Snoqualmie Falls: Sacred Grounds Transformed by the Power of Technology

Snoqualmie Falls, a 268-foot waterfall thirty miles east of Seattle in Washington State, attracts nearly 1.5 million tourists per year, luring visitors with its breathtaking views. Many people fail to realize that these beautiful lands are the grounds for controversy between the Snoqualmie Tribe and Puget Power, a major utility company that serves the surrounding cities. The indigenous peoples of Washington, the Upper and Lower Snoqualmie Tribes, have inhabited these lands for thousands of years. The Snoqualmie have significant religious attachment to this once pouring waterfall which is now, in comparison, a mere trickle. The site of the tribe’s creation story has become negatively impacted by industrialists over time (Sterling 23).


The Snoqualmie religious beliefs begin at the heart of the falls. These Indigenous Peoples believe that the creation of man and woman occurred at the falls as a blessing from the moon. Following this act of gratitude, the moon retreated to the sky. The Snoqualmie people deem that “many things either begin or end at Snoqualmie Falls,” as the site is not only the place of creation, but also a place of burial (Tollefson 5). The mists created by the falls are the prayers and messages sent to Heavens. Vision quests, a ritual in which Snoqualmie stay in touch with the spirits through ceremonial meditation, fasting, and bathing over multiple days, occur at Snoqualmie Falls as well (2008 US App.).

In a survey taken by Tollefson et al., the key reasons why Snoqualmie Falls is important to the indigenous peoples are uncovered (222). These reasons can be grouped into the following categories: the falls is considered a center of tribal beliefs and worship, the falls is a place to seek guidance and clear the mind, and the falls is the reservation of the Snoqualmie people. As a center of beliefs and worship, Snoqualmie Falls represents Axis Mundi to the people. Eliade’s idea that “a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space” is internalized by the tribe (Eliade 37). While the falls may not be a physically constructed church or sanctuary, the natural waterfall is a sacred center with a clear boundary. Surrounding the sacred falls are the river valleys and  rolling hills where the people reside. The consecrated falls break the homogeneities of the neighboring inhabited areas, based on its immediate connection to the Earth and the Heavens. Tollefson et al. affirms that “Mythologically, the Falls provided the setting for the transformation of the chaos of the primeval world into order” which further points to the sacredness of this location in the lens of Eliade (209).

Puget Power’s initiatives have compromised and have continued to affect the sacred waterfall. In 1898, Puget Power first installed its hydroelectric plant, drilling and unearthing much of the river bank, and redirecting a majority of the Snoqualmie River water by the falls. The river, which flows into the falls, runs at 2692 cubic feet per second, on average. With the installment of the Puget Power plant, 2500 cubic feet per second of the flowing water is rerouted for its use to power the city. Therefore, approximately 7 percent of the river water actually reaches the waterfall, compared to 100 percent before the utility company diverted the river (Sterling 23). Puget Power has generated an average of 273,000 megawatts of power annually and was a very cost-effect solution (2008 US App). The company has numerically determined the “minimum aesthetic flow” and bases their utilization of the waterfall on the minimum amounts of water necessary to please the tourists. On occasions in which the flow is below the average, until 1991 the company consumed all of the river water leading to the waterfall, “turning off” the waterfall in the evenings (23). The quantities of water used at different times of day and year catered to solely the tourists, without considering the impacts on the American Indians or the lack of mist necessary for their ceremonies.


In 1991 Puget Power re-applied to extend its plant for 40 years and further drill into the river bank to capture an extra 60% of the available river water. The expansion, priced at approximately $82 million, called for the installation of another turbine and an upstream intake valve (Sterling 23). Infuriated by this proposal, Snoqualmie insisted that the operation and modifications of the power plant: “deprive the Tribe of access to the Falls for vision quests and other religious experiences, eliminate the mist necessary for the Tribe’s religious experiences, and alter the ancient sacred cycle of water flowing over the Falls” (2008 US App.). Puget Power offered to grant Snoqualmie 400 cubic feet per second of water flow if 24 hours of notice was given so that they could practice spirituality and ceremony. This suggestion was seen as disrespectful in the eyes of the Snoqualmie (Sterling 23). When the proposal first became known to  Snoqualmie, tribal leaders petitioned and appealed in court on several occasions.

The start of the Snoqualmie Falls Preservation Project, by the Church Council of Greater Seattle around 1990, was the first support system the Snoqualmie received outside of their tribe. In 1992, through the volunteer efforts of this project, a legal document was compiled and presented to the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) which determined if the relicensing for Puget Power would occur (Magnuson 421). After years of single year re-licensing, Puget Power was able to sign their 40-year renewal in 2005. The Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) declared that Puget Power must allow for the months of May and June to be ceremonial months for the Snoqualmie Tribe. In other words, though Puget Power is not required to terminate the electricity production during these months, they are forced to increase water flow over the falls to 1204 cubic feet per second and 541 cubic feet per second in the months of May and June, respectively (Krishnan). This dramatic increase, from the previous 200 cubic feet per second, creates larger mists and significantly restores the waterfall during these months. One native addressed this effort as an opening of his church for two months each year, compared to no months. This FERC ruling brought happiness to Snoqualmie; however, Puget Power renewed its license for the next 40 years (Krishnan).

Whether the name of Krishnan’s article, “Tribe Wins in Hydro Dispute at Snoqualmie Falls” is appropriate, is a question worth exploring. The 2005 decision was the first feat in the long controversy between the Snoqualmie and Puget Power; however, many individuals have access to their places of worship at any moment of any day. Gaining FERC’s support was an essential step in the ongoing legal battle between Snoqualmie and Puget Power; however, Snoqualmie Falls remains a space under constant dispute.

-Melissa Jay


Works Cited

Krishnan, Sonia. “Tribe Wins in Hydro Dispute at Snoqualmie Falls.” The Seattle Times 06 Apr. 2005: Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Magnuson, Jon. “The Mending of Creation.” Christian Century 110.13 (1993): 420-23.Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Sterling, John. “Sacred Snoqualmie Falls Faces Hydro Threat.” Earth Island Journal 9.2 (1994): 23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.

Tollefson, Kenneth D., and Martin L. Abbott. “From Fish Weir to Waterfall.” American Indian Quarterly 17.2 (1993): 209-25. JSTOR. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.

545 F.3d 1207; 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 21023. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2014/10/02.


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