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Bonneville refuses payment for Yakama rain ceremonies

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PORTLAND, Ore. - The federal government can control many things, yet it never has had the technology to control the weather. That job belongs to the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest who have long turned to ancient ceremonies in times of drought.

Though their neighbors usually reap the benefits without charge, this time the Yakama tribe of Washington state wants the government to pay for its efforts.

The Yakama believe increased rainfall since on the parched Pacific Northwest March 1 was directly attributable to two traditional rain dance ceremonies conducted by the tribe. They presented the Bonneville Power Administration with a $32,000 bill for services rendered.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bonneville refused to pay. Bonneville sources say the bill was vague about what exactly the services were for.

During a March meeting between Yakama tribal councilman Randy Settler and acting Bonneville administrator Steve Wright, wires apparently got crossed as they discussed traditional tribal remedies to drought.

Wright told Settler that Bonneville might be interested in providing some resources. Apparently Settler came away from the meeting believing that the two had an agreement.

"We're not paying. The Yakama tribe basically went off and did something on their own and sent us the bill," Bonneville spokesman Mike Hansen said.

He said Bonneville agreed to allocate somewhere in the neighborhood of a few thousand dollars to fund the ceremony - if a proposal was submitted - and not the larger figure posted by the tribe.

When questioned why Bonneville, a federal agency, would agree to fund a religious ceremony, Hansen said several factors are involved. First, he said, Bonneville recognizes tribal sovereignty in that tribes do not adhere to the same separation of church and state rules as the federal government.

Second, though Bonneville is a federal agency, the dollars would come not from the federal budget but from Pacific Northwest ratepayers.

Despite this, Hansen said he feels if the agency had paid for the services, there may have been some legal implications on church and state separation.

Settler could not be reached for comment as he was out of town all week on tribal business.

Bonneville sources said a proposal for any such event is needed first and that the Yakama tribe has provided no such documentation.

The entire Pacific Northwest has suffered through its biggest drought in years. With plentiful water, several interested groups such as tribes, municipalities, agricultural interests and environmental groups are able to strike an uneasy balance based on the abundance of water.

This year, with the combined energy problems in California, the pressure is on Bonneville to allocate as much water as possible to hydroelectric projects to keep Northwest cities lighted, to the detriment of tribes, farmers and fish.

Tribes of the Columbia River basin have been fighting to keep enough water flowing to protect several endangered species of fish and locked horns publicly with Bonneville over their priorities. The tribes say they believe Bonneville has clearly favored the hydroelectric projects over the fish.

One of the aspects of the ceremony is to have the tribal participants take on the assumed animal form and ask nature for the reasons behind the drought. Settler was quoted as saying he wondered if there was anyone still close enough to nature to ask to make rainfall happen.

Apparently someone was, as nature, for whatever reason, decided to alleviate the drought with some late falling rain. The results, however actually provided, are irrefutable. More than half the rainfall recorded in Yakama this year fell after March 1, the month in which the tribe held the ceremonies.

A third and larger event was scheduled for early April that would likely have brought in hundreds of additional American Indians from the region. The tribe canceled this event in light of Bonneville?s decision to not pay for it.