“Although the site of a hydroelectric facility for nearly a century, the Falls retains significant integrity of physical character and associative values to manifest its cultural significance and to retain an important place in the cultural continuation of the Snoqualmie people.” – National Park Service
The Snoqualmie Tribe, numbering approximately 650 members, resides in the Puget Sound area, near the city of Seattle. In their tradition, the world as we know it was created by Moon, the once-lost child of a human and a star, who was stolen out of his bed by Dog Salmon. After growing into a man and learning about his childhood abduction, Moon returned to the Snoqualmie area. He created and re-designated the purpose of all things, including designating Deer for food, taming Fire, and telling his brother, Sun, to travel through the sky during the day. Moon turned the salmon weir, the space where he was stolen as a child by Dog Salmon, into Snoqualmie Falls, a massive waterfall, so that salmon could no longer reach the land above it (coastsalish.org). Snoqualmie Falls is the most sacred place of the Snoqualmie: the place of creation.
In 1898, something new was created at Snoqualmie Falls: a hydroelectric generating plant by the Puget Sound Power & Light Company. The company channels water from the base of the falls through pipes to turbines, today diverting 93% of the river to its generators (a second plant being added beneath the falls in 1957) (Corbin). The physical disruption of the falls (blasting the face of the falls and creating caverns beneath it) is only part of the concern from the Snoqualmie Tribe. The Snoqualmie believe that the mist from the falls carries prayers between heaven and earth (Magnuson). The diverting of the water flow significantly lessens the amount of sacred mist rising from the falls. Conflict between the Snoqualmie and the power company are still happening today.
In 1956, The Puget Sound Power & Light Company gained a license from the Federal Power Commission, now known as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to execute the Snoqualmie Falls Project, which meant the continuation of the development of the space for the power company’s profit. This license was set to expire in 1993. In 1991, the renamed Puget Sound Energy (PSE) applied to the FERC for a license to operate its facility at the waterfall for another 40 years (pse.com). They requested to install new turbines and divert an additional 60 percent of river flow, significantly altering the riverbank. This proposition further endangered the Snoqualmie’s sacred falls.
The Snoqualmie Tribe appealed to local church leaders for support. In 1987, Northwest bishops and denominational executives issued a formal apology to native area leaders and pledged to help support the protecting and recovering of Native traditions that earlier Christian actions in the area had destroyed. The apology reads, “As the Creator continues to renew the earth, the plants, the animals, and all living things, we call upon the people of our denominations and fellowships to a commitment of mutual support in your efforts to reclaim and protect the legacy of your own traditional spiritual teachings” and legally promises upholding the American Religious Freedom Act (James). Snoqualmie leaders appealed to this promise, asking the church community for help fighting the PSE, with resulted in the initiation of the Snoqualmie Falls Preservation Project under the Church Council of Greater Seattle. In 1992, the Tribe, the Council, and the Washington Association of Churches filed a motion to intervene the power plant’s expansion project (Magnuson).
Despite the united effort from the Snoqualmie Tribe and the churches of the Seattle area, the PSE’s expansion proposal passed in 2004. Today, their website states, “Puget Sound Energy is redeveloping the Snoqualmie Falls Project and making extensive improvements to both Plant 1 and Plant 2. Redevelopment work began in early 2010 and will continue into 2014” (pse.com).
One of the biggest issues concerning this conflict is the treatment of sacred space. Though the Falls are regarded as the source of creation for the Snoqualmie Tribe, the most important sacred site to the Tribe (Shaiman), Virginia Pistorese, project manager of the PSE, asks, “Who’s to say what’s sacred to whom? It’s inappropriate for anybody to have a corner on this.” (Magnuson). It is interesting to me that while PSE has no tolerance for the sacred grounds of a respected group, a coalition of churches who believe in a different set of sacred things (and believe that the sacred of the Snoqualmie people is not the true sacred), can stand up for the preservation of the falls. The premise of Christianity is that salvation is for the individual, yet in the early 1990’s they made an impressive effort as “one creation” (Magnuson).
Belden Lane outlines a few models for understanding sacred land. Ontological; the place has inherent, true sacredness, cultural; the place is only sacred because groups of people have designated it as being so, and phenomological; the space has become sacred based on subjective, spiritual experience. PSE focuses on the cultural model, believing not in any inherent sacredness of the falls but that it has only been deemed sacred by a small group of people. Therefore, any group could claim any place to be sacred, which mutes the point. Yet, as University of Washington pastor Jon Magnuson explores in an article published in the Christian Century in 1993, perhaps the Seattle area churches that came to the aid of the Tribe transcended the “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach of the sacred so typical of Christian groups. Magnuson beautifully describes, “Snoqualmie Falls offers a chance to help protect and re-claim a particular relationship to one specific interaction of water, wind and rock; it is space which, for part of the human family, remains as sacred as the most impressive urban synagogue or medieval cathedral” (Magnuson).
In 2005, the FERC ruled that the PSE must decrease the amount of water flow directed toward their two power plants during the months of May and June, in order to increase the sacred mist from the Snoqualmie Falls for the spiritual practices of the tribe. This ruling is a significant step toward the opening of the Tribe’s “church” year round (Krishnan). Hopefully in the future, more steps will be taken to open the “church,” the sacred, for every “part of the human family.”
“About the Snoqualmie Falls Project.” Snoqualmie Falls Licensing. Puget Sound Energy, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.
Corbin, Amy. “History of the Conflict.” Sacred Land Film Project » Snoqualmie Falls. Sacred Land Film Project, 1 Aug. 2004. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.
Dailey, Tom. “Moon the Transformer.” Moon the Transformer. Coast Salish, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.
Krishnan, Sonia. “The Seattle Times: Eastside News: Tribe Wins in Dispute at Snoqualmie Falls.” The Seattle Times: Eastside News: Tribe Wins in Dispute at Snoqualmie Falls. The Seattle Times, 5 Apr. 2005. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.
Lane, Belden. “Giving Voice To Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space.” Religion and American Culture. 1st ed. Vol. 11. Berkeley: Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, 2000. N. pag. Print.
Magnuson, Jon. “The Mending Of Creation.” Christian Century 23 Apr. 1993: n. pag. Print.
Shaiman, Marsha. “Power Plant at Snoqualmie Falls, Sacred Site.” Power Plant at Snoqualmie Falls, Sacred Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.
United States. National Park Service. “Snoqualmie Falls — American Indian Heritage Month — National Register of Historic Places Official Website–Part of the National Park Service.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.