, and zinc mining companies on the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, about thirty-five miles upstream from Lake Coeur d’Alene, from whence flows the Spokane River, brought modern tailings impoundment facilities online that significantly curtailed the load of toxic minerals that washed down to the Spokane River. Forty-three years ago, a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant was inaugurated in Spokane. These events, along with others—some cruel and tragic and some humane and beneficent—have powerfully molded the history of the Spokane River and the intertwined histories of the humans who have both shaped and been shaped by the river. In The Spokane River, the deep, historic interrelation of the river and its human communities are richly explored: humans making the river, the river making humans. People with interest in the Spokane River, or in human-riverine interactions anywhere, are fortunate to have this compendium, a rich, compelling, and humane exploration of the Spokane River’s long history of intertwinement with human communities.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Bradley Snow. Review of Lindholdt, Paul, ed., The Spokane River.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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