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A River Runs Through It

“Hey, they’ve made a difference,” the blackjack dealer with a name tag that says Larry informs me after I blew $25 at the table where he shuffled and dealt. The pit boss listening to the conversation did not look like a Spokane Indian or a member of any other native tribe. Indian owned — but not Indian managed — casinos dot the landscape of eastern Washington.

“I didn’t have a regular job before this place opened up,” he said as he waited for another sucker on a slow morning, just before the Labor Day weekend. Families and tourists returned houseboats across the road after having motored up and down the Columbia and Spokane Rivers and gotten their share of sunburn as well.

The Two Rivers Casino, owned by the Spokane Tribe, specializes in the slots. Indeed, some casinos don’t even have black jack tables and roulette wheels.

“It’s not the high rollers who come here,” the dealer informed me, flashing a smile and showing gaps where some of his teeth had once been. “But my two brothers went into the service, you know. I didn’t want to get into that stuff, you know, over there in whatchamacallit. Too dangerous and I didn’t want to go too far from home. So, I trained for this job and it pays OK, you know.”

From Gifford, a ferry ride–free and 10 minutes long– crosses the Columbia River. On the other side, Inchelium looks like reservation towns I saw in South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico and California’s Salton Sea. The front yards contain car carcasses and worn out household machinery. Kids run around. A shabby general store faced a dingy café where the coffee, sitting and evaporating on the hot plate, smelled like someone had made it earlier. A lot earlier!

Around the village, majestic pines cast shadows and aromas throughout the area, those that remain after Boise Cascade and the other “timber companies” hacked away at the forests.

In Colville, from my motel window I watched the robot-driven crane send its claw down and scoop up the logs and place them on a conveyer belt, one more torturous step on a once mighty tree’s transformation into plywood, toothpicks or chopsticks.

The waitress at the “best Eye-talian restaurant in Colville”–her description–thinks of Boise Cascade as the company. It provides jobs and keeps customers coming into the restaurant. While I waited for my lasagna and eggplant parmesan take out orders, I asked her if she knew about Boise Cascade’s adventures in Guerrero Mexico in the 1990s] where the company colluded with corrupt village bosses to clear cut pieces of the local forest.

She shrugged. None of that appeared in the Colville newspaper or on the nightly news. The preacher didn’t mention it. Boise Cascade doesn’t want that kind of publicity in a town of some 5,000 people where it runs a 24/7 operation.

Logging and tourism, Indian reservations and the Grand Coulee Dam have stamped eastern Washington with their indelible identification marks.

The Dam dominates–as it should. It dwarfs other huge electric power producing facilities. It contains more concrete than any other structure in the country. The Dam measures almost a mile in length. All the pyramids at Giza could fit inside its base. It is twice as high as Niagara Falls, the tour guide informs us.

The structure, looming 1330 feet above sea level, looms like a surreal structure from the river below. The very quantity of concrete in its exterior produces awe and wonder at how engineers and architects could have conceived such a mammoth notion back in 1933 when FDR’s Public Works Administration initiated giant projects to spur the economy and provide jobs. The project took almost eight years to complete, during which time the plans changed and engineers enlarged the dam’s irrigation capacity.

World War II produced further changes. Irrigation took second place to electricity generation needed for war production. The power produced there also became crucial for generation electricity needed for war production during World War II. Grand Coulee also powered plutonium production reactors and reprocessing facilities at Hanford, Washington, part of the then-top secret Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb, a far cry from the spirit of Woody Guthrie song. “Roll on, Columbia, roll on, your power is turning our darkness to dawn,”

The Hanford plant leaked nuclear material. Former employees have suffered from the toxic material as have the fish, which must make their way under the concrete dam. “Most of them squeeze underneath,” said the tour guide responding to my question. “Some die from something like the bends, what divers get. But it’s good for the sea eagles.” He pointed skyward where the predators should have been.

The dam did prove crucial for industrial development in the Pacific Northwest, and irrigation again resumed its proper place after the war. The project itself also provided thousands of jobs during the Great Depression and it still functions as a job provider and a center of the area economy; but not enough to keep everyone employed. July unemployment figures for white adults ran at around 5%, slightly higher than the government reported national average of 4.9; blacks, Hispanics and Native American figure ran at double or more that amount.

In Spokane, scores of homeless men sat on stoops, predominantly whites, but some Indians a few Latinos with shabby backpacks; others rode rusty bicycles. Single Room Occupancy hotels SROs dot the poorer and downtown streets. The Spokane River winds its way through the city. On its banks, like those of other urban rivers and public beaches, litter has accumulated. The ubiquitous Styrofoam trail, the tell tale beer and whiskey bottles from river bank parties and the occasional condom floating in the shallows loom as clues for future archeologists and historians who will try to understand what we did here in the early 21th Century–the time when science and technology had broken boundaries that as a kid I thought of as science fiction. Knowledge and ignorance, concern and carelessness for the earth and its people and other living things!

As we walked toward the river bank in the humid mid morning air a middle-aged man tending his garden said: “Hey, you like grapes?”

Of course!

He filled a plastic bag with bunches of tiny green morsels that exploded with tart succulence against the palate. We thanked him, He nodded.

“I’d hate to throw them away.”

We ate grapes and stared at the bridge above us, crossing the Spokane River. Like the dams, many of the infrastructural foundations of the country were built in the 1930s. Few Americans then would have predicted that within decades that “defense” would claim the lion’s share of the tax wealth, that a nation that had no permanent armed force would have an institutionalized military that got sent routinely to wars around the world while dikes in New Orleans collapsed from poor maintenance and a bridge in Minnesota fell apart from fatigue.

The majestic northeast Washington scenery, mountains, dotted with pines, mighty rivers and vast areas covered by newly cut wheat fields–with a rich yellow color that Van Gogh would have admired–share the landscape with man-made structures, dams, bridges and cities like Spokane.

On the highway one can’t avoid the contrast to the tacky billboards pushing SUV sales. Listening to AM radio as a deer nimbly leaped into the trees. I heard exciting news: a new drug has hit the market that cures erectile dysfunction. Then the radio barked the same old “news” — wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest banalities from Rudy Giuliani who stands for “victory”–whatever that might mean–and more melting of arctic ice.

The river flowed as it has done. The Indian blackjack dealer had told my wife that “fishing ain’t too good in the warm weather. Folks rent houseboats and then don’t catch nothing. Real disappointing, you know? But that’s how fish are.”

The blue-green mountains with the valiant pines cast their shadow over the valley. The cool wind sent its omen. Fall would soon arrive. Meanwhile, the highway billboards and radio ads beckoned consumers to pay attention to the important things in life.

SAUL LANDAU is the author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His films are available on dvd from



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SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

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