Seven and a half years ago, Chinook Chief Cliff Snider (also called Gray Wolf), whose tribe has lived for thousands of years at the estuary where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, mounted the steps of Maya Lin’s Soho loft. In the company of elders from the Umatilla and Nez Perce nations, he had come to ask Lin to design a series of public artworks along the Columbia River Basin that would respond to, if not exactly celebrate, the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s 1804–1806 journey to the West Coast. Dreamed up by tribal and civic leaders in Washington and Oregon, the venture was to be called the Confluence Project, after the convergences of rivers, ecosystems, and peoples that have shaped this region. Everyone agreed that only Maya Lin could do justice to the story. The only problem was that she had already said no.
“I’m really not in the monument business,” she says. “I didn’t want to focus my attention on a commemorative history about Lewis and Clark.” Indeed, Lin has turned down the majority of the monument commissions she has routinely been offered since completing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., in 1982. But Snider, a descendant of the Chinook leader who greeted the Corps of Discovery when it reached the Pacific in 1804, struck the right chord. “She was about eight or ten feet away from me,” he says. “And I started talking about the environment and the river and the salmon, and all of a sudden she’s only about two or three feet away from me. She just kept edging closer and closer.”
“I suddenly realized why they called me,” Lin explains. This group was not after a bronze statue of the explorers gazing west with Sacagawea at their feet. They wanted a wholesale reimagining of the Lewis and Clark mythos, an excavation of the deeper history underlying the expedition’s “discoveries.” Lin found that she couldn’t say no to the tribal elders—and that their talk of their native lands’ diminished natural systems dovetailed with her own agenda. “I said, ‘I’m very committed to environmental issues,’” she recounts. “‘If you’ll allow me not just to look at these places in terms of the relationship between Lewis and Clark and the greater history that was here, but also to look at this from an ecological point of view, I’ll do this.’” At the time, she had completed several large-scale earthworks and was planning what she thought would be her fourth and final memorial, Missing, a multisite work dedicated to extinct species. But as she drove around Washington and Oregon to check out prospective locations, she saw room for more than an environmental jeremiad. Here was a chance to restore and reclaim the landscape itself.
The seven Confluence sites, all of which are mentioned in Lewis and Clark’s journals, stretch 450 miles from the grassy steppe of the Nez Perce tribal homeland to the mouth of the Columbia. Six will center around Lin’s art; at the seventh, in Ridgefield, Washington, she will design a new environmental-research center. The first phase, finished in 2006, was Cape Disappointment State Park, on the Washington coast, one of the last stops on Lewis and Clark’s journey, where Lin created a matrix of art installations and trails. This August saw the dedication of a bird-viewing platform at the Sandy River Delta, outside Troutdale, Oregon; and a pedestrian land bridge, designed by the Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones in consultation with Lin, that spans a freeway to reunite the city of Vancouver, Washington, with the Columbia River. Next year, two more stages will be realized: seven cut-basalt “story circles” at Sacajawea State Park and a stone-rimmed earthwork at Chief Timothy Park, both in eastern Washington. The time line for the final art installation, at Oregon’s Celilo Park, has yet to be set; Ridgefield’s is still in the early planning stages.
Lin’s work thus far makes us mindful of what has already been lost and what may yet be saved. “It’s not about returning everything back to pristine,” she says. “At all of these sites, a lot of my work is not very glorious. I’m reducing parking lots, reintroducing native grasses, cleaning up the water.” At Cape Disappointment, she worked with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to replace blacktop with natural wetlands and coastal forest that will serve as a catch basin for the hillside runoff that taints the estuary. “Maya Lin’s objectives were stewardship oriented, to restore and preserve and interpret natural processes and the cultural heritage of our state,” says Daniel Farber, the state-parks planner who worked with Lin. “There was a synergy between her efforts and ours.” At the Sandy River Delta, the Confluence Project cleared 25 acres of invasive Himalayan blackberry brambles and planted native trees in their place, in conjunction with a larger U.S. Forest Service ecological rehabilitation of 1,400 acres of disused pastureland. On the Vancouver bridge, substantial plantings of indigenous shrubs and grasses—salmonberry, camas lily, Oregon grape—line the walkway. Johnpaul Jones, the project architect, calls this gesture “pulling the prairie up and over and back to the river.”
“Ironically, if I succeed, you may never know I was here,” Lin says. But in and among the humble wetlands, unassuming native shrubs, and eco-friendly parking lots lies her art, subtly but powerfully recalibrating our relationship to our natural surroundings. At Cape Disappointment, she designed a boardwalk inscribed with entries from Lewis and Clark’s journals, a path of crushed oyster shells set with the words of a Chinook praise song, a “totem circle” made from ghostly logs of cedar driftwood from the nearby beach, and an austerely beautiful fish-cleaning table of polished local basalt etched with the Chinook creation myth. “If you read it as you’re sitting there with your salmon, you realize you’re in the Chinook homeland,” she says. “They talk about the Saddle Mountain that the eagle flew over, and the Saddle Mountain is right there.” Chief Snider says that many Chinook were initially wary of a project commemorating Lewis and Clark, but most have been won over by the respectful treatment Lin gave to Native American history. (He notes, however, that salmon have a tendency to slide off the polished surface of the fish-cleaning table.)
If Cape Disappointment writes Native American traditions back into a terrain from which they had largely been expunged, the Sandy River bird blind is all about the wildlife: the elliptical, cantilevered outdoor room is enclosed by 129 sustainably harvested locust-wood slats, each inscribed with the name of a species noted in Lewis and Clark’s journals and its current status. To float in that quiet riparian glade and read of creatures once legion and now threatened, endangered, or extinct is a mournful experience, only partly leavened by the knowledge that the Forest Service may soon remove the levees that rechanneled the delta in the 1930s. When the river returns to its original bed, local wildlife, particularly salmon, will get a boost. “The fact that they will be allowing the river to take its natural course,” Lin says, “is a huge part of the Confluence message: that it’s possible to take these dams out, or at least some of them.”
But not all. The final installation will be a true memorial, at the site of Celilo Falls, a great Indian fishing ground in north-central Oregon that was in-undated in 1957 to build the Dalles Dam, against the pleas of tribes who had fished there for more than 10,000 years. A wooden bridge will trace a horizontal arc over the now flat water, recalling the fishing platforms that used to line the edges of the falls. “That one,” Lin says, “is all about loss.”